Outstreched arm

Sunday, June 05, 2005


Ira Levin's Deathtrap is a two-act whodunit, but there's no point in you seeing it, since I'll tell you who dun it. Ira Levin dun it. Well, I shouldn't be so hard on him, for at least two reasons: one, I have not seen the play, but Sidney Lumet's movie of the same, and two, it's not exactly a bad piece of writing; it's a bad piece of plot design, really, plus the costumes are ugly.

The movie opens with an obviously horrible play by once-lauded playwright Sidney Bruhl, rendered with delightful gusto by Michael Caine. The plot and the costumes are poor, and a TV critic notes that there's no point in your seeing it, since he'll tell you who dun it. Sidney Bruhl dun it. Get it? It's quite cute of Levin to intercept criticism with this little device - namely, self-reflexivity - but the work must still be solid. But, back to the plot.

Bruhl goes home to his ditzy wife Myra, played by a bewilderingly cartoonish Dyan Cannon, and tells her about the addition of insult to his injury - a young would-be author who'd been to a seminar held by Bruhl has sent him his first crack at playwriting, and in Bruhl's assessment, it's dynamite - "a gifted director couldn't ruin it." Myra suggests that Sidney collaborate with Cliff, the author - Christopher Reeve playing against type, mostly enjoyably - but Sidney has a more sinister plan: execute Cliff and make the play, Deathtrap, his own...

The first act is wonderful, if we forgive the oddly screwball Myra - heck, maybe she's just comic relief. Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you. Levin has a different character in mind to fill that role: Helga Ten Dorp, an uninvited frequent visitor to the Bruhl home, an eccentric psychic with a ridiculous accent and a personality straight out of a Marx Brothers flick. The character may be serving some higher-level conceptual purpose, or perhaps she is just a presumably welcome change of pace from the highbrow exchanges between Sidney and Cliff, or maybe she's an absolutely hilarious offbeat creation - perhaps, but the truth of the matter is, she's screen poison, an orifice-bleedingly crappy offspring of Levin's mind. She's Jar Jar with psychic powers - she's the night manager from Touch of Evil's annoying aunt.

The second act makes up for a lot of this by being much more somber and composed. The plot now becomes genuinely entertaining and original in its self-reflexivity, and awesome lines abound. But, once again, perhaps by wanting too badly to marry the message to the medium, Levin writes in some completely ridiculous scenes that pull the emergency brake on the plot until it finally derails in the last few seconds - we are taken completely out of the movie, and I applaud the writer for making this crystal-clear. But. But, but, but.

Self-reflexivity does not good art make. It's really a device, like psychoanalysis, that can add quickly some unexpected turns and provide a-ha! moments, but as stated previously, the work simply has to be good in that intuitive, holistic way regardless of what gimmick it features. This was my principal complaint against another movie that was very entertaining "locally", but ultimately flawed "globally": Adaptation. It, too, made itself what it said it would be - lame. But how is that an excuse for, uh, being lame?

Not that it can't be done. South Park's Towely is, as Cartman puts it, "the worst character ever", and it really neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket. He is not essential to the plot in any way, and his antics are just enough notches below "awful" to be mildly funny. And bewildering endings don't ruin movies - John Sayles' Limbo probably angered 90% of viewers, yet I have nothing but respect for it; it's balls, son. A good ridiculous ending can actually salvage a movie seasoned with odd, jerky scenes (I'm looking at you, Cronenberg's eXistenZ, you temptress, you). Deathtrap, however, combines the worst of both worlds... Contrasted with such great dialogue between Caine and Reeve - it's maddening!

There are basically three reactions I've had on repeated viewing of this and of Adaptation:

1. Perhaps it's really meant to be bad, and I just have to accept it. But I can't, not without twisting "bad" to mean "good", which is a bit much for a movie like either one to ask of me.

2. Maybe in Levin's and Kauffman's heads, the deliberately obnoxious bits seemed funny; maybe they thought they could get away with it. But in my opinion, they simply didn't, and they obviously didn't, and it's depressing that they wouldn't see it as well.

3. Maybe I just need to get the right angle on this, see it in the right light... but I doubt it. What light could make me accept Charlie's baloney reaction to his brother's death in Adaptation, or render the horror that is Helga bearable? I just can't help thinking, "you know, this really could've been awesome if only he'd gotten rid of Helga and made the wife less of a joke."

In one of the best scenes in Deathtrap, during Cliff's pompous monologue, stage thunder (real thunder in the reality of the fiction) can be heard. "Ah, special effects by the Almighty himself," he comments. "It's corny, but it works."

It is from such a general perspective of the movie that I must judge it, and from up here, it just doesn't work.

P.S. My tone here has been rather uncongenial, out of disappointment. I do think that you should see the movie/play, but be warned...

For my take on very mild self-reflexivity, read my several-years-old story The Gullible (PDF).

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