Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1986)

5. Legal Eagles

After the blockbuster success of “Ghostbusters,” Ivan Reitman could probably pick any project he wanted. The director, apparently, wanted to make a movie with Robert Redford. At the time, Redford was both a huge star and a critical darling. Redford’s previous project had been “Out of Africa,” a historical epic that had swept the Oscars. Maybe Reitman wanted some of that prestige. “Legal Eagles,” on the surface, doesn’t seem like the kind of movie the director of “Ghostbusters” would’ve made. Yet Reitman co-wrote the script and produced, in addition to directing. Obviously, he was invested in this project.

Tom Logan is the Assistant Distract Attorney of New York City. He’s a hot-shot lawyer with a great track record. Soon, he’s in the court room against Laura Kelly, a tough lawyer famous for putting a dog on the witness stand. Her current case involves Chelsea Deardon, the daughter of a famous and deceased painter. Accused of stealing one of her father’s painters back from a dealer, the two attorneys are soon involved in a complicated web of murder, deceit, and fraud.

“Legal Eagles” is a painfully mediocre movie. The primary reason for this is the story’s tonal insecurity. The film plays out like a mishmash of different genres. Redford and Winger’s scenes together play out like a romantic-comedy, the mutual dislike they have for each other eventually developing into romantic chemistry. Other scenes are more within Reitman’s wheel house, playing out like a screwball comedy. As the title indicates, “Legal Eagles” is also a legal drama. The movie rambles into thriller mode inelegantly, with explosions, fires, and guns suddenly coming out of nowhere. None of these aspects fit together very well, leading to an unsatisfying viewing experience.

Of all the things “Legal Eagles” sets out to do, it probably works the best as a romance. Robert Redford is, after all, a very charming leading man. From the moment Logan and Kelly meet, we know they’re going to get together. The two have comparable habits. When a case keeps Logan up, he tap dances and paces. When Kelly can’t sleep, she binge eats and watches old movies on TV. When they end up in an office together, Logan points out how he needs room to think. When discussing Chelsea, they trade various adjectives on describing her. Redford and Debra Winger are cute together and have decent chemistry. When they end the movie locking lips, the audience grins in a dumb way.

As a comedy, “Legal Eagle” fluctuates between bigger slapstick and comedic banter. On the way into an important meeting, Redford bumps into a tub of industrial glue, leading to the menu sticking to his fingers. After locking his keys in his car, Redford smashes a window with a trash can, inviting interest from some near-by beat cops. After a phone call wakes her up suddenly, Winger stumbles and falls into her couch. There’s a lot of gags like that, seemingly big bits of comedy occurring inside a relatively serious story. “Leagl Eagles” never gets many laughs. There’s potential here for humor but the film seems seriously unsure of how to dispense the jokes.

As a comedy, “Legal Eagles” never truly succeeds. Yet it functions far worse as a legal thriller. The court room scenes are pedestrian. There’s only a handful of them, involving not-entirely-convincing big speeches. Most of the film is focused on the two leads sleuthing out various leads. Lots of scenes of looking through old documents and sketchy interviews following. A supporting character is not who he appears to be, a twist that is fairly easy to guess. Despite being a film about people digging up the truth, “Legal Eagles” manifests its legal aspects in the broadest strokes possible. One moment has the two leads making a daring escape from an exploding warehouse. Fire arms and murders follow soon after. Despite making a legal thriller, Reitman and his team don’t seem very interested in the legal aspect.

I’ve never warmed up much to Robert Redford, mostly because he doesn’t often star in the kind of movies I usually watch. However, Redford is the least of “Legal Eagles’” problems. The scene of him falling in bed with Daryl Hannah don’t work very well. The seduction comes off as rather ham-fisted. However, I really like the scenes of Redford with his daughter. Jennifer, played by Jennifer Dundas, is a smart young girl. A scene of the girl asking about “sexual politics,” and her father’s awkward explanation, is cute. Other scenes has the dad burning breakfast or heading to work with his daughter’s bright pink notebook. These scenes are more low-key than the rest of the movie, rooted in a kind of funny reality. Redford and Dundas work very well together.

Like Redford, Debra Winger was probably better known at the time for serious drama than light comedy. Her Oscar nominations for “Terms of Endearment” and “An Officer and a Gentleman” shows that. Winger does okay in her comedic sequences. She’s willing to toss herself into the moment, showing no shame about the big slapstick beats. Those steely eyes work well in the early-going, when she’s still characterized as a hard-hitting lawyer. Some later moments, like Winger sneaking Redford into her apartment, are funny as well. Mostly, Winger has less to do in the movie as the story progresses.

The most interesting aspect of “Legal Eagles” is Daryl Hannah. Immediately, she makes an impression. She acts slightly alien, out of tune with the rest of the world. When the character is later accused of murder, she turns child-like. When acting sexy, Hannah doesn’t so much purr or quiver. Instead, she simply exudes seductive qualities. Hannah’s character is a performance artist. This leads to the most impressive sequence in “Legal Eagles.” After inviting Redford into her apartment, she shows her latest performance. Involving a burning birthday cake, a trail of fire, and Hannah slithering around the floor, it certainly makes an impression on viewers. It’s the best directed scene in the movie too, Reitman’s camera shifting around like a music video. Though at odds with most everything happening the film, Hannah and her dance scene is most likely to stick with viewers.

For the problems Reitman has as a director – unfocused scripts, cheesy soundtracks – he’s usually really good at assembling a supporting cast. Terrence Stamp shows up as the shifty art dealer. Stamp incorporates the same coldly distant, haughty attitude he usually exhibits. However, the script doesn’t give Stamp much to do and he exits the film early on. Brian Dennehy shows up as the story’s villain. Dennehy is all bluster, using his considerable frame to intimidate people and scowling behind a sleazy mustache. Also, I couldn’t help but notice instantly recognizable character actor Roscoe Lee Browne in a thankless part as a judge.

Here’s a good example of how tonally uneven “Legal Eagles” is. In the final act, it becomes an action movie. Dennehy ties up both female leads in the back of a museum. He then sets the building on fire. Redford, realizing he’s been deceived, races over to the museum. He gets into a fist fight with Dennehy. The sequence ends with the bad guy bursting into flames and making a dramatic dive into a pool. Wait, wasn’t I watching a light-hearted comedy a minute ago? The scene is at odds with the rest of the movie, causing the viewer to scratch their heads.

After doing decent work in “Ghostbusters,” Elmer Bernstein’s scores continue to improve as well. There’s a decent romantic theme for Redford and Winger. The overtly comedic scenes usually feature a cute, light-hearted melody. This would be Bernstein’s last score for Reitman which is a shame as I feel he was starting to come into his own. Reitman backs away from pop music in “Legal Eagles,” aside from a few seventies hits in the opening flashback. Rolling over the last scene and the end credits is Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch,” a hopelessly cheesy and weightless pop song that barely connects to the film.

The constantly shifting genre of “Legal Eagles” suggest an unclear direction for the film. Apparently, the director didn’t know how to end the film even after it was finished. A new ending, where Daryl Hannah’s character is convicted of murder, was filmed for the television version. Mediocre reviews and mediocre box office would make the film a disappointing follow-up to “Ghostbusters” for Reitman. Unevenly pitched with a slapdash screenplay, “Legal Eagles” is a forgettable effort for all involved. [Grade: C]

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