Saturday, July 22, 2017


Thirty years old, this is an eighties film that I have written on succinctly many times in the past.  I revisit it yearly as it is extremely reflective of my relationship with my father.  I saw it in theaters during a time when I actually worked in advertising with him, as the characters also both work in sales.  Hotshot Tom Hanks plays the smart ass son taking on giants in the agency world while Jackie Gleason embodies the old-school foot soldier, peddling kid’s clothing with imprinted pens (which was actually my Dad’s business—promotional items).  While the plot of this tale is not my tale, the intricate depiction of the dynamics—father, son and mother (an exquisite Eva Marie Saint)—can be frighteningly spot on.  The director was Garry Marshall. 

That being said, I wish to dissect this film.  Each time I watch it, I look past the “eighties” feel and soundtrack and see—despite the two hour running length—a piece of acting and structural excellence.  Consider this a dissertation on why “Nothing in Common” is arguably one of the finest films of the era. 

Rick Podell and Michael Preminger worked in advertising.  The crackling dialogue and group antics of Hanks and his creative team accurately depict the intricacies of the corporate ad game.  Much as “Mad Men” bared all to the process in
the sixties, “NIC” does so for the modern yet pre-irony world of advertising.  The screenplay has many moving parts (and characters) and the interplay between the various story lines and characters is flawless in it’s editorial pace.  The balance among Hank’s conquering an airline client’s irascible CEO; bedding the CEO’s daughter and endangering a life long love relationship; and, finally, the main through line regarding his aging  parent’s separation and subsequent illness can seem daunting.  Yet with finely timed scenes and allowing all the characters to sit for awhile then reappear in Hank’s world allows the viewer time patience to take in his plights and triumphs.

Another interesting facet of the screenplay is the fact that no stone is left unturned.  We are never left hanging regarding any action the character’s take.  We are never given an opportunity to mock a character for one-dimensionality.  After Hanks takes off to be with his ailing father, his uptight boss (more about him below) has the decency to ask about the father and make a shift to business without losing the humanity.  Every crazy situation that occurs, no matter how broad the comedy, has it’s consequences.  If not delved into, the consequences are at least dealt with.

Gleason not winning a supporting actor Oscar much less being nominated in his final performance (shortly before he passed) is a crime.  His shifts rival Hank’s in their raw beauty.  The pain he shows as he loses his accounts (and job), loses his life partner, encounters diabetes and the subsequent life-threatening surgery, and fights his own humanity is heartrending considering the physical pain Gleason was going through during the shoot.  Director Garry Marshall allows him to show his legendary humor in moments—not going overboard—and gives us the sight of Gleason breaking down after a confrontation with the estranged Saint.  Speaking of Saint, her combination of naivete and wisdom, her
neglected wife veering into unsightly drunkenness and shrill pain encompass a most brave performance by yet another cinema legend (“On the Waterfront,” “Exodus”) 

 The supporting players provide ample support. Hector Elizondo (a Marshall staple) gives a textured performance in as Hank’s agency boss.  What could have been a quick throwaway role
(also a Marshall touch with this fine actor—see “Pretty Woman”) turns into a tour de force.  Marshall (or rather the screenplay) gives him ample opportunity to balance a comically self-aware egomaniac with a wise and fair-minded human being.  See his couch conversation with Hanks after Hanks nearly sabotages the account, consoling him rather than providing angry bluster…yet keeping sight of the company’s interests.  Sexy Sela Ward’s embodiment of the “ball-busting” client can seem rather trite yet upon closer inspection her struggles in the sexist
industry read through her face.  See her compassion for Hanks immediately after firing him.  Amazing.  Barry Corbin as the sociopathic father, head of the airlines is the most humorously stereotypical of the characters.  It’s a fine performance and the frivolous nature of his stubborn power does actually make the point of what these guys are up against.  And, finally, Bess Armstrong as the true love, “the only girlfriend you’re parents MET” IS the penultimate “girl next door”..”the one who got away” in her frustrating tolerance of David’s whining, her understanding of his travails, and her mutual deep life-long love. 
Witness, the whip smart confrontation in her bedroom and the touching and simple finale by the lake.  The featured extras don’t fare as well.  Gleason’s co-workers and clients are played with uneasiness, delivering bad line readings.  Hanks and his team however, propelled by many Chicago Second City actors, provides an almost improvisational tone—representative of Hank’s sitcom breakthrough in “Bosom Buddies,” another ad agency setting.

Through his seventies sitcom career (Odd Couple, Happy Days etc), Garry Marshall imprinted on me in more sensory level than as a purveyor of quality humor.  His television output was more borscht belt than his counterparts at Lear and MTM.  And, honestly, his films…even the most successful…seemed manipulative and trite to me.  See “Beaches,and “Pretty Woman” He seemed to become a brand for large scale casts in dopey romantic pablum.  However, I have to wonder how much he allowed a seasoned cast of actors and comedians to hold sway with naturalness.  Did this incredible script overcome any directorial blemishes?  His old-school history surely allowed him to communicate with Gleason, but was Jackie the one pulling in the broadness to provide a melancholic swan song?  I have to wonder how much sway Marshall did have in two musical montages which clearly take the film in a horrific direction albeit common for the time.  Watching Hanks and Ward get horny watching two horses stud is painful and embarrassing.  And the lip-reading during an encounter with Hanks, Ward and Armstrong tells the story but is way too long and obvious in it’s motivation. Judge for yourself:

The comedy does work though.  When the drunk actress on the commercial set destroys the shoot, the hilarious reaction by Hanks is not a throwaway gag but a result of sleepless days and frustration.  The scene blends into a thoughtful conversation with the director, a childhood friend.  Quick and easy.  Move on.

It must be a combination of script and acting that allows the aforementioned honesty to come through.  As Hanks nonplussed jokes about  his father’s illness, Saint is allowed to reproach him rather than let it slide by.  Corbin’s maniac knows he’s a maniac when he grins at his prey.  When Saint gets a puppy from Hanks, she exclaims “Someone to love!” leading him to pivot and exit in exasperation.  When he has to listen to his
parent’s deeply personal issues, the look in his eyes is allowed to sit:  bewilderment, shock and impatience.  The aforementioned hospital room scene with Gleason and Saint reeks of authenticity in it’s turn from tenderness to raw anger.  You can see the prick points of ego and
hypocrisy as Hanks and Armstrong battle over their respective career devotions. Even her lover is given a few choice lines so as not to be disavowed as a character: “My life’s work is bullshit?” to which Hanks is able to throw back to her.  That is excellent screenwriting. 

As the pressure mounts on Hanks, who is completely exhausted, Corbin insists he misses his father's surgery to attend a NY presentation.  His ultimatum involves a countdown.
 Watch Hanks as he slow burns to explosive: "Don't you EVER fucking touch me again."  It's completely believable and the audience is with him.  As he recovers, he can continue with the wisecracks with Ward but the fun is gone.  It's all resignation and sincerity. See for yourself:

As for nonrealistic happy endings, the parents don't get back together.  That would have been wrong.  Hanks does learn to appreciate the right woman.  And the account is saved.  It's all plausible and leaves no saccharine aftertaste.

As an ancillary note, this is a CHICAGO film.  The city is represented so well…the lakefronts, the pubs, the tenements.  Add to that, the local players and you  have a true feel for mid-America.  As Hanks pitches his agency: “New York is New York, LA we don’t know what they are…but we are Chicago.”  Never since Bob Newhart walked to work form his riverfront condos to the Medical Arts building have we felt so at home here. 

If you have had the patience to read this whole review, give the movie a shot (or a re-shot).  Not sure if my appreciation lies in repeated viewings and the resultant  familiarity  but I do believe there is some credence to spending two hours in this universe.


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