Sep 26, 2010

The Greatest? Part 5: Jennifer Jason Leigh double

With this pair of movies we’re looking at a brief, odd, time in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s career, that brief span of the early 1990’s in which she was, to at least a slightly greater degree, famous. One of these films even embedded itself so much in popular consciousness that it won Leigh one of her surprisingly few awards… the MTV award for Best Villain. Yes, really.

DIR: Lili Fini Zanuck
CAST: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jason Patric,
Max Perlich, Sam Elliott

RUSH is the film where I first really noticed Jennifer Jason Leigh, and made the connection between that and the other films I’d seen her in. Looking at it again, it’s hard to see why this movie turned me into such a big fan, because it really isn’t much good.

It’s based on an autobiographical novel by Kim Wozencraft, who was a narcotics cop in the mid 70’s. Along with her partner, Wozencraft became addicted to the drugs she took to maintain her cover. The film stays relatively faithful to this central idea, casting Jason Patric as the experienced narc and Leigh as his newly recruited, somewhat naïve, partner.

There are moments that work in RUSH, but not a single element that works consistently for the entire running time (including, sadly, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance). There are several major issues, but perhaps the biggest is Pete Dexter’s screenplay. It feels like a first draft, with characters not yet coloured in and archetypes in their place. It’s also incredibly heavy on exposition and extremely episodic. There’s act one, in which Kristen Cates (Leigh) is recruited from the Police academy, and learns about drugs at Jim Raynor’s (Patric) knee (this allows Dexter to go into raw exposition mode for minutes on end, notably in a scene in which Jim demonstrates shooting up). Thereafter the rest of the film is an endless episodic series of drug deals with sleazy cameoing actors (William Sadler is memorable), mixed in with an unconvincing relationship between Raynor and Cates and some very cliché struggles with addiction.

Unfortunately debuting director Lili Fini Zanuck, who has not directed a single feature in the ensuing 19 years, shoots the film with all the subtlety and lightness of touch of a man attempting to anaesthetise himself with a mallet. She has directed most of the actors to give almost comically huge performances, none more so than the oddly named Special K McCray whose turn as smack dealer Willie Red is hammier than a buffet to serve 300. At times (notably when they are most strung out) she’s also got Patric and Leigh acting as if to the back of a huge auditorium. Jason Patric is a big problem for the film too, he has zero chemistry with Leigh, and their seemingly instant relationship never has even a grain of credibility, and when not directed to give the most hilariously overblown ‘I’m on loads of drugs, me’ performance I’ve ever seen he brings about the same level of engagement to his performance as I do to my weekly food shopping.

In amongst all this, there are isolated moments in which the film becomes engaging, almost all of them involving Max Perlich as a young dealer Cates and Raynor use as and informant. As in GEORGIA, Perlich has a great rapport with Jennifer Jason Leigh, and they really seem to bring out the best in each other as actors. When she’s with Walker is when we see Kristen at her most human, her most unguarded, and it is in those moments that Leigh really impresses, and gives us a real glimpse of the toll that this double life is taking on Kristen. It’s also notable that, though they aren’t in a relationship in this movie, there is a great deal more chemistry between Leigh and Perlich than she has with Patric.

Lili Fini Zanuck’s direction falls flat on a lot of important levels, from her frankly inexplicable casting of Gregg Allman as the man who Raynor and Cates have been tasked with proving is a major drug dealer to her thuddingly obvious use of montage and her awful choice and use of music. Eric Clapton’s score wails away near constantly (and Tears in Heaven is given an inappropriate airing) and when that’s not plaguing us we’ve got terrible bar bands, and cliché song choices (Freebird, fucking Freebird, really?)

I wish I had liked RUSH better this time around, because it’s actually a pretty important film for me, it led me to discover this great actress, and through that discovery it led me to a mass of great films and many happily spent hours (with many more to come), but that doesn’t make it good. For fans it’s worth seeing, but this is a minor film in a major career.

DIR: Barbet Schroder
CAST: Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh,
Steven Weber, Peter Friedman

If there is a single prevailing theme in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s early career it is her superior taste in and ability to elevate trash. Whether it’s a treacly TV movie like THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD, Paul Verhoeven’s appropriately titled FLESH AND BLOOD, cult exploitation classic THE HITCHER, or this tawdry little thriller, she can always be relied on to give the part her all, to treat it with the same degree of seriousness and craft that she did her more upmarket roles. It’s no use pretending that SINGLE WHITE FEMALE is anything other than an especially trashy take on the yuppie horror that was so popular in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but while it is trash it is, for the most part, superior, entertaining, trash.

The plot is pretty formulaic. Yuppie Allie (Fonda) throws out her boyfriend (Weber) when she discovers that he’s still seeing his ex-wife on the side. Unable to afford her (HUGE) apartment by herself she advertises for a roommate, eventually giving the place to mousy Hedra Carlson (Leigh). The two become quite close, but when Allie and her boyfriend get back together Hedra begins to try to emulate Allie in some disturbing ways, borrowing more than just the odd dress and spray of perfume.

You can probably guess how it all ends up; in a completely overblown violent conflict, but though the whole thing is desperately formulaic there are many things to like here. Chief among them are the performances. It’s a terrible shame that Bridget Fonda retired from acting following the birth of her son, because she was a genuinely interesting and underrated talent. She makes for a solid and sympathetic anchor here, and generously cedes many scenes to Leigh, but never lets Allie become some cardboard cutout protagonist. There’s also just something likeable about Fonda, she has that indefinable magnetism that allows you to root for just about anyone she plays, and Allie is no exception.

In the hands of a lesser actress the character of Hedra Carlson would have been horrendous to watch. There are moments, even in Leigh’s performance, that are unavoidably hammy (there really aren’t many subtle ways to play the last act of this film), but for the most part she builds a commendably subtle and rather affecting portrait of a young woman who is clearly as damaged as she is deranged. Typically, Leigh did a lot of research for her part, talking to several therapists about Hedra’s pathology, and it pays off, because the transition from the sweet, mousy, girl who comes to view the apartment to the homicidal maniac of the film’s last act is remarkably credible. It also helps that, when dressed the same and given the same (awful) haircut, Leigh and Fonda end up looking eerily alike.

The film does go off the rails in its last act, and director Barbet Schroder seems to throw caution to the wind and ask his stars, especially Leigh, to really ham it up. It is probably no coincidence that in the last few scenes, in which she spends much time stalking Fonda with a gun, Leigh often seems visibly uncomfortable. That said, even in these last twenty minutes there are some strong moments of acting from both women, especially as Hedra prepares to make Allie’s death look like a suicide.

SINGLE WHITE FEMALE is by no means a great film, but it is an entertaining one, it’s a heady mix of silly plotting, copious nudity and overblown violence, elevated by two performances which are far, far better than anything the script demands or earns. It’s perhaps best to turn your brain off, especially in the last act, but if you do you’ll have two hours of unchallenging fun.

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