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Night in Heaven, A
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Movie-Watching Evening in Hell"
1 stars

Winner of a Razzie award and a box-office catastrophe, it's the kind of flat-out embarrassment that should've gone direct to home video.

The abysmal A Night in Heaven is Joan Tewkesbury's first screenplay since her award-winning one for Robert Altman's much-praised 1975 Nashville, and it's difficult to believe this eighty-five-minute monstrosity is possessive of the entirety of her contributions. Nashville was smug and episodic, but its schematic structure and piquant dialogue were impressive -- no one with anything resembling a film sense could possibly aver Tewkesbury were deprived of talent, which is exactly one would be left to surmise if A Night in Heaven marked her feature-film debut. (She also wrote Altman's also-flawed but not-uninteresting Thieves Like Us.) It's such a contextual mess you could probably get a similar disastrous result from a shooting script that took up all the space on a matchbook. The theatrical poster highlights The Blue Lagoon's hunky blonde star Christopher Atkins in skimpy male-strip-club attire, and that's obviously the main selling point the studio is pushing. So it's more than a bit off-putting when the film begins at Florida's Kennedy Space Station with the middle-aged character of Whitney Hanlon (Robert Logan), a brilliant engineer who finishes his workday by riding his self-designed bicycle home, with Bryan Adams's hit song "We're in Heaven" playing over the opening credits. Whitney works the night shift, but he makes it a point of arriving home early to "play hooky" (i.e. have a morning quickie) with his lovely community-college-teacher wife Faye (Leslie Ann Warren); it's an exam day, though, and she can't be late -- she'll take a rain check, though. We're then introduced to Atkins's Rick Monroe, who's leaving behind his latest female conquest the next trailer-home over from his mother's; he, too, has someplace else to be, which is Faye's Speech class, where he finds himself on the receiving end of a flunking grade for his poorly-prepared presentation. (The intellectually-shallow Rick tries sweet-talking his way into Faye's good graces, to no avail.) Two plot-dependent events take place later that afternoon: Faye's spunky younger sister Patsy (Deborah Rush) comes to town as a reprieve from her troubled marriage; and Whitney allows himself to be fired for refusing to dedicate his skills to developing a defense weapon for the government. Whitney soon sinks his way into a temporary depression, unintentionally alienating Faye, who finds herself vulnerable to the youthful charms of Rick, who just happens to dance at the "Heaven" strip club the freewheeling Patsy takes her to that night. Rick, a manipulator who sets his sights on Faye for both sexual and academic gain, gives her a private lap dance and awakens primal pleasures in her not listed in any school curriculum.

One can pick up on the attempt to incorporate the characters into something of an organic spectrum with an all-encompassing theme unifying the various elements, but the movie is in such unbelievably ragged shape it's all but impossible to discern what exactly Tewkesbury was going for. At first we think we're in for a low-key romantic comedy, but the tone never gets adequately set; we're then given a series of domestic-drama moments that bump into the semi-comical ones with the brute force of a freight train. The director, John G. Avildsen, who did the overrated Oscar-winning Rocky and the underrated John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd suburban-satire Neighbors, has never been a particularly distinctive moviemaker, and scene after scene on dire display here cries out for proper shaping -- it's as if the real movie were happening in between what we're watching. Rick is supposed to be a magnetically captivating force who easily breaks down Faye's fragile emotional defenses, but Atkins, a Hollywood-manufactured heartthrob who was passable in The Blue Lagoon but strained in The Pirate Movie, hasn't the charismatic force for the part. He's unfocused, unsure, tinny; he comes off as an overgrown paperboy rather than the vivacious G-stringed lady-killer "Ricky the Rocket" who reduces middle-aged women to quivering Jello every night. Add to this an uneasiness with straightforward dialogue and an annoyingly squeaky voice (it records as well as fingernails scraping a blackboard), and you have a great big zero of a leading man. By contrast, Logan, who played the father in The Adventures of the Wilderness Family series, has one of those lived-in faces the camera adores, with the kind of professional assurance and concentration Atkins lacks in spades. He makes Whitney a completely identifiable Everyman yet doesn't overdo the man's nondescriptness: his understated interpretation dexterously reveals emotional layers and suggests a lot more depth than the role deserves. He even manages to maintain his dignity in a rock-bottom, unplayable scene on a boat where a gun-wielding Whitney orders Rick (who's made into a callous jerk in the movie's last third just for a cheap effect) to undresss and proceeds to terrorize him, with Atkins' unintentionally-laughable hysterics more lethal than any firearm. Logan possesses that rare attribute of never being boring on-screen, and he and Warren match up well together -- their final scene, where Whitney and Faye sit at the dining-room table and open up to each other for the first time in weeks, is immensely touching. Unfortunately, the role of Faye is a shambles, and Warren, while game, can't give her the nuances and gravitas needed. Warren does offer up a flattering side profile, and she simulates sexual intercourse very well.

Probably would've won a lot more Razzies had the Pia Zadora crapfest "The Lonely Lady" not been released the same year.

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originally posted: 07/11/13 00:46:00
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  18-Nov-1983 (R)

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