Writer-director William Richert displayed tremendous promise with his first fiction feature, Winter Kills (1979), a strange conspiracy thriller boasting an incredible cast and a lush look. Although the movie has as many problems as it does virtues, the style and verve of the piece seemed to bode well for Richert’s subsequent efforts. Alas, the filmmaker’s sophomore picture repeated nearly everything that was wrong with his debut while replicating virtually nothing that was right. Originally released in 1980 as The American Success Company but now primarily available in a director-approved recut version from 1983 more succinctly titled Success, the picture follows the misadventures of Harry (Jeff Bridges), a dorky young man who secures a comfortable life by marrying beautiful but cold Sarah (Belinda Bauer), the daughter of Mr. Elliott (Ned Beatty). Mr. Elliot runs the American Success Company, a doppelganger for American Express, so even though Mr. Elliot despises Harry, he ensures that Harry gets cushy executive jobs. Tired of being a doormat for his abusive father-in-law and his withholding wife, Harry assumes a new secondary identity as “Mack,” a flashy mobster who dresses in garish clothes, speaks in the Bogart/Cagney/Robinson mode, and walks with a cane. While pretending to be “Mack,” Harry purchases regular appointments with a sophisticated hooker, Corinne (Bianca Jagger), in order to improve his lovemaking. Concurrently, he contrives a scheme to embezzle money from his employer.
As written by Richert and B-movie icon Larry Cohen, the script never explains Harry’s methods or motives in a satisfactory fashion, and the tone of the piece is awkward. Sometimes Richert goes for broad comedy and fails—the most effective running joke involves premature ejaculation—and sometimes Richert goes for high-minded satire, even though he misses that mark, as well. (In one scene, Harry, posing as “Mack,” proposes selling credit cards to an expanding market—little kids.) Beatty, Jagger, and John Glover give solid turns, benefiting from consistently written characterizations, but the leading performances by Bridges and Bauer are disastrous. Bridges clearly didn’t know whether he was playing a boob or a rake, and Bauer wobbles between incarnating a dolt and a shrew. Almost nothing works in The American Success Company, even with the wall-to-wall exposition of the 1983 version’s voiceover. Unsurprisingly, it took Richert years to score his next feature-directing gig, the middling teen-sex comedy A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988). A decade after that, he helmed his last feature to date, an obscure 1998 version of The Man in the Iron Mask.
The American Success Company: LAME