In Mitigation: ‘Town & Country’ (2001)


In mitigation: having a look at notoriously ‘bad’ films, to see if they’re as bad as they’re supposed to be; sifting through the detritus to try to salvage anything, anything at all.

‘Town & Country’ has a reputation that reflexively makes one want to open all of the nearest windows. Essentially, it started filming in 1998 and was plagued by re-shoots until it opened three years later. The accumulation in its cost, over this grossly protracted period, led to a final pricing of a $90 million film, plus its subsequent marketing costs. In return, it only took $10 million back in box office, which was Warren Beatty’s original fee, evidently.  That’s $90+ million for a romantic comedy: no expensive special effects work; no location filming in inhospitable reaches of Earth; just people talking while sitting and talking while standing.

It is worth a watch because it is funny, in parts, and it is strange. The re-shoots, the patchwork nature of the film would probably be detectable even if one wasn’t forewarned. Romantic comedies have got to flow, with scenes joining up in a way that almost feels inevitable, but this just feels choppy. Early on, there’s one seeming ‘red flag’ of a film in trouble when Goldie Hawn – a name actress, so much so that she got billed with an ‘and Goldie Hawn’ credit – walks on to a set to answer a phone, or, at least, someone who looks like Goldie Hawn, from the back. Outside of a Argento-style thriller that tries to hide the killer while they commit their crimes, why have a name actor, and a pretty actor, in a romantic comedy and not show their face? Here, ‘Goldie’ runs in shot to answer a phone and, while playing with her hair, gives affirmative, short answers while being fed important information and scene ends. It seemed to scream ‘re-shoot’ and someone of Goldie’s body shape had to double for her but it was definitely her voice. Very strange.

Her ‘other half’ in the story is the late Garry Shandling. For me, Shandling’s ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ is my favourite TV programme of all time so I’m primed to cut him all the slack in the world. It wasn’t required, he was fine, with what he had to work. It’s not a spoiler to say that his character’s main trait is that he’s actually gay. The film tries to mine some comedy from this, sometimes successfully – getting a literal round of applause when he finally does enunciate the words. Watching this film now, though, almost twenty years after it started filming, one gets the sense of a much changed world.

Martin Luther King once spoke of “…the tranquilizing drug of gradualism….” and Hillary Clinton – rightly, in my opinion, because it attested to her not being a leader – got some bad press for not coming around to the idea of gay marriage until 2013 and that, like everything else, she was always late to the party. Two arguments against that softly-softly, liberal, “jam tomorrow” mentality in politics that is so tiresome and annoying but, one could make the argument, in terms of gay rights and gay marriage, that that gradualism, in this case, has proven to be more productive and less gradual than one might have thought. In other words, I doubt that many comedies could be made today which tried to get comedy from someone wrestling with their inner sexuality. Maybe I’m being too naive but does anyone really give much of a damn anymore? See the White House. See the mass yawning and shrugging of shoulders when Barry Manilow came out as gay. Gay politicians, gay talk show hosts: no one cares, outside of the Daily Mail and the (other) scummy tabloids. That’s not to say it can’t still be momentous for a normal person to ‘out’ themselves, to accept themselves, but big stars playing a such a character in a comedy? Perhaps today it would be deemed to be not much on which to hang one’s hat, that they’d need more to work with.

That theme of an in-the-closet struggle dated the film somewhat, as did some easy, lazy portrayals of Japanese – hey, they bow a lot! Hey, they take loads of photographs – which tried one’s patience and also seemed anachronistic too. It’s a tricky area. Perhaps anything can be joked about, perhaps anything can be funny, but those areas that might be problematic bring with themselves a higher laughter threshold. When there’s more risk, the jokes or observations have to be super-funny, not just aiming for funny. The magnificent original ‘The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three‘ also has a joke along these lines of Japanese observational humour but the ‘kicker’ turns it round and makes someone else the fool.

That joke in Full Metal Jacket, when one recruit tries to taut an African-American soldier by telling the assembled listeners that the way to stop an imminent group sexual assault would be to throw the would-be attackers a basketball to distract their attention. That joke in Airplane II: The Sequel when Elaine and Ted are seen in the Peace Corp, in flashback, and Ted starts to try to teach the tribespeople basketball and, after looking quizzically at the ball, bouncing it a couple of times, they all innately begin spinning the ball on their index finger; doing reverse lay-up shots and double-handed slam dunks with total ease. The Full Metal Jacket joke is offensive and is meant to be offensive; the Airplane II joke is hilarious, it is “super-funny”, and is meant knowingly and affectionately but I’m sure that some would disagree. You have to decipher what the intent is, and the intent in ‘Town & Country’ seems good-hearted.

Some reaction to ‘Town & Country’ centred in on Beatty’s character being a magnet for these beautiful women when he was 61 – 64 years old. Age-gap relationships seem to be the last acceptable area of bigotry or soft-bigotry, with people pontificating as to whether that grown adult can be with another grown adult. One reaction to ‘Town & Country’ even called Beatty’s character’s love life ‘grotesque’. Yet, looking closer at the film, on these terms, one finds that the only love scene is for Beatty is with someone only nine years his junior and all of the other women are the instigators of the trysts, such as they are. 1963’s brilliant ‘Charade‘ saw Cary Grant as a 59 year old concerned about playing the romantic opposite to the 34 year old Audrey Hepburn. Grant himself worried how it would look so the decision was reached for Hepburn’s character to be in the instigator, to be the one ‘on the front foot’. The dialogue was re-written to reflect this change in emphasis and it worked beautifully. ‘Town & Country’ is no ‘Charade’, not by many miles, but it works along the same lines; that Beatty’s character is more passive, and is confused, while the woman are more assertive, clear-eyed and in control.

Now this might also be argued to be another sign of male wish-fulfillment, almost a game to allow the male to claim that it’s not his responsibility for all of these women ‘throwing themselves’ at him – what’s a man to do? What else can he do? – but without love triangles and mis-matches in romantic comedies, you’ve got no movie. Should sixty year olds be banned from the genre? I hope not, as long as the film’s any good.

The film tries hard to fill in the gaps. The too-jaunty, button-pushing film score is too prominent, trying too hard to tell you what to feel; that is, when it’s not trying to throw in jazz numbers to try to make you feel like you’re watching a Woody Allen film. Credit to the film for its panoramic helicopter shots of New York City. The title sequence takes all of five minutes to complete but at least you have some picture postcard shots of the city, floating above and looking directly below on the people and the traffic. In that regard, it reaches for Woody Allen’s romantic NYC aesthetic and, actually, isn’t too far off the target.

It might be a stretch but there was almost an inverted Kurosawa moment in Town & Country’s editing. When a character storms out of an apartment, the slamming door noise sounds three times, on each sound, the camera jumps back a way, underlining the isolation of the character left behind. It was like the reverse of some of the introductory edits in ‘Yojimbo‘ that jump in and then in again to introduce someone. Maybe it was just a coincidence but it made me laugh out loud. As did the shots of a dance floor at a fancy dress party and a question of “Do you know what ‘cornholing’ is?”.

I love Buck Henry. He’s done some great work; co-writing my favourite film of all time; and co-directing with Beatty the decent re-make ‘Heaven Can Wait‘ which received a massive nine Oscar nominations, among other things. Henry plays the lawyer in ‘Town & Country’ and, during the laborious three year shoot, was detailed to re-write much of the film. He/the film tries to bring everything together in a crowbarred-in finale that doesn’t really work. You want to give it points for effort but the film was drowning, not waving. At least you get the chance to see Charlton Heston again. I think that he got a ‘Razzie’ win for the film but his pantomime  performance seemed to me to be wholly intentional.

In the DVD documentary for his film ‘Reds’, Beatty tells us that he always has final cut on every film that he makes but always runs the film past those whose reputations are also on the line. Peter Chelsom was the nominal director but I wonder if he just wanted to wash his hands of the whole thing and get out? There’s enough in the film to make it interesting, especially when viewed as part of an actor’s whole body of work, but the film is a bit of a mess. Supposedly, when they started out, the script still didn’t have an ending hammered out. It seems amazing that this cavalier attitude happens when there’s so much money at stake. Sometimes things get rescued – Woody Allen’s excellent ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors was the result of a third to a half of the film being re-shot, for example – other times, things almost fall to pieces, beyond repair. The final product is a shame but not a total loss. Worth a watch.

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