Friday, January 15, 2016

1980 Week: Die Laughing

          An ambitious but failed attempt at creating a Hitchcock-style caper flick for the teen demo, this overstuffed and underdeveloped comedy was a major misfire for leading man Robby Benson, who also coproduced the picture, in addition to writing and performing several songs for the project. Beloved by a generation of female fans for his blue eyes, glorious hair, and sensitivity, Benson was arguably the best actor of the whole ’70s teen-idol set, but he had a tricky time transitioning to grown-up roles. His turn as a young adult in Die Laughing was a half-hearted attempt at making the leap, because even though Benson’s character gets involved with life-or-death issues, he spends most of his screen time acting like an adolescent goofball.
          Set in San Francisco, the convoluted story begins with a shootout in a college laboratory. The scientist who escapes from the shootout ends up in a taxicab driven by Pinsky (Benson), a wannabe singer-songwriter. Thugs catch up with Pinsky’s cab and kill the scientist, but Pinsky escapes with a mysterious box the scientist had in his possession. Borrowing a page from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), Pinsky flees the scene because circumstances give bystanders the false impression that Pinsky committed murder. This set-up begins a farcical chase story. Even as Pinsky evades killers and tries to learn why the scientist was killed (in order to clear his own name), Pinsky juggles changes in his romantic life and a series of high-stakes auditions with his band.
          Had Benson and his collaborators gotten a firm grasp on this material, Die Laughing could have been memorably intriguing and silly, very much in the vein of the Chevy Chase-Golden Hawn hit Foul Play (1978). Alas, Die Laughing director Jeff Wener doesn’t have anything close to the sure hand of Foul Play director Colin Higgins, so Die Laughing spirals out of control almost immediately. Beyond basic questions of logic and motivation, huge chunks of storytelling seem to be missing, and the movie’s kitchen-sink approach to physical and situational comedy comes across as desperate. Among other things, the picture includes a deranged taxi dispatcher who runs his company like a military operation, a shadowy figure who watches events from behind mirrored sunglasses, a trained monkey who somehow memorized the formula for a plutonium bomb, and an epic circus sequence that features Benson falling face first into huge piles of elephant excrement. Weirdest of all is the film’s bad guy, Meuller (Bud Cort). He’s a scrawny nerd with the grandiosity of a Bond villain, a raft of eccentricities, and a penchant for such strangely nonthreatening behaviors as squirting his adversaries with a water pistol.
          Despite the picture’s slick look and vigorous musical score, the story is so discombobulated that it’s hard to follow. Given that Benson and co-screenwriter Jerry Segal’s previous collaboration was the charming romance One on One (1977), it’s shocking that they missed the mark so widely. Similarly, it boggles the mind that costars Peter Coyote, Charles Durning, and Elsa Lanchester are wasted in small roles. Die Laughing is not without its virtues, such as Benson’s energetic performance of the hooky soft-rock tune “All I Want is Love” and the bizarre climax of Cort’s performance, but it’s a mess.

Die Laughing: FUNKY

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