Tag Archives: Dustin Hoffman

Sphere (1998, Barry Levinson)

Sphere is not a justifiable use of eighty million dollars. I don’t think you could justify spending a dollar to rent a copy to watch, much less eighty million of them to make the thing.

The big problem is the script. Whatever Kurt Wimmer (ominously credited with “adaptation”), Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio did to adapt the Michael Crichton source novel does not a successful script make. It’s got ludicrous character development and bad pacing, and is artificially bewildering and exceptionally crappy to women, specifically Sharon Stone. But there’s so much to fix, so much to compensate for, director Levinson just gives up on even trying. Script’s a big problem but Levinson’s inability to crack any aspect of the project is the biggest. It’s not incompetently directed. It’s incompetently written, incompetently produced, but Levinson’s direction isn’t actually incompetent. It’s just vapid.

Vapid is the word for Levinson’s direction. He’s not interested in executing the film successfully, just executing it. At 134 minutes, it’s a bit of a chore to watch but I imagine it was even more of a chore to make with so little investment whatsoever. Amusingly lead Dustin Hoffman has a bit—apparently ad-libbed—where he explains to Samuel L. Jackson, before the government submarines them to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to meet space aliens, Hoffman bullshitted a report about how he, Jackson, Stone, and physics whiz kid Liev Schreiber should be the ones to first contact with any space aliens. He used the money to pay for the downpayment on his house, making one wonder what everyone involved with Sphere did with their paychecks before turning in their bullshit….

Okay, that one is a little unfair. Schreiber busts his ass to show-off in a bad part. There’s also these weird optics about competitiveness between Jackson and Schreiber and it’s inexplicable why Schreiber’s got it out for Jackson. Jackson doesn’t like Schreiber because he thinks he’s obnoxious, which is fine—though Schreiber gets intentionally less obnoxious in the second act and it backfires. Schreiber’s a lot better being annoying and doing exposition dumps than not being as annoying and giving them. Of course, the second act stuff isn’t his fault exactly because the film needs its eggheads—Jackson’s a mathematician, Schreiber’s physics, Hoffman’s a psychologist, Stone’s a biochemist-to do all sorts of things you’re not sure they’d know how to do… like setting explosives, repairing underwater habitats, on the fly code-cracking—Stone’s basically a medic, they all know how to get into their underwater suits and go for solo strolls. On and on. Sphere’s got a very limited cast—seven people in a habitat next to a giant spaceship, crash landed 300 years ago, but you’d need a support crew of a dozen to get everything done in the movie you need to get done considering they’re a bunch of narcissistic academics.

But back to the Schreiber vs. Jackson thing—it feels like there are some optics. Jackson’s the Black guy in what turns into a horror movie. He’s got a predicted part in the film.

See, once they go inside the spaceship they find all sorts of weird things, including a giant gold ball and they all become obsessed with it. Except Schreiber and Man in Black boss of the mission Peter Coyote. Oh, if only Peter Coyote were good in the movie. I really think a good performance in that part would at least keep Sphere somewhat buoyant.

Because Coyote, Jackson, and Schreiber have the film’s most important parts. Hoffman’s a terrible leading man. His part seems inflated and Stone’s decreased, which is concerning. Sphere feels very poorly assembled. Stu Linder’s cuts are fine, but the pace of the film, the focus of the narrative impulse? Not good. Whatever Levinson needed to crack with Sphere in terms of characters, plotting, scares, science fictions, musics, whatever… he doesn’t. He’s got no more idea what to do with Sphere at the end than he does at the beginning.

Except to crap on Stone whenever possible. See, she was once Hoffman’s patient and so they had an affair. But he forgot to mention he was married, so he was lying to her while treating her medically. When she felt bad after their breakup and took a bunch of pills, sounds like Hoffman had her sent to electro-shock. Like, he’s a criminal. He shouldn’t just lose his license, he should be charged with something. It’s messed up.

But it’s not the subplot—the subplot is Stone is a crazy woman and no one should trust her, something Coyote rails about, Jackson rails about, Hoffman has an arc about. A vague, vague, vague arc but he definitely goes from thinking he can trust Stone in the beginning to thinking she’s psychotic by the end. With Coyote and Jackson at multiple times counseling Hoffman not to trust Stone because she’s a crazy woman.

It’s really icky.

And even more unfortunate because Stone’s really not good.

She’s got a crap part—such a crap part, just guys violently gaslighting her scene after scene—the writing’s terrible, whatever… and there’s still just something Stone doesn’t bring. Jackson’s got his part down, problematic as some of his scenes get when they think he’s Brett after Ripley let him back into the ship; he’s still got it down. When something goes wrong with Jackson’s performance, it’s the script. Schreiber’s working. Coyote and Hoffman, to differing success, just aim low in every scene and always hit that effectiveness. The least effort possible. Hoffman’s just wrong for it. You wish he weren’t wrong for it because it’d be cool if he could do it, but he can’t do it. Not with how the film’s set up, not with the bad writing, not with Hoffman’s maximum level of effort for this project.

Queen Latifah gets fifth billing and is in what ends up being the film’s best looking visual sequence. Adam Greenberg’s photography is boring, but it’s not his fault. Levinson refuses to give Sphere a visual style, horror, wonder, drama—the second act showdowns between Stone and Hoffman, better written and directed, are Bergman-esque—but it’s not a cheap looking film (save the late nineties CGI) and so it occasionally looks quite good. Latifah’s effect scene’s the one where they spend the time. Shame it’s early on and the film never tries to top it.

Because Levinson’s not trying to ape Kubrick. Worse he doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he should. A bunch of failed homage would make Sphere at least a little fun, instead of frequently upsetting. It’s a drain to watch characters start dying off during the haunted house portion of the film and no one care about it. It’s actually impossible to have less empathy for another character than the characters in Sphere have for one another. Multiple times people get informed of someone dying and the reaction not even warranting a shrug. The biggest question the film raises is, “Is the writing right now bad or lazy and how could you tell the difference?”

Of course, if Sphere were an inevitable fail, it might be fun. But there’s no reason, with a better script, with better direction, with someone else in for Peter Coyote because Coyote’s not showy enough for the part, the film couldn’t be a success. But Levinson’s not the one to do it. It’s clearly the wrong kind of dumb idea for him to fix.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, based on an adaptation by Kurt Wimmer and the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Stu Linder; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Norman Reynolds; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; produced by Levinson, Crichton, and Andrew Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Norman), Sharon Stone (Beth), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry), Liev Schreiber (Ted), Queen Latifah (Fletcher), Marga Gómez (Edmunds), and Peter Coyote (Barnes).


This post is part of the Out To Sea Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

John and Mary (1969, Peter Yates)

Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow are John and Mary, respectively, and they’ve just woken up after spending the night together. They met at a singles bar. Is it going to be a one night stand or is it going to be something more?

Both come with some baggage, though of different varieties. Farrow’s last serious relationship was with a married politican (Michael Tolan); they spent a lot of their time hiding from his family. Hoffman, on the other hand, had a model ex-girlfriend (Sunny Griffin) who moved in with him and wasn’t a good cook. Seeing as Hoffman’s a neat freak and a control freak, it didn’t work out.

John Mortimer’s screenplay uses a handful of techniques to fill in the backstory. For a while, there’s narration from both Hoffman and Farrow–the film takes place over a day, with the narration mostly taking place in the morning–then there are flashbacks (featuring Tolan and Griffin) and daydreams. Director Yates plays with how the flashbacks and daydreams relate to the present action–he and Mortimer end up using them to generate confusion to cause suspense for the viewer, which is effective enough… only it’s a little cheap.

Despite excellent cinematography from Gayne Rescher and production design from John Robert Lloyd–most of the present action takes place in Hoffman’s apartment, with the flashbacks (and daydreams) expanding to New York City–Yates doesn’t have a tempo for any of it. Farrow’s more compelling than Hoffman, but not because of her writing or because of how Yates directs her; she’s sympathetic. From the start, Hoffman’s a jerk. And as the film peels back the onion, he gets jerkier as things progress.

Yates and Mortimer lean the film’s entire weight on the effectiveness of third act reveals, only all those reveals are with the time shift gimmicks. There aren’t any character development reveals. Sure, it’s only a day, but Hoffman and Farrow’s performances don’t gain anything from all the flashback exposition. That particular failing is more Mortimer’s fault than Yates’s, however.

Though if Yates had come up with better–read, any–integration of the film’s various moving parts, he’d probably have been able to compensate.

Instead, John and Mary gets by thanks to Farrow and Hoffman’s performances. She’s got a better character, turns in a better performance. He’s Dustin Hoffman, he’s got some inherent likability–even if the film does sledgehammer away at it, particularly in the first act. When he does get big moments in the script, no one really knows what to do with them. They’re all kind of trite; someone–Yates, Mortimer, or Hoffman–needs to have a handle on the character. None do. Yet Hoffman is still able to get through. He wouldn’t be able to without Farrow.

John and Mary’s not bad. It’s just not successful. Yates is way too blasé about the whole thing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; screenplay by John Mortimer, based on the novel by Mervyn Jones; director of photography, Gayne Rescher; edited by Frank P. Keller; music by Quincy Jones; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Ben Kadish; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (John), Mia Farrow (Mary), Michael Tolan (James), Sunny Griffin (Ruth), Stanley Beck (Ernest), and Tyne Daly (Hilary).


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Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)

Tootsie opens with Dustin Hoffman giving acting classes. He’s a failed New York actor–but a well-employed waiter–who must be giving these classes on spec. It seems like Hoffman being a beloved acting teacher might end up having something to do with the plot of Tootsie, which has Hoffman pretending to be a female actor in order to get a part, but it doesn’t. Save a throwaway scene where he’s helping love interest Jessica Lange work on her part.

The film, with its two (credited) screenwriters and two story concocters (though Larry Gelbart is both), is a narrative mess. Teri Garr, as Hoffman’s student and good friend, disappears somewhere in the second act, once Lange gets more to do. Bill Murray (in an uncredited, main supporting role) at least provides some continuity, which not even director Pollack (who also acts as Hoffman’s agent) gets to do. The conclusion of the movie is this swirl of contrivances, all forcefully introduced earlier in the picture, and no one who should be there for it has a scene. Tootsie just ignores the previous couple hours to get the coda to work.

And it does. Tootsie does, despite all the narrative problems and missed opportunities and dropped characters, come through for the finish. It helps having Owen Roizman’s photography, it helps being shot in New York City, it needs stars Hoffman and Lange. No matter what story problems, Tootsie never fails its actors. Even with it’s Pollack–Tootsie, the film, never fails Pollack, the actor, even if Pollack, the director, doesn’t quite have the film under control. Pollack’s got a great rant towards the end.

I’ll start from the bottom of the cast and work up just because I’m not really sure what I’m going to say about Hoffman yet.

George Gaynes is hilarious as this lech actor on the soap opera where Hoffman gets his job (as a woman). Gaynes just has to be a believable buffoon, but he does it with such ease, he calms Tootsie a bit. It never seems too extreme just because Gaynes’s so sturdy. He tempers it, along with Dabney Coleman. Coleman’s the jerk director of the soap. He’s also dating Lange. He also doesn’t have a big enough part in the story during the second half. Coleman’s still good though. He’s got the right energy–and right buffoonery–to keep it going.

Charles Durning is about the only actor who doesn’t get anything to do overall. He gets a lot to do in the story, he’s just poorly written. He’s Lange’s dad, who gets a crush on Hoffman when Hoffman’s “in character” as the female actor. It’s a sitcom foil, which wastes Durning; there’s also some continuity issues regarding Durning’s supportive dad when Lange’s character is initially introduced as an alcoholic because of being an orphan? Maybe I missed some exposition, but I was paying attention.

Murray’s good. He’s dry, he’s funny, he’s Hoffman’s conscience if Hoffman had a somewhat disinterested, bemused conscience. He’s present through most of the film, though, which is important. Most other characters just evaporate when the story doesn’t need them. Tootsie keeps Murray around even when it doesn’t.

Now, Teri Garr. She’s great. She also gets one good scene and it’s after the movie’s been ignoring her for an hour. It’s not a great part, either. She’s such a function in the script, she and Hoffman’s subplot literally kicks off just because his particular lie to her. Any other lie and it would’ve been fine. But her great scene is great. It’s a shame she’s not around more.

The same sort of goes for Jessica Lange, who shares the same space in the film as Garr, at least until Garr leaves. Then Lange gets to be around and sometimes she gets stuff to do, sometimes she just gets to sit around. Lange’s best acting moments are far superior to the script’s moments for her as an actor. Pollack works on directing Lange more than anyone else in the film.

Including Hoffman, who Pollack sort of lets do his own thing, to great success. Hoffman’s performance, as an example of comedy Method acting, is outstanding. There’s not much of a role past the MacGuffin–Pollack relies way too heavily on montages after a certain point, including a completely nonsensical one–but it’s an outstanding performance. The film positions Hoffman front and center, then transforms him into his new role–an actor playing this female actor–on screen. It’s awesome. It also is nowhere near enough to fix the script problems because Tootsie’s a fairly shallow movie overall.

And it shouldn’t be. There’s so much potential, not just for Hoffman, but for everyone in the cast. Lange, Garr, Murray, Coleman… okay, not Durning, but everyone else and a lot with them. And maybe even Durning if the film remembered Lange’s alcoholism subplot instead of forgetting it immediately.

Tootsie’s all right. It should be better, it could’ve been a lot worse. It’s well made, has a nice pace, has a nice Dave Grusin score–and a nice original song from Stephen Bishop–and some phenomenal acting. Hoffman and Lange are excellent and Garr ought to be. She just doesn’t have enough material. Because Tootsie’s a tad thin.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sydney Pollack; screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, based on a story by Don McGuire and Gelbart; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Pollack and Dick Richards; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey), Jessica Lange (Julie Nichols), Teri Garr (Sandy Lester), Bill Murray (Jeff Slater), Dabney Coleman (Ron Carlisle), Sydney Pollack (George Fields), George Gaynes (John Van Horn), Doris Belack (Rita Marshall), and Charles Durning (Les Nichols).


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Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)

Midnight Cowboy gets to be a character study, but doesn’t start as one, which is an interesting situation. About forty-five minutes into the film, which runs just shy of two hours, Midnight Cowboy chucks the narrative urgency. Maybe not chucks, maybe just shuts down, because it does take the film a while to lose that pressure. Until eventually leads Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are sitting around starving to death and the film’s not treating it as problem to be solved; it’s a feature of the characters’ lives. Midnight Cowboy is never a wish fulfillment picture–even when it’s not absent hope, it’s not hopeful–but it goes from being a bad dream to a nightmare without reflecting on the change. And the nightmare runs a lot differently.

The nightmare also starts when Dustin Hoffman becomes the costar who’s taking top billing. When the film initially introduces Hoffman, it doesn’t hint at where the narrative’s going; it also doesn’t forecast what to expect from the actors. Voight and Hoffman have got a lot of character development with almost no expository assistance. Midnight Cowboy is a film with two exceptional performances, both independently ambitious and both agreeably codependent. Director Schlesinger keeps it together–Hoffman and Voight squat in a hovel, their domestic normality utterly shocking and utterly not because the actors and Schlesinger have done such a good job conveying the physicality’s of their performances. It’s like a stage play, those scenes in the apartment, perfectly choreographed, even more perfectly edited by Hugh A. Robertson. It’s an acting ballet, with these two actors playing their previously established caricatures with immediate depth.

The bad dream part of the film, which has Voight arriving in New York City to hustle his cowboy-attired bod out to the wealthy ladies of the Big Apple. Voight has a troubled past, which Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt introduce through flashbacks, usually as dream sequences. Both sleeping and napping dream sequences. Basically, Voight’s always flashing back to something to explain why he’s reacting the way he’s reacting. There’s some narrative efficiency to it, I suppose, but they’re not incorporated well. Voight actually does the best with them, intentionally or not.

It all changes, soon after the nightmare begins, when Hoffman gets his own daydream. It’s a gently done sequence, both actors silent to the audience; excellent editing from Robertson on it. Midnight Cowboy never glamorizes–until this daydream sequence–and it’s mind-blowingly effective in establishing the new angle on the characters. Oddly, Hoffman entirely downplays having the daydream–which is the opposite of Voight–and hits some of the same effectiveness notes for that inverse approach.

In the second half of the film, once Hoffman shares the narrative focus, Midnight Cowboy works more as truncated vignettes. The main plot line is still Voight trying to make it as a hustler, but it’s narratively reduced. Instead, it’s Voight and Hoffman’s bonding over this idea, usually unspoken in every way. It’s a lot of amazing acting from both of them. Hoffman’s loud, Voight’s quiet.

There are some excellent supporting performances–Brenda Vaccaro in particular, John McGiver, Sylvia Miles.

Fine photography from Adam Holender. Midnight Cowboy’s about the editing and Holender keeps up with where Schlesinger needs the camera to be for the cut. Schlesinger just seems impatient until Hoffman gets into the picture full-time. He rushes the first part of the film, then drags it down with the acceptable and pragmatic but way too obvious flashback sequences.

And it all kind of falls apart when Vaccaro’s vignette is over. It’s like the film’s running late, so Schlesinger is rushing again only now he’s got two actors instead of one to hurry along. But the film’s still quite good and the lead performances are phenomenal.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Schlesinger; screenplay by Waldo Salt, based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Hugh A. Robertson; music by John Barry; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Jerome Hellman; released by United Artists.

Starring Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Dustin Hoffman (Enrico Salvatore Rizzo), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver (Mr. O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (Shirley) and Barnard Hughes (Towny).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE YOU GOTTA HAVE FRIENDS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI


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