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Light of Day
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by Jack Sommersby

"Dims After a Bright Beginning"
2 stars

An admirable lead performance and some good music can't overcome a hackneyed, ill-focused screenplay.

Michael J. Fox gives a very fine, disciplined performance as Joe Rasnick, a Cleveland blue-collar worker trying to keep both his family and small-time band together in writer/director Paul Schrader's Light of Day. Joe isn't the kind of guy who's out to set the world on fire -- he's simply concerned with paying his bills, making a decent life for himself, and allowing a little downtime a few nights a week to play guitar for The Barbusters, which his sister, Patti (Joan Jett), is the lead singer for. While Joe has a healthy relationship with his mother (Gena Rowlands), Patti has quite the estranged one: she had a child out of wedlock at an early age, refuses to divulge the name of the father, and has been at odds with her religiously devoted mother ever since. Rather than concentrating on bettering his own life, Joe's too preoccupied with restoring balance between Patti and his mother, and, coupled with the miniature details of keeping the band members together during tough times, he's seeing his twenties quickly and unmemorably pass him by. The way Schrader has written the character and the way Fox plays him, Joe is the more grounded and sensible of those around him but a bit regretful of his decent nature -- he knows it's bettering others but costing him. While Fox isn't provided the opportunity for the dramatic highs he superbly pulled off as the vodka-swilling, coke-snorting wannabe-writer in Bright Lights, Big City or the conscience-laden Vietnam soldier in Casualties of War, he's doing the kind of admirable screen acting here that doesn't win awards yet garners justified admiration in his ability to disappear inside a non-showy character, vivify it just enough, and retain audience sympathy and interest throughout.

Unfortunately, Fox's performance is one of the few bright spots in this meandering, muddled film that starts out well but soon dwindles down to a standard made-for-TV melodrama involving a family member's fatal illness that manages to bring the family closer together through their trials and tribulations. Before Schrader goes all Terms of Endearment on us, he manages to etch a well-textured depiction of a band trying not necessarily to make it to the Big Time but just to maintain its unity and confidence and quality to keep on playing gigs, however small the venue -- just having the privilege to play is satisfying enough for them. They work menial jobs during the day because playing in bars and the like doesn't pay the bills, so when they're up on stage it's a form of release; they have something to look forward to to get through their menial days (much like dancing at the Odyssey 2001 nightclub did for John Travolta's hardware-store worker Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever). When Joe unexpectedly gets laid off his job, the band takes to the road, and it's here that the film really finds its stride. The negotiations for pay and drink specials, the bad meals, the lousy lodgings, the unavoidable expenses, all are interesting and hit the right notes; and Schrader juxtaposes a good deal of this in an expertly edited montage, with Jett's evocative number "It's All Coming Down Tonight" perfectly punctuating it. When Light of Day sticks to the specifics of on-the-road dailiness, you feel you're at a real film with real purpose. The story may not seem as if it's "getting somewhere," and that's exactly its main virtue: it doesn't integrate plottiness into the proceedings, and instead relies on identifiable goings-on to involve us and further itself.

But Schrader apparently didn't have enough confidence in the story he started out with. Instead of having the courage to follow through on his central theme -- that one's love for playing music can serve a metaphysical function by transcending one's otherwise-dire existence, if only for a couple of hours a night -- he falls back on the predictable and mundane. The domestic squabbles on display aren't any more revealing than the ones you've seen in countless other melodramas, and as if they're not trite enough, Schrader, well known as a lapsed Calvinist with a strict childhood upbringing, smothers them with top-heavy religious overtones that stop the film dead in its tracks. To aver that the screenplay Schrader has written is disjointed is being too lenient -- it's as if he'd written two different screenplays and simply picked out the parts he liked from each one and blindly integrated them. The film is a dire collage of subplots which lack the kind of organic clarity that would tie them together either thematically or dramatically; and since the characterizations aren't rich enough to sustain all of the emotional weight and the gloomy morbidness (though they're fine when things are kept appropriately low-key and focused), the actors come off as little more than ciphers. Schrader winds up enervating Light of Day's rock-'n-roll milieu in much the same way he did the seedy Los Angeles porn world of his dreadful 1978 Hardcore, and this is because he isn't essentially interested in it; he's taken the effort to make himself knowledgeable about it, but he's merely using it as a cover to work out religious and family issues which would be better left to a therapist. And, aside from Fox's, the performances are of little help.

Joan Jett, a real-life rock star, has a voice that records phenomenally well when she sings, but not, alas, when she speaks -- it's raspy and about as pleasurable to listen to as a rusty chainsaw. In contrast to Fox, who feels through his line readings and manages to overcome some occasional clunkers ("I'm trying to live my life by some common sense"), Jett spews them out with little regard for tact or modulation; and being that she's playing a flawed, unpleasant character, her lack of skill as an actress deprives the performance of depth, and Patti of so much as an iota of earned sympathy. When Jett's singing the Bruce Springsteen-written "Light of Day," you feel a commanding, fiery presence behind the words; when Jett's acting, however, you just feel there's nobody home -- nothing but a big, obnoxious mouth, that is. (Of course, there's also the debit that comes with casting a rock star as a wannabe-one on screen: you're baffled why a record company hasn't already discovered and signed her or him up by now.) Gena Rowlands, who's usually fantastic and whose tough-as-nails gun moll in 1980's Gloria could have put Patti in her place with a single sneer, is game but unsuccessful at making anything believable out of the hoary cliche of the Dying Mother (though she and Fox share a very nice scene inside a shopping mall where, as much as it pains him, Joe has to hit his mother up for money to get Patti out of a legal jam). The appealing Jason Miller is wasted as Joe's reticent father, while This is Spinal Tap alum Michael McKean is ill-used as Joe's closest friend and coworker. Thomas G. Waites, though, as the brother-in-law of a man Patti rips off, manages to make quite the impression in just two brief scenes.

Paul Schrader is a strictly hit-and-miss director whose failures (Blue Collar, Cat People, Auto Focus) are, oddly enough, almost as interesting as his successes (American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, Affliction). He's not a hack-for-hire who regularly does formulaic films -- he struggles in between projects to secure financing for screenplays he genuinely responds to or ones he writes himself -- so you're left to assume he suffered a severe case of the doldrums in concocting something as uninspired and pointless as Light of Day. Too many scenes run on without proper dramatic shaping, the identity of Patti's mystery impregnator is whoppingly obvious (with the entire subplot itself reeking of imitation Bergman), the story shoots off into Byzantine directions, the editing rhythms are clunky, and the attempts at humor even more so. Even Schrader's trademark visual astuteness can't bring much to the party, because he's pretty much abandoned any semblances of style here in an attempt to give the film a gritty, no-frills look; but in his desire for a "real"-looking film, he's deprived it of a crucial aesthetic pleasure that might have semi-distracted from some of the ludicrousness. Alan Parker's exuberant The Commitments told a much more involving story of this type sans the domestic-melodrama baggage, and though Light of Day is minus the odiousness of Rock Star, the judgmentalness of Almost Famous, the dramatic inertness of 8 Mile, it still lacks a riveting performance by the likes of Bette Midler's in The Rose, the raw vitality of Payday, the dynamic staging of The Idolmaker. The film basically lacks judgment, and it's not even bad enough on a junk level to mesmerize like Schrader's beautifully eerie The Comfort of Strangers, though it is as haphazardly realized and orchestrated as his forgettable adaptation of novelist Elmore Leonard's Touch.

Yet right when you want to outright reject Light of Day, there's Michael J. Fox's superlative work nagging at you to reconsider. This was Fox's first film following his breakthrough role as the time-traveling teen in Back to the Future, and his taking on a non-showy character like Joe and unselfish willingness to cede into the background amidst the Patti/Mom showiness is highly commendable. It's quite telling in that he manages to chalk up more emotional truths in his internalized performance than the two main actresses do in their externalized ones; he's an instinctive actor who knows how to listen and how to react, when to ease into a line reading and when to let one rip, and how to suggest without doing so in italics. Take the aforementioned shopping-mall scene, for instance. Joe is having to work up the courage to ask his mother for money, and you can sense his unease and shameful regret of having to do so right from the get-go; his discomfort continues till the end of the scene, when his mother optimistically comments that the money might bring the family closer together, and Joe, knowing perfectly well that it won't yet not wishing to dash his mother's good cheer, dons a makeshift attitude of optimism and agrees. Fox doesn't really do anything that would be chalked up as "brilliant," but keep your eyes on him here from start to finish and you'll see an actor who's always thinking, always in character, where every pause, every gesture is telling you plenty without calling undue attention. It's a far more emotionally painful scene than the ensuing deathbed moments, and one that should be studied by acting students for years to come on how to properly begin and end a scene while immersed in character. Fox is terrific; Light of Day is anything but.

Skip it.

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originally posted: 12/13/03 02:00:00
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User Comments

5/23/05 Jeff Anderson Better than expected thanks to Schrader's terrific direction. Joan Jett is TRULY AWESOME!!! 5 stars
1/17/02 David A. I went to see Joan Jett, but liked the story, too. A youth rebellion movie I can relate to. 5 stars
7/04/00 The King of the Bros Joan Jett roxxxxxx! 5 stars
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  02-Feb-1987 (PG-13)



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