Monday, February 23, 2015

Who's That Girl

(PG, Warner Bros. Pictures, 92 mins., theatrical release date: August 7, 1987)

Who's That Girl has been marketed since its 1987 debut without a question mark, thus leaving it open for various interpretation or the simple implication that it is Madonna "who's that girl." Nobody uses that query throughout the film's script, even though Madonna's Nikki Finn is a prime egotist who demands the attention of anyone within a 100 yard radius with her atomic baby doll whine. This lack of coyness is something you could never accuse Madonna of, especially in the mid-1980s, which saw intense interest in the pop goddess' married life, private parts and maybe even the dry-cleaning bills for her gaudy outfits.

But since even Madonna wants to know based on the English and Spanish chants of said inquisition in the chart-topping tune which shadowed the film, I think I have an answer we can all agree on.

Who's That Girl? The answer is: Marlo Thomas. Duh!

You probably expected me to say Nikki Finn, who's that girl Madonna plays here, and you wouldn't be wrong. But whereas Marlo Thomas was the Everygirl of 1960s television, Madonna was a decidedly shrewd personality of her own fabrication. Teenage girls grasping for personality went from the Pat Benatar look popularized in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to dressing like punkettes at a Salvation Army nuptial, as dictated by either Madonna or her contemporary Cyndi Lauper. Think back to TerrorVision and the character Diane Franklin played in that one, Suzy Putterman, and you've got a mirror's reflection of the fad in all its pink-tinted, peroxide-damaged glory.

Remember how I said that Diane went from playing dimwitted sex objects to actual characters with quirks and their own skewed intelligence? Well, I called it "going to Camp" in short, but watching Madonna in Who's That Girl made me pine for a VHS-style tracking error to reveal the other film. Not only had the teacher become the apprentice, but she was bringing home report cards dire enough to get her legally disowned let alone grounded for a month.

Shanghai Surprise should have been a lesson, but Madonna decided to try her hand at old-fashioned comedy and romance once more by pursuing a role in a project initially called "Slammer." She even tried to get an ever-combative Sean Penn onboard to no avail. Madonna did manage to influence the choice of director in James Foley, a friend of the couple who directed Sean in At Close Range and also helmed Madonna in that film's tie-in music video for "Live to Tell" as well as her subsequent "Papa Don't Preach" promo. And compared to Shanghai Surprise, in which she was hired solely as an actress, Madonna was more hands-on in the exposure of Who's That Girl by connecting it to her musical career, cutting four songs exclusive to the compilation soundtrack (which also featured dance pop label mates Club Nouveau and Scritti Politti) and embarking on her first worldwide concert tour to boot.

Alas, more people paid to see Madonna in the stadiums than in the cinemas. Who's That Girl failed to capitalize on the Material Girl's clout and became her second bomb in a row, complete with Worst Actress Razzie Award and plenty of damage control in the meantime as Madonna collected herself for the Like a Prayer/Truth or Dare media juggernaut to follow.

In the tradition of the same year's Mannequin, the movie opens with a cartoon credits sequence that depicts the fateful events which landed Madonna's Nikki Finn in jail on a seven-year sentence. Drawn by April March, who later worked on The Ren & Stimpy Show and became a singer (her "Chick Habit" was memorably used at the end of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof), we see that Nikki's boyfriend was involved in some kind of duplicity which left her with a key to some incriminating photographs and a dead lover in the back of her trunk which she takes the fall for. Eventually, we learn that Nikki has been sprung from the slammer after four years on the condition she travel to Philadelphia to meet her parole officer.

The megalomaniacal, multi-millionaire Mr. Big who orchestrated her disgrace is Simon Worthington (John McMartin), who is about to marry off his daughter Wendy (Haviland Morris) to one of his underlings. That lackey is Loudon Trott, a bespectacled tax attorney with a tight schedule and a tightwad. In the course of the next 24 hours, time which is booked to do all sorts of preparations for his ceremony with Wendy, Simon demands Loudon to pick Nikki up and see her off on that bus to Philly.

Now we get to the inevitable point in the review where we have to talk about Madonna the Wonder Thespian. Oh, boy.

When she played conniving Christian treasure hunter Miss Tatlock in Shanghai Surprise, Madonna betrayed the spark and sexiness she demonstrated in Desperately Seeking Susan with a stiff, confused central performance. Not only was she out of her element, she didn't even appear to have one to begin with, as the vexing screenplay couldn't even commit to allowing her to play a flaky femme. She helped to drag the movie's energy level down just as much as the director, the writers and her co-star did, and Madonna took a very public hit for her efforts of lack of them.

But the opposite works, too.

This time, Madonna goes from having too little personality to smothering us with her presence. I read a review over at DVD Verdict which gets to the heart of Madge's newfound miscalculation. Madonna was already blessed with a live wire presence that made her the premier female icon of the 1980s, even more so than Cyndi Lauper. "Like a Virgin," both the video and her VMA performance, are legendary in cementing this compelling, carnal image. And though Madonna actually did go on record as confirming Rob Lineberger's later suspicion that Nikki Finn was meant to be "a tough-on-the-outside, kind-on-the-inside oddball with camouflaged good looks and street smarts," the resulting attempt at Billie Dawn (from Born Yesterday) isn't even as good as Billie Jean [Davy], let alone anything Judy Holliday or Melanie Griffith could accomplish.

I'm trying to be as polite as I possibly can in my criticisms, because if I weren't so civilized, I'd come right out and say this: Nikki Finn is the least loveable, most overbearing and downright ANNOYING heroine of any film I've ever seen in my life!

What the hell, Madonna?! Were you trying to be the gender inverse of Pee-Wee Herman? Were you so threatened by Cyndi Lauper that you felt you had to one-up her with a persona that would make even the King Ad-Rock turn and run? I mean, Lauper herself didn't lay it on this thick when she made her own star vehicle with 1988's Vibes. Let's ignore the fact that Madonna's painfully forced Brooklyn patter often kills the fast-paced banter to such a degree that her co-stars seem just as mortified as the audience. All you need to know is that she skips...she SKIPS! And not in a playfully sexy way, either, nothing that would endanger the movie's PG rating. No, she SKIPS like a kindergartener!!

Come back, Diane Franklin! I'll take back almost every negative thing I said about The Last American Virgin if you'll please just save me from Nikki!

So...Loudon makes the rendezvous to intercept Nikki, who dutifully begins her campaign of free-spirited (read: mentally-impaired) anarchy by taking control of his mother-in-law's Rolls Royce and damn near causing a catastrophe on the expressway just so she can go the mall and shoplift a few cassettes. A half-hour into the film, Loudon has to be hospitalized in response to Nikki's sociopathic, stunted arrogance, the better for her to hijack the Rolls and go to Harlem to pick up a gun on his stolen credit card.

And there's a wild puma.

Its adopted name is Murray the Tiger (Nikki can't even make the obvious distinction based on his lack of stripes), and Loudon had previously stowed it in the back of his Rolls as a favor for a client named Montgomery Bell (Sir John Mills). He takes a liking to Nikki and pops up to roar at various interlopers from time to time, kind of like an Amazonian car alarm. But anyhow, Loudon becomes essentially a hostage in Nikki's grand scheme to get revenge on the thugs who deceived her, eventually being so enticed by the wild, wild life that he becomes romantically entwined with her.

So far, I've avoided naming the actor who plays Loudon Trott because I feel like I'm trying to preserve some kind of Witness Relocation bargain. That would be Griffin Dunne, who prior to this endured burial under some macabre Rick Baker prosthetics as the mauled schmuck Jack in An American Werewolf in London. But more crucially, he is also best known as the wound-up yuppie stranded in Soho from Martin Scorsese's After Hours.

I like Griffin Dunne a lot. He can be side-splittingly funny in a deadpan manner and has a propensity for physical abuse which is reminiscent of vintage screwball comedy without forcing it. A vast majority of the film's chuckles and guilty pleasure guffaws come from Griffin's commitment to the material, whether he's humping a hospital door in a frenetic escape attempt or trying to gain control of his situation with the sardonic strictness of a disappointed parent. He has the Cary Grant-as-nerd look down pat, but there's nothing misguided about Griffin's characterization.

Aside from Griffin Dunne and Sir John Mills, who have the timing and precision to make even the hoariest one-liner seem fresh, nobody comes across well, not even Haviland Morris, who I praised to the high heavens in a previous assessment of Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

The biggest trouble with Who's That Girl is that it strains to be a classic screwball farce in contemporary drag. The 1980s weren't very dry as far as this conceit went. Romancing the Stone, The Sure Thing and A Fish Called Wanda were all highly entertaining and immaculate pastiches of successful romantic comedies of yore. And Who's That Girl could've joined the ranks if only more discipline and taste had been applied. As it stands, writers Andrew Smith (The Main Event) & Ken Finkleman (Grease 2) are allergic to genuine wit. And poor James Foley, whose specialty is brooding character drama, the best being his adaptations of edgy writers Jim Thompson (After Dark, My Sweet) and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), shows little finesse in trying to orchestrate the madcap proceedings. Howard Hawks he will never be.

As if taking a cue from Madonna's fatally broad wannabe-broad, Who's That Girl confuses shrillness with satire and falls smack into the smug trappings of most dopey comedies of its era. It's sound and fury typifying nothing, clumsily edited and hardly as cute in its chaos as it purports to be. Whether it be the Harlem gun dealer firing machine gun rounds over the head of Loudon, who has just tried to field a call from Wendy over the sounds of his Rolls being vandalized, or Nikki screeching for her precious key in a jewelry shop, Foley continually undermines a scene by having some random extra scream bloody murder.

Even when the volume does drop, the jokes are as hackneyed and telegraphed as ever. Of course, it will be revealed that Wendy was the village bike of Scarsdale, or that the two detectives tailing Nikki will have the kind of catty repartee which outs them as gay lovers, or that the gangsters Nikki shakes down for information will plummet into the river and return dragging seaweed behind them like the tided-over zombie lovers from Creepshow. The pace may be speedy but since the timing and the imagination behind such gags is transparent, these are further noisy distractions. By the time Wendy's bridesmaids are kidnapped, those who haven't experienced tinnitus will have groaned loud enough to have done the job.

The few decent gags include a prenuptial agreement which doubles as the anti-Kama Sutra, but I, for the life of me, can't remember anything else. I was damn exhausted at the end of it all, and less in the mood for love than the need to get a physical.

I recently bought Bloodhounds of Broadway on DVD, which is impulsive in non-hindsight, but it's actually one of Madonna's more tolerable efforts. That troubled film's reputation only grows as I find myself being inundated with more ephemera from Madonna's abominable marquee name past.

Who's That Girl, eh? Well, if I may end it like Ricky Roma, maybe the better question to ask is "What's the point?"

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