Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, May 21, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1989)

8. Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills

After a few years of work-for-hire jobs, Paul Bartel returned to directing his own screenplays. “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” is a ribald satire about, you guessed it, class struggle in Beverly Hills. The glamor of Hollywood contrasts strongly with the nitty-gritty boning and double crossing at the center of the film’s story.

The plot description on the back of the VHS box (you heard me) says the movie is about the houseboy of a recently widowed sitcom actress and the chauffeur for a recently divorced socialite making a deal that they can bed the others' boss. Technically, the movie is about that. Really, that thin plot outline is just the entrance into the movie’s world. This is a film about the convoluted romantic lives of its large cast of characters.

Jacqueline Bisset plays Claire, the widow, a washed-up sit-com star, looking for a comeback. She is literally haunted by the ghost of her husband, whom she had a strained relationship with. Her daughter is distant. Mary Woronov plays Lisbeth, the divorcee, and Claire’s best friend. Lisbeth’s son is dying of some sort of cancer. The son has a crush on the daughter but she doesn’t have any time for him, though she does have time for other men. Lisbeth’s brother Peter, played by Edgar Beagly Jr, is a playwright. He just married sassy black woman To-Bel during a weekend in Las Vegas after only knowing her a few days. Despite this, he’s trying to seduce Claire. Lisbeth’s drunkard husband, played by a hilarious Wallace Shawn, keeps wandering back into the home and attempts to wander back into his ex-wife’s bed. To-Bel is also the woman that the ex-husband was sleeping with and left his wife for. She’s all too aware of the situation and is trying to take advantage of it. There’s a doctor too, who is attempting to start a Hungry Drive in Africa, played by Bartel himself. Oh, and a Mexican maid named Rosa who has the bad tendency of dropping odd animal-related non-sequitur.

So, really, the attempts by unlucky Juan (Robert Beltran) and bisexual Frank (Ray Sharkey) to get into the two female lead’s pants just further complicated things. You could make a pretty crowded graph charting which characters are sleeping together.

Despite all this stuff going on, the movie never looses track of what it’s doing. The film starts with a scene of the spoiled rich scolding and then murdering in cold blood one of their ethnic housekeepers. That’s a pretty blunt visualization of the movie’s theme but it certainly starts the movie with a bang. The scenes of Juan and Frank developing their bet and discussing their sexual history are inter-cut with scenes of Claire and Lisbeth discussing their own history and how their employees are attractive in an animal way. This illustrates each social class’ misunderstandings about the other.

Ed Beagley Jr.’s character is a pretentious windbag. His plays mostly seem to be characters bitching about their personal problems in long-winded speech. He likes to pick fights with people about his writing. When To-Bel finds out just how little money playwrights actually make, she seems crestfallen. Bartel’s doctor seems to be doing charitable work for strictly selfish reasons. No body seems particularly sad about Claire’s husband’s passing and his wake is more of a party then a gathering to morn a friend's death. The movie goes out of its way to portray the idle rich as bastards. Not that the working class folks come off much better…

This is a Bartel project through-and-through. The opening sequence and the reoccurring ghost appearances are just two examples of the wacky surrealism running in the movie’s blood. There are a number of very funny sequences here. The doctor’s dog, no doubt intentionally named Bo’Jangles, gets a little too friendly with To-Bel. After the dog is surprisingly killed, the animal’s wake is held at the same time as the late husband. A passage from Peter’s latest play about castration is spoken by three different characters in attempts to seduce the same woman, getting increasingly mangled with each alliteration. To-Bel’s previous career as a porn actress almost gets revealed to the entire cast in a predictably, but quite amusing, contrivance. All of the group’s tension ends up boiling over at the breakfast table while Claire attempts to give an interview with a magazine reporter. In “Eating Raoul,” Beltran easily seduced Woronov. In this film, his attempts to do the same are constantly frustrated. The film almost comes off as a parody of soap operas and is definitely the director’s funniest in quite some time.

Despite all the caustic humor floating about, the film wraps up in a surprisingly sweet manner. Claire decides to become her own person and not let other people manipulate her. Juan and Lisbeth unexpectedly fall in love with each other. Everyone gets their horizons broaden in one way or another. Despite every character being something of a scumbag, the filmmaker obviously likes all of them. It's just as much about humanizing rich assholes as it is about skewering them.

I’m surprised “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” has never wound up on a list of “cursed” movies. 21-year old Rebecca Schaeffer, who plays daughter Zandra, was murdered by her stalker six weeks after the film’s release. Ray Sharkey died of AIDS only four years afterward at the young age of 40. Of course, Paul Bartel himself was gone too soon not long after that. Maybe that’s why the film hasn’t received a stateside DVD release. Whatever the reason, this one is begging to be rediscovered. It’s a funny, smart, and sexy satire, one of the director’s defining works. [Grade: B+]

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