Monday, November 11, 2013


There’s one explicit reference to The Wizard of Oz in Martin Scorsese’s bleak 1985 farce After Hours, based on a script by Joseph Minion, a movie which was made on the rebound after the director’s first well-publicized attempts to finance a film of The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart. The movie Scorsese did end up shooting isn’t set on anything like Technicolor over-the-rainbow real estate, or even the skuzzy neon-lit urban hellscape of Taxi Driver. Instead, it takes place on the streets of an ominously under-populated bohemia, Soho as an abandoned studio back lot, a concrete, rain-drenched garden of Gethsemane where gloomy pit stops like the Terminal Bar seem to offer comfort but lead only to convolution, misunderstanding and betrayal.

In the wake of his frustration over Last Temptation, it’s not difficult to imagine what appealed to Scorsese about Minion’s premise—set during the late/early hours of one nightmarish New York City night, complacent yuppie Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) impulsively pursues a date with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), a woman whom he meets in a coffee shop. Their tentative relationship starts off well enough, gets inexplicably weirder and then ripples into ever-increasingly disastrous consequences, ending in a rebirth (of sorts) for Paul, but precious little catharsis. Paul, like the Scorsese who found himself with this movie navigating a dark, ostensibly farcical narrative, seems out of his comfort zone immediately. During a careening cab ride downtown toward his late-night rendezvous with Marcy, all of Paul’s money (a single $20 bill) ends up flying out the cab window, leaving him cashless (and apparently credit card-less), at the mercy of the various whimsical and inexplicable influences that will shape his rough journey down the rabbit/sewer hole as he tries to make it back to something like home. 

On the surface, After Hours feels like a lark, though a particularly joyless one which offer few tension-relieving laughs. It has, however, an enviable cast, headed by Griffin Dunne, who manages to carry the movie while barely displaying an impulse that isn’t either whiny or self-serving. Terrific character actors like Fiorentino, John Heard and Verna Bloom make their own impressions, but the movie is highlighted by a pair of not-exactly-lethal blondes who exact sweet, squirming revenge on Paul for his various trespasses.

Catherine O’Hara shows up late, and very happily, as an ice cream truck driver who heads up a mob which mistakenly pegs Paul as a serial thief. But it’s Teri Garr as a disgruntled bipolar waitress (“I have trouble figuring the taxes on checks! So what??!!”) who fixates on Paul and gives off the movie’s best comic buzz. Garr’s impeccable timing was largely taken for granted during the ‘70s and ‘80s, so her brief, fizzy appearance makes revisiting this movie worth the wait. (Stoner icons Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong also pop up as the real burglars, less organic to Soho’s Spring Street than they were making a similar cameo appearance on the Laurel Canyon Boulevard of Joni Mitchell’s 1972 Court and Spark album.)

If After Hours is on one level an expression of Scorsese’s sundry frustrations, then it must also be considered in the light of the derailed career of its screenwriter. According to Vanity Fair contributing editor Andrew Hearst it was hinted, in a 2000 profile of NPR monologist Joe Frank for Salon-- but never reported on in the industry trades during the production or after the release of the film-- that Joseph Minion, whose script for After Hours was presented to Scorsese by producers Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, plagiarized many of the details in the film’s first half hour from Frank’s 1982 monologue Lies. Frank apparently sued, and successfully. (Hearst briefly documented the history of the circumstances in 2008 on his personal blog.)

Minion went on to write the inventive screenplay for one of Nicolas Cage’s most notorious films, Vampire’s Kiss (1988), but he has worked only sporadically since then. Is it only coincidence that the character of Paul carries throughout the movie’s second half a very real sense of guilt resulting from the tragic fate of another character, or that there is also a competing theme of Paul’s assumed guilt and pursuit by a neighborhood vigilante group over burglaries which he did not commit? Now seen in the light of the movie’s possible meaning for both its primary creators, what once struck me as an unsettling scenario realized by a director who may have approached it as career filler now feels more personal than ever. As a coffee shop owner played by Dick Miller says when Paul and Marcy finally step out into the Soho night together, “Different rules apply when it gets this late. You know what I mean? It’s, like, after hours.”


After Hours plays the 2013 AFI Fest in Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 13, 11:00 p.m. at the Egyptian Theater as one of the featured selections of AFI Fest Guest Artistic Director Agnes Varda



Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I've never liked this movie, although it know one of the actors. I never quite knew why, but I think you summed it up with "joyless".

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I've always felt a little closed out by it too, B.D.S., which is why I think I was grateful to discover the anecdote about Minion-- it contextualized the movie in a way that made sense and made it more interesting to write about. My favorite Scorsese movies wouldn't include this one--they are Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York New York, Italian/American and The Last Temptation of Christ. I also look forward to seeing The King of Comedy again (I haven't in about 25 years) because I suspect it has aged rather well.

Jeff Gee said...

It seems like it must have been a kind of Street Smart situation, with Minion ransacking that monologue for a script that just wasn’t coming together. And instead of getting the B+ he’s hoping for, he gets an agent, he gets a deal, he gets a movie. Every step makes discovery more and more likely and the consequences of coming clean more and more awful. If the financing had fallen through, if this or that key player had pulled out, if the studio brass had been replaced at the right moment and the movie ended up in turnaround hell, would anyone have ever had any reason to wonder about the sources of one more unmade movie? Would he have 30 credits on his imdb page instead of half a dozen?