Monday, January 24, 2011

Foul Play (1978)

The first movie that Chevy Chase made after bailing on Saturday Night Live to pursue a big-screen career, the comic thriller Foul Play was one 1978’s biggest hits. Handsomely produced and breezily entertaining, it’s so light and superficial that it sometimes threatens to float away, but with Chase and Goldie Hawn exhibiting terrific comedic chops, it’s a tasty serving of empty calories. Hawn stars as a San Francisco librarian who stumbles upon plans for an assassination attempt, and Chase plays a smart-aleck police detective who slowly discovers the conspiracy based on the sketchy evidence she brings to his attention. The two fall in love, naturally, to the tune of Barry Manilow’s bombastic theme song “Ready to Take a Chance Again”—which is to say that Foul Play is the ’70s equivalent of the romantic farces Hollywood used to make so well back in the studio-era heyday of the ’30s and ’40s. After scoring as a screenwriter with Harold and Maude (1971) and Silver Streak (1976), Colin Higgins got the green light to direct his own screenplay for Foul Play, and while his technique lacks subtlety, he serves the material well with brisk pacing and the good taste to keep his actors from playing the material too broadly; the vacuous storyline also allows Higgins to fill the movie to bursting with banter, plot twists, and sight gags. Chase and Hawn are charming, because both actors steer clear of their usual excesses: Chase is uncharacteristically unassuming, and Hawn plays a grown-up intellectual instead of a young twit. Furthermore, Higgins gives several supporting characters room to shine. Dudley Moore nearly steals the movie as a diminutive lothario who keeps crossing paths with Hawn, and the long scene in which he unveils his tricked-out bachelor pad is a great example of a comedian humiliating himself for the sake of a joke. Burgess Meredith is colorful and exuberant as Hawn’s eccentric landlord, and ace character players including Billy Barty, Don Calfa, and Brian Dennehy pop up in smaller roles. Though it gets a bit windy at 116 minutes, Foul Play is a respectable throwback to the glory days of Hollywood piffles, and the maiden voyage for a screen duo that should have collaborated more frequently. Chase and Hawn only did one more movie together, the almost-as-amusing Neil Simon romp Seems Like Old Times (1980).

Foul Play: GROOVY

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