Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 18, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1984)

5. Not for Publication

The very first scene of “Not for Publication” features a group of machine gun wielding showgirls, decked out in leopard-print one-pieces. Our protagonist, Lois Thorndyke (Nancy Allen), caught in the cross-hairs, is a reporter for a sleazy tabloid rag. She continues to pursue her stories, grabbing juicy by-lines from the shooter’s intended target, her photographer continuing to snap photos, even admit the hail of bullets. This first scene seems to establish “Not for Publication” as a mad-cap, burlesque satire of the journalism world. It would appear to be the kind of comedic style Paul Bartel excelled at.

However, there’s a turn very quickly. Turns out, Lois Thorndyke leads a double life. She’s only a writer for scuzzy tabloids by night. By day, she’s holds the more socially acceptable position of political aid to New York’s mayor. She’s hoping her political career is successful enough to buy out the magazine and reinvent it as a serious news paper. The Mayor is pretty obviously interested in putting some romantic moves on her too. After recruiting a new, bird-obsessed photographer, played by David Naughton, Thorndyke soon finds her two lives bleeding over into each other. Many of these scenes have a softer, character-oriented feel to them. Their comedic nature is only detectible in the rom-com back-and-forth between Allen and Naughton.

The late-night adventures of our characters find them interacting with some bizarre characters. There’s a pimp with a greased-up pompadour, who speaks in an almost undecipherable accent and wears a mask. The editor for the tabloid is a grotesque figure, cramming food down his greasy mouth while yelling about sex scandals and frog-babies. There’s a trio of mayor aids obsessed with toy trains. A dwarf drives a car, a mobile dark room disguised as a milk cart on the back. The duo’s investigation brings them to an animal-themed sex club, which is by far the film’s strangest and most explicit sequence.

These wacky, ribald scenes certainly speak to Bartel’s interest in perversity. There’s an extended shot of the camera scanning the orgy pit. Greasy bodies intertwine, their faces covered with animal masks. Soon, a group of robbers, also dressed up in animal costumes, stick up (So to speak) the club’s visitors. The entire sequence set in this club really points to the film’s competing spirits. Allen and Naughton dress up as a pink sheep and blue bird, respectively, before doing a cute little song and dance number together. This is definitely the movie at its most charming and cute. They are immediately side-lined by the explicitness of the aforementioned scene.

The subplot about the robbers reveals that the movie is actually about a political conspiracy. The mayor is revealed as a less then benevolent figure, with ties to the smut he claims to be battling. The movie quickly descends into convoluted double-crosses and character turns. There’s a hidden bug in a necklace, pirate radio stations, a pilotless helicopter, and a daring escape by parachute. During all of this, our two main characters are suddenly forced together into a really awkward romantic relationship that doesn’t go much of anywhere. The story wraps up in a grossly unsatisfying way.

“Not for Publication” is an utter failure as a comedy. There’s not a single laugh anywhere in the film. The funniest moment involves the tabloid’s editor describing in detail the saga of the Frog-Babies, a new story that apparently sold a lot of magazines. It’s a story that involves deformities, incest, murder, and a large cash inheritance. During these moments, the movie comes its closet to parodying tabloid excess and getting a laugh. The movie occasionally comes close. Naughton’s interaction with his increasingly quirky mother is amusing. As the story goes on, these grin-creating bits become fewer and fewer.

It’s a failure as a comedy but not a complete failure as a movie. This is a rare starring role for Nancy Allen and, when the film works at all, she really carries it on her shoulder. A sequence early on, of her morning ritual in her apartment, which features a snooze-alarm pressing cat, really shows up what a relatable screen presence she has. Lois Thorndyke is a real can-do character and Allen’s winning smile and charming personality makes her a protagonist in search of a better movie. Really, the script’s attempt to push her into a romantic relationship with both of the male leads is awkward and unnecessary. David Naughton does an okay job in his part and has a decent back-and-forth with Allen, even if he mostly seems like a lost puppy throughout the majority of the run time.

So, “Not for Publication” is a bit of an aimless mess. I’m not sure if it got jerked around and recut in post-production or if it was just a muddled screenplay to begin with. A lot of Paul Bartel’s interests and fetishes as a director are straining to come through but none reach a real comic pitch. It’s by no means a terrible movie but, I suspect, without a capable lead it would have been totally unwatchable. It’s definitely not required viewing. [Grade: C]

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