|Reliving the Summer of 1990 - Week Six
|by Brian Orndorf
Doing laps with Tom Cruise in “Days of Thunder” and experiencing the pain of the afterlife with Bill Cosby in “Ghost Dad.”
Days of Thunder
Nutshell: Pulled from retirement, veteran mechanic Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) is put in charge of a young, brash, untested driver named Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) as the NASCAR season heats up. Looking to conquer the sport, Cole hits the track hard, immediatley challenging champion Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) for legend status. When an accident takes Cole out of the game for a spell, he romances Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), who eventually comes to soothe Cole’s frazzled nerves, encouraging him to race once again.
1990: Coming off his career-best performance in Oliver Stone’s masterful “Born on the Fourth of July,” Tom Cruise was on the hunt for a project that would reignite his superstar status. “Days of Thunder” was viewed as an ideal rocket back to surefire marquee dominance, reteaming Cruise with his “Top Gun” director Tony Scott to explore the colorful world of NASCAR, working off a script from “Chinatown” mastermind, Robert Towne. The project couldn’t lose with speed, Cruise, Scott, and summer. Who wouldn’t bet on that blockbuster recipe?
Of course, “Days of Thunder” was released at a time before NASCAR joined the national conversation, before the culture became a phenomenon and its drivers morphed into thin-voiced celebrities. The sell here was strictly Cruise and cars, getting audiences in the mood for the actor returning to his cocksure roots with a moviegoing package that went out of its way to spritz itself with the perfumed oils of “Top Gun” (a common critical comparison, but perfectly apt). “Cruise Like Thunder” roared the marketing push for the movie, and it was awfully convincing, lending the hot season an inferno of machismo and sex appeal to help digest the alien NASCAR antics.
It suckered me in, that’s for sure.
Despite being annoyed by the pointless love story (a clear violation of the moviegoing contract according to the Brichives), “Days of Thunder” was a solid lump of popcorn entertainment, playing all the appropriate notes as Cole lunged for NASCAR supremacy. Yes, the film was unshakably exaggerated, but it seized my attention through its furious race sequences, which contributed an appealing sense of whooshing movement on the big screen, delivering armrest-clenching thrills as the characters entered the sweltering realm of automotive combat. Scott brought the viewer down to the track and into the constrictive cars, stitching together several extraordinary sequences that squirted the screen with grime and frustration, rendering each banked turn a knockout punch of speed demon suspense.
The rest of the film? Eh. Sections of it shot over my head (the driving particulars still baffle), while the rest was a snooze. The fiercely competitive element of the script (showing Cole’s self-destructive commitment to victory) was where the film shined the brightest. Too bad Scott couldn’t drop anchor there.
2010: In last month’s NASCAR-influenced tween documentary, "Racing Dreams," one of the young driving hopefuls asks a friend if she’s ever seen “Days of Thunder.” A mere blip of sporting devotion for the film, but it shocked me, realizing that kids today look to “Days of Thunder” as some type of primer on the ways of NASCAR infiltration. I left the picture behind two decades ago, yet, to my surprise, the movie appears to have stood the test of time, now delighting multiple generations with the blue steel antics of Cole Trickle and the roar of the gaudy, oddly personified cars.
Revisiting “Days of Thunder” in 2010 wasn’t quite as revelatory an event as I hoped. I’m not sure what I wanted to pull from a second look all these years later, but the film stands today as needlessly melodramatic, with Towne’s syrupy script laboring through numerous clichés to provide a safe cinematic atmosphere, therefore pleasing the widest possible audience. There’s definitely a perceptive personality here buried below the threatening cinematography (why does Scott always demand his films resemble the introductory moments of an environmental apocalypse?), brought nicely to the forefront by a cast nestled comfortably in their accents (Duvall appears to be having the most fun) and energy, but the script just limps along, creating an intimidating divide between the thrills of the track and the boredom of the bedroom.
I’m a big supporter of Nicole Kidman these days, but in 1990, her appearance in “Days of Thunder” was a real puzzler. Brought onboard to spice up the picture with a pinch of Aussie curl after biting into the American film market with “Dead Calm,” Kidman is the dead weight here, with her character bringing the film to a full stop so Cole can indulge in a little romance to help pacify a female audience that wouldn’t be caught dead at a car racing picture. Rough around the edges and generally tomboyish in appearance, Kidman doesn’t bring any pizzazz to the picture, unable to compete with revving engines and, well, groping prostitutes, as viewed in one incomprehensible scene where Harry hires a whore to reward Cole after his first victory. Famous for being the film that ignited their backstage romance, Kidman and Cruise share surprisingly little chemistry, and “Days of Thunder” takes a nap whenever the two are forced to slap together a deeply felt romance over a few short scenes.
Towne’s script makes an effort to delve into the mind of the driver, feeling around the anxiety behind the wheel and the montage-heavy teamwork involved with NASCAR racing. Most of the peripheral dramatic business feels peeled out of the film at the last minute, leaving a few secondary characters stranded (a baby-faced John C. Reilly appears briefly as a Harry’s emotionally stunned assistant) and the introduction of Cole’s racing nemesis, Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes), awkwardly squeezed into matters late in the second act. “Days of Thunder” is hopelessly disjointed at times, but Scott’s gooey gloss is able to spackle the gaps with some superficial entertainment value. After all, the film’s racing sequences are killer, captured with a direct shot of sound and fury (no garish visual effects, just the feeling of speed), making it easier to swallow the picture’s laborious attempts to implant a beating heart and a sound conscience into Cole Trickle. But only after he accepts the services of a hooker.
And what’s with that name anyway? Cole Trickle. Sounds like the name of a prison located deep in the heart of Mississippi (“Welcome to Cole Trickle, maggot!”). Nearly every character is branded with some form of cartoon moniker, with the likes of Rowdy Burns, Russ Wheeler, Big Jim, Harry Hogge, Buck Bretherton, and Harlem Hoogerhyde sounding more like a rodeo line-up than a circle of NASCAR leaders. It seems Towne really wanted to reinforce the southern appeal of the sport. To celebrate this “Days of Thunder” viewing, I’ve decided to rechristen myself “Twang Throttlepants” as a way to join the party.
At the very least, “Days of Thunder” is a more satisfying and cinematically authentic film than “Top Gun,” with Cruise showing signs of thespian growth and Scott sticking to the dizzying appeal of NASCAR when allowed. Though not providing as stimulating of a second helping as I’d hoped, “Days of Thunder” retains a few moments of startling competency, though overall it’s an inconsistent feature film -- not always providing the thunder, though the Cruise is well taken care of.
Nutshell: A workaholic trying to put together a critical business deal, Elliot (Bill Cosby) has neglected his three kids in the process, hoping his efforts at the office will finally provide a solid future for the family after the tragic death of his wife. On his way to a meeting, Elliot steps into a taxi driven by a Satan-worshiping lunatic, who eventually plunges the vehicle into a river. Emerging from the drink a bewildered spirit, Elliot learns he only has a few days to set things right before he’s whisked away to the afterlife, forcing him to hash out a plan to continue chugging along as a ghost to achieve the family security he was working for.
1990: “Ghost Dad” factors somewhat importantly in my moviegoing development. With each passing year, I grew more comfortable with the concept of “bad movies,” coming to the realization that just because I was able to attend a movie didn’t automatically make it a quality product. 1990 solidified that confidence, turning movie attendance into a weekly game of critical thinking, looking to reason out why some movies pinched my pleasure center and others died a cruel death. My first authentic encounter with an absolute stinker wouldn’t occur for another month or so, with “Ghost Dad” acting as more of a loathsome appetizer for the enlightening summer season.
As with a majority of Americans in 1990, I loved Bill Cosby. The dominance of “The Cosby Show” was one thing (a truly classic sitcom with stupendous comedic flair), but I was raised on the comedian’s records, with some of his more seminal work contributing to my weekly library hauls as a child. Cosby was a masterful stand-up and a righteously clownish television personality, but his movie work? At least during his television heyday in the ‘80s, an actor couldn’t have worse big screen mojo than Bill Cosby.
1987’s “Leonard Part 6” is a facepalm ordeal for another summer diary, but its troubled production and Cosby’s infamous anti-promotional tour (where the king instructed his subjects to avoid the movie) severed his quest for silver screen command, with studios backing away from what they viewed as a temperamental and untrustworthy star. How “Ghost Dad” squirmed through the development process is a mystery to me, but I do recall some anticipation for the feature, if only due to my love for Cosby.
Again, the concept of a “bad movie” was still shaky ground to me, but it was obvious during that humid summer night in 1990 that “Ghost Dad” wasn’t working. At all. In fact, it was abysmal, with Mr. All-American Dad sweatin’ through a disastrous screenplay peppered with obscenity and death, which, as we all know, makes for a stupendous family comedy. The general lack of laughs fertilized the evening with frowns, which wasn’t the traditional response to Cosby at the time.
“Go back to T.V., Bill Cosby!” is scribbled down in the Brichives for the “Ghost Dad” entry, along with a few scattered thoughts on the toxicity of the concept and the execution. The words didn’t necessarily reflect anger, but more frustration with time wasted on a worthless endeavor, but my discontent was forming.
2010: Easily one of the more grueling viewing experiences during this summer diary, revisiting “Ghost Dad” was pure agony. There’s a rather impressive amount of poor taste and buffoonery swirling around the picture, but the largest question mark associated with “Ghost Dad” is how Sidney Poitier was roped into directing this garbage. Sure, Poitier and Cosby were friends and occasionally co-workers (in the semi-trilogy “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Let’s Do It Again,” and “A Piece of the Action”), but surely one of our greatest actors (an accomplished director to boot) could smell this dog coming from a mile away? Funny what money and peer pressure does to a man.
There’s no evidence of direction in “Ghost Dad,” Poitier simply slumbers through it, mounting one of the laziest, ramshackle studio comedies I’ve seen in the last two decades. Everything here is half-assed and idiotic, from the “special” effects (flying effects reveal obvious wire-assist) to the eye-bulging performances, topped off with a tacky synth score (a few of the cues are pilfered from other movies) and the disturbing concept of Cosby as a near-dead dad.
Maybe Disney could get away with the slaughter of two parents, but “Ghost Dad” doesn’t know the steps to that dance, preferring to creep out the room with a story about a trio of kids generally enthused to see the ghostly visage of their only remaining parent. Let the laughs commence!
Poitier barely makes an effort to sunny up the dismal tone, arranging a series of shameful slapstick sequences built around Elliot and his specter challenges, which have him floating around the room, passing through doors, and trying to keep his presence felt while wheeling and dealing at work. It’s a bit of “Invisible Man” crossed with typical parental comedy (the kids are more obnoxious than adorable), as Elliot realizes just how much he’s ignored his spawn before his…um…you know…death. What’s stunning here is the PG tone of the piece, with Cosby swearing and swatting horny idiots away from his teen daughter (Kimberly Russell, from “Head of the Class’). The comedic giant is more than welcome to blue material, yet, in 1990, Cosby was something of a crusader for clean entertainment. In 2010, the material is pretty mild, but remains a little unsettling.
Mugging around “Ghost Dad” as though his career depended on it (in a way, it did), Cosby is trying to make this heap of nothing sing, but he’s damned from the very start. It’s just a rancid idea for a feature film to begin with, and no amount of Cosin’ around is going to make the experience any less painful. The heat’s always been on “Leonard Part 6” as the preeminent Bill Cosby bomb, but at least that film is a flaming, bizarre, Coke-swilling abortion. It’s somewhat “fun” to watch it go up in smoke. “Ghost Dad” is just depressing and incompetently assembled, reaching for a madcap mood of paranormal activity that results in one long headache.
I now see why Poitier never directed again and Cosby refused another leading role in a feature film.
And [spoiler alert!] Elliot doesn’t even turn out to be dead, but merely stuck in a spirit world state of shock. [/spoiler alert!] Bah. The film can’t even get death right.
Coming next week…
Set your gush guns to overload, “Die Hard 2” is coming in for a landing.
link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3046
originally posted: 06/29/10 06:17:25