Friday, July 19, 2013

Born to Win (1971)

It’s impossible to completely dismiss Born to Win, a would-be comedy about heroin addiction, even though the film is a disaster from a tonal perspective and not especially satisfying from a narrative perspective, because the film’s saving graces include gritty performances by several actors and a great sense of place. So, while Born to Win is laughable compared to the same year’s The Panic in Needle Park, a truly harrowing take on the same subject matter, Born to Win isn’t an outright dud. George Segal stars as J, a former hairdresser who has fallen into petty crime as a means of supporting his habit. Over the course of the story, J embarks on a new romance with Parm (Karen Black), a rich girl with a taste for dangerous adventure, and he gets into a complicated hassle with his dealer, Vivian (Hector Elizondo). The romantic stuff with Parm defies logic right from the beginning—Parm discovers J trying to steal her car, but instead of calling the police, she takes him to bed. Huh? The drug-culture material is more believable, especially when two cops (one of whom is played by a young Robert De Niro) coerce J into helping them entrap Vivian. In general, the seedier the scene in question, the more watchable Born to Win becomes. For instance, one of the best sequences involves J sweet-talking a mobster’s wife by pretending he wants sex, when in fact he’s simply trying to enter the mobster’s apartment for purposes of robbery. Segal’s not the right actor for this story—he’s too charming and urbane—but it’s interesting to imagine the circumstances by which a character fitting Segal’s persona might have fallen into such desperation. Had Born to Win focused on J’s descent (and had the filmmakers not opted for such a glib treatment of addiction), the picture could have had impact. Alas, director/co-writer Ivan Passer fumbles, badly, by attempting to merge black comedy with inner-city tragedy, and his undisciplined storytelling is exacerbated by a truly horrible music score. Predictably, De Niro (whose role is inconsequential) and Elizondo fare best in this milieu, while Black and costar Paula Prentiss barely register. Yet the real star of the movie, if only by default, is New York City, with the dirty streets of Manhattan amplifying the film’s implied theme of lost souls getting chewed up by an unforgiving universe.

Born to Win: FUNKY

1 comment:

The 4th Stooge said...

THAT'S what was wrong with this movie--I always thought Segal was WAY too charming to be a heroin addict (at least as seen in the movie). I'd love to see more of him NOT being George Segal--charming his way (LITERALLY!) out of a police shootout, running about NYC in a flimsy ladies' dressing gown and THEN WALKING OUT OF A STORE WITHOUT GETTING CAUGHT STEALING CLOTHES! If J was so does he end up on a park bench knowing that his next dose is definitely a hot shot?

HOWEVER, there's something about the opening that shows how charming and hip this man is supposed to be whilst pouring out heroin and talking about how he loves hairdressing (yet doesn't seem to use that talent on his own hair...) The focus on J and the line "They don't call me "J" for nothing," which leads into the opening credits--that's when I fell in love with the movie--it's more the music than anything. It catches that 1970s vibe (everything's brown, of course!) and the fact that there's no dialog until the theme ends when J tries to charm the woman that they're here for the safe (newer versions bleep "shvartze," but as a black Jewish woman, I already knew what that meant, so...

I also agree with the fact that it goes into too many directions. Why's Paula Prentiss second billed? If anything, it should've been Karen Black. We don't learn anything about his kids (which could've been a lie); we don't know where he came from; we don't know why there's this weird juxtaposition between funny (trying to get the woman to call the police by pantomiming) and seeing him begging for a dose and losing all of his dignity--none of his schemes work.

However--the scenes that stuck with me is when his buddy took the hot shot and J's forced to leave him in the elevator--the flashes between J in the revolving door (foreshadowing?) and the elevator doors closing on his friend Billy were strangely effective. All J's charm has evaporated by this time and he's just trying to find a way to use whomever he can to get his next fix.

Oh, and Parm being set up and J's being let go to get what we all know he's going to get bothered me for some reason. Was Parm just slumming? Why go through all that for a man that's not worth the sad schemes he comes up with?

I can't say I could've made the movie better (wait...sure I can!) I would've cut most of the "charming" J, but not all--it does serve a purpose. But audiences want to know HOW he ended up here. Why is his ex-wife hooking (and why isn't HE her pimp?)

The opening dialog leading to that WONDERFUL opening theme by William Fischer is what sealed the deal for me--I came across this movie just as the theme began and there was something that hooked me. Maybe because it was the whole 70a grungy vibe that I can't remember (I can't remember anything earlier than 1979) that makes it work even with all the missteps.

Love the blog and hope there's a sudden influx of lost 70s movies that suddenly come to light for you to review!