By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Overworked choreographer battles exhaustion.
Joe (Roy Scheider) is a dance choreographer who’s busy staging his next play while also editing a film he has directed, which the Hollywood studio is demanding get completed. These pressures cause him to take his anger out on his dancers as well as his ex-wife (Leland Palmer), who’s helping to finance the play, as well as his live-in girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking). As the deadline for both approaches he begins seeing visions of the angel of death (Jessica Lange) whom he has a running conversation with. Eventually he starts to have chest pains, which cause him to be sent to the hospital even as he continues to drink and smoke over his Dr.’s objections. When he finally does have a heart attack he’s whisked into surgery where he directs extravagant musical numbers inside his head while the producers of the play hope for his demise as their insurance proceeds will not only help them avoid a financial loss, but even make a net profit.
The film is based in large part on writer/director Bob Fosse’s own experiences. He started out as a dancer who eventually became a choreographer who shot to fame in the 50’s with such musicals as The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. By the 70’s he had become an award winning film director and it was while he was staging the Broadway musical Chicago in 1975 and also completing the editing for the film Lenny that much of what happened here got played-out. The biggest irony though is that Cliff Gorman, who starred onstage as the comedian Lenny Bruce of which the film and play Lenny is based, plays the star of the fictional film that Joe is editing even though in real-life Gorman lost out on the starring film role to Dustin Hoffman simply because Hoffman had a more bankable name, which is a shame because from the clips seen here you can easily tell that Gorman was an edgier Lenny that would’ve made that movie stronger.
As for this movie it’s directed in similar style as Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2. The art direction and editing, which both won an Oscar, come fast and furiously as it constantly jumps back-and-forth from reality to dream-like sequences. While this type of non-linear narration could prove distracting and confusing in most other films here it actually helps. The script does a good job of revealing the stressful and competitive nature of the dance business, but it doesn’t show us anything that couldn’t have been presumed already making these scenes less impactful and the dance numbers, some of which are provocative, more entertaining.
Some complained that Scheider, who by this time was better known as an action star, was miscast, though I came away impressed even with his pale complexion and thin frame (he lost weight to help replicate a sickly/exhausted appearance) that became a bit difficult to watch. It’s the character that he plays that I found to be the biggest issue as the guy is a complete jerk sans the few scenes that he has with his daughter, played by Erzsebet Foldi, who is the one person he treats nicely and I wanted to see more moments between them. The dance number that she and his girlfriend put on for him inside his apartment is the film’s brightest moment while the reoccurring segue of Joe getting up each morning and putting visine into his blood shot eyes before looking into a mirror and saying “It’s showtime, folks!” become redundant and annoying.
On the technical end it’s near brilliant, but as an emotionally impactful character study it’s a total flop. The protagonist is too selfish for anyone to care about and shows too little redeeming qualities, nor much of an arc, to make it worthwhile. Ultimately it’s an exercise in extreme self-loathing that will leave the viewer as detached from the proceedings as the characters who are in it.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: December 16, 1979
Runtime: 2 Hours 3 Minutes
Director: Bob Fosse
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection)