Friday, April 27, 2012

Step Up to a Tin Man In Baltimore

I’m late!

No, no no, not like that you terribly minded baby pushers. I’m late in an ASSIGNMENT. Sheesh. 
See, loyal readers know that every Month, T.L. Bugg over at The Lightning Bugg’s Lair and I team up for a movie swap. For this lovely rainless April, we decided to honor the city of Baltimore, as we’ll be meeting up for a mini barbeque bonanza reunion this weekend. 
Now I don’t know about you, but when I think Baltimore but am not allowed to think John Waters, I naturally think Step Up 2: the streets. I actually don’t know how anyone thinks anything BUT Step Up 2: the streets, but that’s just because I have good sense. Hence, the Bugg got his groove on (on time, no less) and sent me to a different part of the city. 

Instead of popping and locking, I got cruising and selling with Barry Levinson’s 1987 dramedy, Tin Men. It’s 100% less dancish, but an assignment is an assignment and I’m a nerd who never fails.

Quick Plot: It's 1963 in suburban Baltimore, a colorful landscape prowled by likably slimy aluminum siding salesmen Bill Babowski (Richard Dreyfuss) and Ernest Tilley (Danny DeVito). Babowski and Tilley might be in the same business, but their paths never cross until a fateful weekday where Babowski drives his brand new Cadillac 1/16th of a mile out of the car dealership only to collide into Tilley's half owned classic.

For most drivers, a fender bender is an annoyance that happens every once in a while. For two alpha male types who overprioritize status, it can be a life changer.
Let me start by admitting a secret dream: I've always wanted a nemesis. A Lex to my Superman, a Dorito to my Frito, a Faith to my Buffy. Someone or thing who brings out my innermost competitive obsessive while keeping me in a mysterious sense of moral balance by constantly challenging how far I’ll go to--

Okay, I’ve thought too hard about this. Back to the movie:
Tilley and Babowski are painfully alike in some ways. Both cheat their way through work, running scams on unsuspecting home owners with the fake lure of a spread in Life Magazine. Both spend plenty of time in the company of their coworkers, a rich cast of character actors (John Mahoney! Bruno Kirby! More!) who engage in daily chitchat over menial subjects like breakfast orders and Bonanza. Both dress in bright colored suits but are fairly miserable to most people in their lives.

Oh yeah, and both drive Cadillacs.
In a slightly different scenario, the pair could be friends or at the very least, business buddies who help each other close a sale. Unfortunately, Tilley and Babowski are both far too prickly to ever tame their egos down enough to see it. Instead, they embark upon modern warfare, beginning with some car vandalism and increasing in intensity to Babowski bedding Mrs. Tilley, as played with scarily thin lips by Barbara "Don't Ever Play My Mother" Hershey.

The convenience here for Tilley is that he was already just about done with his marriage anyway. Mired in debt, investigated by the Home Improvement Commission, and owing backtaxes to the IRS, Tilley has enough to worry about without comforting his estranged old lady. Babowski, on the other hand, is the kind of lifelong bachelor whose distance and confidence masks a severe lacking of something in his life. Is an obsessive rivalry or new romance the answer?
Tin Men is lesser known than Barry Levinson’s wider seen Diner (a much beloved classic that mumble mumble I'veneverseen mumble mumble Hey! Look over there at that shiny thing!) but I found it extremely enjoyable. I grew up on the '80s catalog of Danny DeVito (Ruthless People, Romancing the Stone, Twins--the list goes on) and dangit, I just can't not love the guy. Sure, he's fairly restricted into playing a particular type and while Ernest Tilley IS another cuckholded husband with a fair shot of smarm, DeVito finds the inner sadness in his pathetic but masked life without relying on easy sentimentality. For as much as I think Richard Dreyfuss is a real life jerk, it's hard to deny his equal skill at this type of character, particularly at this point in his film career. The pair are perfectly matched and bring out the best in each other. Sprinkling in great supporting actors who know how to deliver mundane but clever dialogue and it's hard to take your eyes off of these people, even if none are particularly special.

Just as important to Tin Men's flow is the look of the film, something crafted with a keen and precise eye from the ground up. Levinson masters the early '60s color palette in every crevice, from the salesmen’s loud suits to the minty finish on expensive Cadillac fenders. It’s beautiful and ugly at the same time.

And yes, that’s a high note.
High Points
Danny DeVito is the kind of actor who can be tricky to match up to romantically onscreen. He's such an odd duck of a man that pairing with a gorgeous 5'8 starlet often feels silly. Hence, it's incredibly refreshing to see how his relationship with Hershey is handled. At first glance, they DO seem mismatched, but as they bicker and joke, you can see a genuine chemistry that shines through. Sure, their relationship is doomed before the film starts, but it's such a strong touch to see a couple who once loved each other and in a different way, will always do so, even if at the present time of the film's plot, their marriage is ending

Low Points
Well, as much as I like the Hershey-DeVito dynamic, there is the slight irritation of using a female as a pawn in a vengeance scheme that rubs me slightly itchily
Lessons Learned
The average height of an aluminum siding salesman in 1963? 4’11
Everybody has to pay their taxes
Always get them to sign before you have a heart attack

Random Thought
Richard Dreyfuss is barely hobbit sized, so it must have been pretty nice to tower over his li’l costar. Make ya feel like a man, Dick? DID IT?

Okay, fine. I’m still angry that he walked through me without saying excuse me. I will hate the man until I get eaten by piranhas.
On paper, Tin Men isn’t necessarily “my kind” of film. I have little love for grimy slick-haired salesmen, status chasing through car ownership, or even early '60s nostalgia. But this is a good movie, one that carefully manages to tell a very American story about imperfect men without being obvious or ever losing its masterful style of humor. The DVD includes a party of a commentary with Levinson, his cast, and crew, including some of the costume designers and others responsible for the film’s impressive style. Check it out. But first, break out your parachute pants and head on over to the Lair for some Step Up 2 action! 

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