Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Pacific Heights + The Founder

(R, Twentieth Century Fox, 102 mins., theatrical release date: Sept. 28, 1990)

(PG-13, The Weinsten Company, 115 mins., theatrical release date: Jan. 20, 2017)

P.T. Barnum couldn't have dreamed up someone like Michael Keaton. Ever since morgue mogul Billy Blaze scat-sang "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in Ron Howard's Night Shift, he could birth a sucker every 30 seconds, possibly even earlier, with his rapacious huckster's charisma. Having owned Beetlejuice and Batman for Tim Burton, Keaton certified his dramatic credentials with 1988's Clean and Sober, but it makes sense that after foiling Nicholson himself on screen, Keaton would cut his own swath at full-on villainy, recalibrating his jumpy charm towards nefarious purposes. Beetlejuice was a lovable louse compared to Carter Hayes from Pacific Heights, a black sheep who has built his own trust fund out of a series of real estate mind games, suggesting a squishy perversion of Keaton's persona.

Alas, Pacific Heights, which stood a chance at doing for psychotic tenants what The Stepfather did for Ward Cleaver wannabes, is just another hopelessly lurid cautionary tale for yuppies, detached and decaying when it should've slapped a new coat of paint on a promising pulp premise.

The latest marks Keaton sizes up for a fall are already in over their heads before the glad-handing even begins. First-time homeowners Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine) and Patricia Palmer (Melanie Griffith) whimsically put their collective savings into mortgaging and restoring a Victorian house in the titular San Francisco district. Their respective jobs crafting Oriental kites and training equestrians won't recover this $750,000 investment fast enough, so they start screening potential renters for a couple of downstairs rooms. At their luckiest, a humble Japanese couple, Mr. & Mrs. Watanabe (Mako, Nobu McCarthy), sign a year's lease and pony up their down payment.

But then along comes danger in a flashy Porsche, and he calls himself Carter Hayes.

A series of dopey mistakes on Drake's end simultaneously hands Carter the key to the studio apartment and plays right into Carter's shifty plans. Not only is his deceitful tenant withholding the security deposit and six months of rent he promised to wire (Drake takes it on faith simply through a flash of hundreds in Carter's wallet when they first meet), but Carter is dodging his landlords, carrying on rackets in the late hours and changing the lock. Drake cuts off the electricity to Carter's room, but it's a brief victory, as soon the police and the justice of peace are accusing Drake of tenant's rights abuse.

Carter seizes on this legal superiority to drive the Watanabes out of their agreement and instigate a row with Drake that results in a restraining order from the squatter evicting the landlord instead of vice versa. With no financial or lawful options left, it's up to Patty to save face and expose Carter for the deranged conman he is before the game begins again.

Screenwriter Daniel Pyne reportedly drew upon his own woes with a manipulative lodger, but by the formulaic finale, I'm sensing the rawness of his real-life situation informs Pacific Heights as deep as, say, Alan Shapiro demonstrated when he made The Crush a couple years later. Though juicy bundles of subtext and irony appear ripe for fermentation, Pyne and director John Schlesinger sour the wine through the rusty thriller mechanics which propel the material. They also grind the actors up and spit them out, too.

Matthew Modine's lack of formidability against Michael Keaton is played at such a hysterical pitch, it stomps on the notion that this is a good old-fashioned manly pissing contest. Drake's take-charge attitude is savagely undercut by the feet-shooting dialogue poor Modine has to bark instead of bargain with. Pyne's banal characterizations of Drake and Patty alike doesn't even ease let alone convince their reversal of power as the former blunders into an obvious trap and the latter composes herself after a miscarriage to be reborn as Nancy Drew. At least Griffith's retaliation has that sense of humor the sidelined Modine is denied in so many words.

The paltry chemistry and lack of genuine idiosyncrasy essentially cripple Modine and Griffith, who are strait-jacketed by the routine shenanigans of Pyne's script. They emerge as a couple of yuppie ciphers rather than relatable dreamers, which makes it all too easy for Keaton to steal the show. And although he is adept as can be, not even Keaton makes it out of Pyne's script with any true perception. The psychology of his character is boilerplate angst at best, a deprived child who preys on the gullible upper class and keeps white trash company in Luca Bercovici's handyman-from-hell and Beverly D'Angelo (unbilled) as a sex object. His schemes never really generate primal urgency, and John Schlesinger's workaday gloss is hardly worthy of De Palma let alone Hitchock or Polanski.

The saddest waste of talent certainly belongs to Schlesinger, and it's not a stretch to surmise the fade away of his once-great career began here, with Eye for an Eye and The Next Best Thing to follow. Shallow material defeats Schlesinger every time, and there's little he can do to give the proceedings any palpability. Whenever he tries to generate atmosphere, it emerges as window-dressing, gritty confinement traded in for gross conformity. When a camera circles around a desperate plea from Patty to her curt lawyer (Laurie Metcalf), it's all for nothing. Though he keeps the pacing taut, Pyne's feeble confrontations give him nothing to bite into. You long for the assurance of someone like Stephen Frears (The Grifters) or Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm) far too often, especially when Schlesinger's thematic malaise descends into tasteless clich├ęs.

Aside from Griffith's giddy payback and an effective glimpse of Keaton shrouded in darkness, spinning a double-edged razor between his fingers, the fleeting pleasures come in the form of Tracey Walter's stymied Orkin man and Tippi Hedren, mother of Griffith herself, as perhaps the most charitable pillar of high society imaginable.

Alas, Pacific Heights is a terminal cheater of a psychological thriller, teasing every time the material threatens to develop an edge. From the way Drake pussyfoots around his unfounded, passively racist suspicions over a prospective tenant (Carl Lumbly, who as Lou Baker remains benevolent enough to let Drake crash with him after Carter files a restraining order) to the limp end-of-innocence coda, this is simply craven without the Wes (ever notice the difference between The Believers and The Serpent & The Rainbow?). For an actor as endearingly wicked as Michael Keaton, it's a shame Schlesinger and Pyne do not share his irrepressible knack for transgression. Instead, Pacific Heights represents the foreclosure of a scream.

Keaton's star power dried up in the 1990s, sadly, after one more round in the Batsuit and a slew of forgettable vehicles, the consensus nadir being 1998's Jack Frost. 2014's Birdman restored his fortunes, however, and he's since been on a roll thus far. The Founder adds to Keaton's second wind by once again revisiting the shyster grifter persona Keaton does so well and, unlike Pacific Heights, creating a more subtle malevolence that unspools enticingly as the film progresses and without trading in the grease gun for the nail gun.

The titular visionary is Ray Kroc, more of an opportunist than a creative genius when he franchised McDonald's away from its creators and settled into their legacy through cutthroat legal maneuvers. Keaton begins the film as pathetic as Willy Loman, but ends the film as a middle-aged Mark Zuckerberg, having successfully rammed the hose down the mouths of both Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) while the brothers drowned. All it took was one handshake and a trunk load of powdered milkshakes.

And persistence, as a Calvin Coolidge quote recited on self-help vinyl clues you early on before Kroc's epiphany, when the disgraced multi-mixer salesman is holed up in a motel room following another series of rejections. Kroc learns that someone out in San Bernardino has ordered eight of his units and capriciously rides Route 66 all the way out there to understand why such a demand. When he encounters the McDonald's restaurant for the first time, it's the California Gold Rush all over again. He's genuinely taken aback by the scene, where the food is prepped quicker and delivered with more accuracy than the drive-in joints he regularly frequents. He eats his combo meal on bench next to an all-American family instead of the familiar J.D. congregation. It's all too beautiful, and Kroc takes jolly Mac up on an offer for the grand tour.

Keaton's Kroc is spellbound by the brothers' post-Depression success story, as director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler, Big Fan) concoct a rapturous montage (added credit to editor Robert Frazen) of Dick working out the choreography and layout of the Speedee System of fast food preparation on a tennis court. And then comes Kroc's pitch in one word: "America." He looks at the painting of Dick's golden arches, an architectural coup which tanked in Phoenix, and vows to succeed at expanding McDonald's where the brothers were once as luckless as Kroc. This could be as much a symbol of family, community and patriotism as the church and the flag, and the McDonald brothers are sold, though not without the safety of a contract.

Kroc hustles to secure potential franchisees including country club friends, who unscrupulously run their locations into the ground with overcooked patties and overindulgent menus. It's clear to him that only love makes the Speedee System run efficiently, as he looks to his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) for inspiration she's too exhausted to provide. Kroc's ambitions eventually alienate him from Ethel as well as Dick & Mac, who shoot down every cost-cutting measure and unfair profit percentage he needs to float the empire. Also pivotal are chance encounters with Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of a potential investor in Minnesota (Patrick Wilson), and business impresario Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak), each equipped with foolproof solutions to Kroc's financial straits.

Suffice to say that The Founder itself has been constructed much like a McDonald's burger. Hancock's direction is the bun, a warm 'n' golden if flavorless sandwich necessity. He films the story in such a straightforward way that it lends a certain ambiguity to Ray Kroc, neither self-righteously vilifying nor celebratory of his (mis)deeds. And this MOR approach works given the rest of the ingredients. Ketchup and mustard shots are added in the comparatively unfulfilling elements of Siegel's adept script, particularly the relationships Kroc has with Ethel and Joan. The former is given enough screen time to cook up a subdued, sensitive Laura Dern performance, though Linda Cardellini's presence as Joan feels like a scene is missing. The former Lindsay Weir has come a long way since those small fry days, and she is solid.

The pickles leave the clearest aftertaste, though, when the film focuses on the McDonald twins. You can practically savor the juice as much as John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman (sans that Ron Swanson mustache), pitch-perfect as homely entrepreneurs secure in the 8x10 frame whilst Kroc guns for the life-size statue. The integrity and fraternal humor between these bulky character actors is lip-smacking, which makes their betrayal all the more wrenching.

But you can't have a hamburger without the patty, which puts Michael Keaton in the sizzling center of this confection. 35 years after coming up with the idea of edible paper in Night Shift ("Is this a great country, or what?"), there's still a wild man in this ol' warhorse. In a world where our current president is a ruthless, ethically-perverted businessman but also a raging imbecile, Keaton's entertaining/enervating acumen is as refreshing as a McFlurry. This is a dramedic performance that is, by design, its own wicked pitch, and when people can be fanatically conned by lesser men, Keaton's "Founder" is grade-A all-American beef.

Against all odds, The Founder not only goes down (and comes back out) appetizingly, it sticks in your teeth. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get these toothpicks out my back.

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