Tuesday, July 21, 2009

True Romance

I've mentioned the sad Weinstein spiral elsewhere, but certain films remind me of what a potent force they used to be. When they headed Miramax, they displayed a formidable ability to pluck the hottest unproven talent from the Sundance pool, pair them up with established heavy-hitters, then sit back and let the magic happen. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Good Will Hunting, in which then-unknowns Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (who'd both had acting work but nothing to launch them) wrote and acted under the direction of indie legend Gus Van Sant to great effect and critical acclaim. My personal favorite, however, the closest meeting of the minds, came when Quentin Tarantino, hot off the success of Reservoir Dogs, sold a script to hyperkinetic madman Tony Scott. It was a match made in B-movie heaven.

True Romance, Tarantino's take on romantic comedy, received positive, if muted, response upon its release: critics praised its visceral style and unrelenting bizzaro love tale, but criticized it for the same reasons. Scott and Tarantino later put out a director's cut infinitesimally longer, with only a few scenes placed back in or lengthened just long enough to show more blood, but the added schlock actually fleshes out the picture a bit, giving more time to minor characters (all of whom are played by some mighy familiar faces). What you're left with is a film by two craftsmen perfect for each other, yet just different enough to temper the weaknesses of the other.

Tarantino's dialogue overflows as it flies from the mouth of Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an Elvis obsessive who is on his way to the art-house theater for a kung-fu marathon on his birthday at the start of the film. He tries to chat up a chick in a bar into coming with him, but she declines. Clarence takes it in stride, and he appears only slightly fazes by the rejection. Then firecracker named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) sits next to him in the theater and asks him to catch her up. Soon, they're sharing pie in a diner and they go back to his place. Alabama runs out afterward, and she admits that she's a call girl (not a prostitute, she says) hired by his boss to show the introvert a good time. Clarence continues to prove an unflappable character, and even admits he figured it was all too good to be true. A twist: Alabama falls for this dope's sweetness, and they quickly elope.

OK, so it's a bit weird, but there's nothing that different from Pretty Woman, albeit knocked down a number of rungs on the social ladder. Then it all goes mad. Clarence tracks down Alabama's pimp, Drexyl, to inform him that Alabama will no longer be in his employ, which naturally ends in violence. Now on the run carrying a sack full of Drexyl's uncut cocaine, Clarence and Alabama try to unload the drugs to provide them with enough money to get away while staying ahead of both the cops and the mafia who funneled their drugs through the pimp.

Slater and Arquette, not normally scene-stealers, prove entirely capable of carrying this film, as you believe their warped but (as the title says) true love. The sweet, milquetoast Clarence can turn on a dime and become a truly intimidating character when someone threatens his beloved, while Alabama, sadly under-developed even in the longer cut, also has a darker side that bubbles to the surface without feeling forced. Both give the finest performances of their careers, and I can't see anyone else pulling their roles off half as well.

Aiding the two is a non-stop cavalcade of fantastic supporting appearances from stars both established and rising. Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper appear in a scene as a mob boss torturing Clarence's father, and their conversation, dubbed "the Sicilian scene" is Tarantino's second best chunk of dialogue following Jules' final speech to "Ringo" in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino received some (possibly justified) flak for what was perceived as unnecessary racist exchanges in Pulp Fiction (i.e. "Dead N-word storage"), but in this scene the writer displays a remarkably sly grasp of racism and how people can be driven by it. Clifford knows that the mobster bases his identity on his Italian heritage, and he also knows that he cannot withstand the torture and will unwilling divulge his son's location. So, he uses his final moments to regale Cocccotti with Sicily's history, specifically that the Moors (Africans) invaded Italy hundreds of years ago and "they changed the bloodline forever." The scene gently crescendoes until Clifford sardonically says that the Sicilians are "part eggplant." Coccotti laughs and engages in the usual "gedda look at this kid" mafioso cheek-pinching before suddenly pulling his gun and shooting Cliff dead. "I haven't killed anybody," Walken hisses, "since 1984." Never does this scene insist upon itself or play its hand too soon, and only at the end do we realize that this was Cliff's plan all along.

Walken and Hopper aren't the only memorable side-players, however; no, True Romance, as with Tarantino's best work, is ultimately an ensemble piece. Gary Oldman pours all of his off-kilter magnetism into Drexyl, the dreadlocked, gold-toothed pimp with such golden lines as "It ain't white boy day, is it?" Years before Tony Soprano thrust him into the spotlight, James Gandolfini plays a ruthless mob thug who "interrogates" Alabama, while Brad Pitt, still an actor of little note, absolutely walks away with the picture as the stoner roommate of Clarence's actor friend Dick (Michael Rapaport). His delivery of the line "Don't condescend to me, man" is as memorable as anything else he's ever done.

These loopy, minutiae-obsessed characters are kept interesting because Scott makes sure to throw in some gloriously overdone violence every now and then to keep people from getting to talky. Likewise, Tarantino's loquaciousness and attention to character gives the film actual roots that tether Scott's frantic style to some form of reality (though you could hardly call anything that happens in the film "realistic"). The various shootouts are all grisly and visceral, but the also carry some emotional weight thanks not only to the writing but Hans Zimmer's ethereal, subtly haunting score. His compositions are airy and light, as if recorded on wind chimes, and they have a disturbing tranquility when played over the shocking violence that underscores both the warped fairy tale nature of the screenplay as well as the general demented state of the action.

I read that someone recently re-edited the film to follow Tarantino's script, which offered up a more fleshed-out Alabama, a larger part for Samuel L. Jackson's virtually non-existent cameo and a non-linear narrative structured like Pulp Fiction. While the idea of seeing a more defined Alabama intrigues me, I highly doubt that the cut, which uses deleted scenes with noticeably less post-production refinement, will improve upon this. Though unquestionably a better filmmaker, Tarantino benefits somewhat from another hand guiding his project, and a slew of brief but commanding appearances, bolstered by the impressive performances from its leads, makes True Romance the most bewilderingly touching gonzo romance ever filmed.

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