In the late-'70s, Martin Scorsese buried the stress of his work and a series of critical disappointments in a mountain of cocaine. When he experienced setbacks in the early '80s, he made After Hours. I'm still trying to figure out which response is more wild. After Hours exists to prove that Taxi Driver actually displayed some restraint. Its vision of New York crosses that Rubicon into madness and never looks back.
After delving into the psyches of his characters for a decade, Scorsese created a screwball version of his work, expelling his anger over Paramount's shutdown of The Last Temptation of Christ mere weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. Sometimes, it's all you can do to laugh. That is not to say, however, that the film is without meaning. At times, it dips into unexpected poignancy, and even when it's being madcap and disjointed, the subjects it broaches are too severe to be considered mere farce.
If After Hours is "about" something, it is a frenzied visualization of the truth that entirely different worlds exist just outside our set paths. We tend to get trapped in routines; Thoreau even gave up his natural experiment at Walden when he realized he'd managed to create a pattern of familiarity in the wilderness. For someone like Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a word processor who moves solely from his cushy but dull office job to a clean apartment in a nice part of town, a reminder that one used to be able to get a decent place in New York for less than an arm and a leg before the place was scrubbed down with bleach.
After Hours very much captures the manic world just outside the "safe zones" of '80s New York; though it never references crack or poverty, the film visualizes the outlaw nature of the town that put off so many outsiders but gave its residents a badge of honor. But not everyone deserves it, as Paul demonstrates: he's never had to deal with the so-called "real New York," and the taste he gets in one crazy night ensures he'll never seek it out again. Hell, considering his night starts when a woman (Rosanna Arquette) chats him up in a diner, Paul might swear off ladies for a while, too.
The lady, Marcy, woos Paul with the promise of paperweights designed by her sculptress roommate Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino). Who could resist such a girl? Paul, being a man, agrees to go back to her place after midnight, but when he arrives at the spacious, dingy loft and meets the kinky Kiki and starts learning things about Marcy that made the head tilt involuntarily, he recognizes his mistake. For the rest of the film, Paul simply tries to get home, but he soon finds himself trapped in the mire of the undercity, running panicked through a nightmare one would call Kafkaesque even if it didn't quote from some of the author's works.
As in Taxi Driver, the streets spew steam from sewer holes. I have been to New York only one time in my life, but my favorite sight by far was not Broadway or the Statue of Liberty but a burst bit of concrete from which steam billowed. Everyone gathered around that urban geyser, tourists not weaned on Scorsese's acid visions of the city completely flummoxed. The natives had a look on their faces of a memory struggling its way against the current to get to the tip of the tongue, as if these people were meeting a friend they hadn't seen in so long they couldn't quite recognize him. Those steam vents feel like portals to some ancient, dormant but still alive force below, giving the city an almost European feel -- Paris has its catacombs below the surface, London buildings are made in the ashes of centuries-old architecture that vanished in an inferno at some time or another.
Where this hellish vision was more obviously Travis' view of the city's filth, Paul's perception of the streets is trickier: a skittish man, Paul regards his surroundings with paranoid suspicion long before anything happens. But that opinion appears justified when he winds up losing his money, witnessing a suicide, being mistaken for a burglar and ultimately chased by a mob. However, it's possible that Paul's view of these events is his unconscious escalation of every occurrence to match the expectation of danger he places upon them.
After all, the only reason any of the disparate events are connected in this film is because they happen to or around Paul, and he begins to suspect they're all linked in some supernatural conspiracy against him. That's the thing about a big city: you're never really not being watched by someone, and some people can't take that kind of pressure.
Around Paul moves the camera, which almost never stops and showcases the fullest extent of the director's abilities. He times an absurdly fast crane shot to follow a set of keys falling to the ground, follows a $20 bill flying in the wind, circles around Paul like a predator stalking its prey and uses fast motion instead of the lingering slow-motion of Taxi Driver. It makes sense: Travis soaks in his hate, while Paul's heart races and he looks for an escape.
This frenzy allows Scorsese to whip up tangents of sexual confusion and confidence, introversion, even a blindness to class relations. This is a twisted movie intended to evoke some bitter laughs, but just as The King of Comedy displayed a wickedly satiric edge to Scorsese, so too does this movie root its comedy in real feelings that make the bile stick. After Hours contains elements of most of Scorsese's films to that point, from the empty bar that resembles the hangout in Mean Streets after everyone finally stumbles home to sexually insecure paranoia of Raging Bull. It's a palate cleanser, something that allowed Scorsese to figure out where he was at during a tumultuous time and to find the way forward.
That desire to keep moving is reflecting in one of the film's few moments of calm in the eye of the storm. Paul mentions to a male prostitute (who believes Paul wants his services) that he just wants to go home. "Why can't you?" the man asks. Paul tries to relate all that's happened to him, but the camera edits over him. There's no sense in dwelling on the past. Or maybe the story's so damn ludicrous even Scorsese can't think about it. And to reinforce the dark comedy of it all, Paul speaks in front of a brick wall as if delivering a comic routine. When the circular punchline comes, you get the feeling you've just watched someone try to make a movie out of the Aristocrats joke.