After Hours - Martin Scorsese Film Movie Review

After Hours

(USA - 1985)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Verna Blume, Linda Fiorentino, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Teri Garr, John Heard, Catherine O'Hara, Dick Miller, Will Patton, Victor Argo
Genre: Drama
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Joseph Minion
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Composer: Howard Shore
Runtime: 96 minutes

"I just wanted to leave, you know, my apartment, maybe meet a nice girl, and now I've got to die for it, you know?" - Paul Hackett

After Hours is the best black comedy I've seen. This may be a surprising statement considering it's one of Martin Scorsese's least known films, and Scorsese is a director known for his hard hitting dramas and crime pictures who has only ventured into comedy twice (The King of Comedy) in his brilliant career. Of course, with films like New York New York, The Last Waltz, & The King of Comedy, Scorsese had already proved that he could excel in whatever genre he chose to enter. One of the main reasons After Hours stands above the rest of the black comedies is that Scorsese doesn't confine himself to the limits of the genre. The movie is funny as hell no matter how many times you've seen it, but also it is hell. Countless movies have been made where one thing after another goes wrong for the poor protagonist, but this is the only one I can recall that has the intensity and feel of a nightmare.

The film, which benefits considerably by David Cronenberg favorite Howard Shore's unsettling score, may be the edgiest and tensest comedy ever made. It is a masterpiece of atmosphere and pacing, starting off innocently, but slowly, insidiously, and believably enough draining the audience. Although it's different for everyone who enjoys this picture, there comes a point in the film where you will not only be breathless and exhausted from laughing yourself out, but also from the insanity inducing plight of the main character.

The picture, which owes a debt to Orson Welles surrealist nightmare comedy The Trial, brings to life the wildest night in the life of Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne). Paul works on Wall Street, but he is merely a word processor. He's an average Joe who has no real interest in his job, and is in need of a change because he can't pay attention to anything or amuse himself in any way.

After work, Paul meets an attractive woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a diner when she lets him know that she's a big fan of the book he's reading, Tropic of Cancer, which turns out to be one of the few books Paul liked enough to read again. Although we get the idea that Marcy is at least a bit odd, she seems to be nice enough and at least a viable candidate for a one night stand. Marcy likes Paul, and gives him the number of her artist friend Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), who she'll be visiting tonight, because she thinks Kiki would like to sell him one of her Plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweights.

After Paul returns to the boredom of his home, he decides he needs some action and calls Kiki's house. He seems uncertain whether he wants to buy the stupid paperweight or date Marcy, probably because he wants to buy the paperweight as an excuse to go over there and have sex with Marcy. In any case, Kiki is too cool to be bothered selling some jabronie a paperweight in the middle of the night. Instead, she facilitates a meeting between him and Marcy at her place. Marcy is down in the dumps due to more boyfriend trouble, and Paul is probably supposed to comfort Marcy since Kiki would rather go out and isn't the type anyway.

Paul's crazy night starts out with one of most technically brilliant scenes in the film where the taxi driver (Larry Block) speeds insanely down the streets, weaving his way through the cars, even though Paul has expressly stated that he's in no particular hurry to get to Kiki's place in the SoHo district. The uneasiness of the way the scene is shot is such that your head begins to throb. The comedy is that Paul, who is sliding around the back seat like he's in a centrifuge, puts his only $20 in the ash tray only to have it fly out the window before he can catch it because the cab is going so fast. As is the case with most scenes in the film, it is exaggerated, but that is what makes it fun. The film is a caricature of New York City nightlife. It's also incredibly ironic. These two aspects work so well together because Scorsese understands not only the state of mind of the city he's so familiar with, but also of the outsider trapped in this parallel world. It's funny for us because we can enjoy all the shots taken at the crazy city life, but we must also withstand all the paranoid based, misguided, and sometimes deserved misfortune of the alien who can't enjoy it because he has to live it.

One thing that makes the film so good is it's not simply one disaster after another. Paul's early missteps - not being able to pay the cab driver and Marcy catching him next to her slumbering bra clad roommate - are seemingly forgiven. It's not until he decides that Marcy is too strange and creepy for him that things begin to go downhill.

One point that becomes very obvious is how hard it is for adults to form lasting relationships. So many people seem like they could be cool when you first meet them because you find out things that you have in common with them. Unfortunately, the more you get to know them, the more you find out how many things you differ on, and these are the ones that stand out. Also, by this point everyone has a long and storied history that tends to not be too appealing. In the case of Marcy, she has been raped by a "boyfriend" and has some mysterious burns that seem to have Paul picturing Mel Gibson's charred friend in The Road Warrior. She also married a Wizard of Oz freak, but their marriage fell apart immediately because she was creeped out by his inability to not yell "Surrender Dorothy!" every time he came.

The film begins to resemble a demented Wizard of Oz after Paul starts tripping on Marcy's bad "Colombian" joint that isn't even pot and, in his first outburst, coldly ends their relationship.

Paul: Where are those Plaster of Paris paperweights, anyway? I mean, that's what I came down here to see in the first place. Well, that's not entirely true, I came to see you, but where are the paperweights? That's what I wanna see now!
Marcy: What's the matter?
Paul: I said I wanna see a Plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweight, now cough it up!
Marcy: Right now?
Paul Yes, right now!
Marcy: They're in Kiki's bedroom.
Paul: Then get 'em, cause as we sit here chatting, there are important papers flying rampant around my apartment cause I don't have ANYTHING to hold them down with.

The night should end with Paul weathering the sudden rain storm and returning to his Kansas via the subway, but as luck would have it the fair went up to $1.50 at midnight and he only has a should be adequate 97 cents. From here Paul is forced to rely on the good will and charity of the people he comes across, largely eccentric women who are attracted to him but turn out to be witches in all but the literal sense, to help him get home.

To keep with the ironic tone, it's a quiet night at the normally hopping bar and the entire region seems to be a scantly populated labyrinth of mysteries that are better left undiscovered. Tom the Bartender (John Heard) is willing to give Paul the subway fare, but he can't get his register open. Tom is ready to give Paul the keys to his apartment so he can bring him the key for the register, but he has to think twice about it because there has been a rash of robberies in the complex, including four tonight. Paul thinks the errand for the fare is a fair tradeoff, and is able to convince Tom by leaving his keys with him at the restaurant.

Paul, of course, doesn't steal anything (although he does damage the place by taking off when the toilet is overflowing), but a few paranoid and incensed tenants are all but ready to believe he did because he's a stranger. Tom is also ready to believe it because Paul gets sidetracked on his odyssey, getting convinced by Kiki and her intimidating masochist friend Horst (Will Patton) to apologize to their depressed friend Marcy. It turns out that it's too late for that though. Before you know it, both Paul & Tom have found out that Marcy has committed suicide, and both believe it's their fault because they made her feel bad that night. Tom doesn't know that Paul could be responsible for his girlfriend's death, but having to keep this secret only increases the stress on Paul. An especially difficult moment occurs when Paul would like to comfort his new friend, but for reasons different than John assumes, can only admit he doesn't know what to say. John responds, "What can you say? It's not your fault."

Usually the best comedies have great individual scenes, but don't add up to anything as a whole. One of the strengths of After Hours narrative is the way all the characters and scenes are so carefully linked. Again, it makes New York seem like a small town rather than a big nameless city, but the significance is the way it alienates the outsider. The best example is the scene where Paul tries to stop Pepe (Tommy Chong) & Neil (Cheech Marin) from stealing Kiki's television and Plaster of Paris sculpture. We already know that Pepe & Neil are the crooks, so it seems like Paul has done a good deed by running them off and returning the sculpture to Kiki (the TV screen shattered when they dropped it to take off). The brilliance of the scene comes when Paul calls for Kiki to throw him down the keys like she did earlier and she has to do it with her teeth because she's gagged and bound. We think the bumbling thieves had to go to extremes, but as it turns out, the only things Kiki's friends Pepe & Neil bought all night were those two and Kiki is simply into bondage.

The funniest scene in the movie is Cheech & Chong's discussion on the value of art. Neil thinks he's getting the sculpture he bought from Kiki back, which he should know she made Kiki, but really it's Paul trapped underneath a hurried Plaster of Paris by non-artist June.

Pepe: Hey man, is it worth taking this thing?
Neil: What are you crazy, man? THIS is art!
Pepe: Art sure is ugly, man.
Neil: That's how much you know, man. You know, the uglier the art the more it's worth.
Pepe: This must be worth a fortune, man.
Neil: That's right. It's by that famous guy Segal.
Pepe: Yeah
Neil: Yeah, you see him? He's on the Carson show, man. Plays banjo all the time.
Pepe: I never watch Carson.
Neil: Well that's how much you know about art.
Pepe: I don't know, man. I'll take a stereo any day.
Neil: What do you know, man? A stereo's a stereo. Art is forever.

As the film progresses and Paul becomes increasingly desperate, Paul's standards in women drop considerably. Rosanna Arquette & Linda Fiorentino were young at this point and are still quite sexy, but from there the women get increasingly older and less desirable. Teri Garr plays the hopelessly dated Julie a.k.a. "Miss Beehive 1965," a waitress caught in a time warp who finally quits her job at Tom's bar that night seemingly because she's tired of getting yelled at for screwing up the bills (later she tells Paul "my (phone) number is 54433, very easy to remember"). When she starts playing The Monkeys I can't help thinking of the Married With Children episode where Marcy D'Arcy tells Anthrax that she used to chase The Monkeys like everyone else, and the band replies "I bet they ran like hell…" Anyway, Beehive 1965 traps Paul into saying he likes her hairdo then asks "then why don't you touch it?" Right before Tom finds out that Marcy committed suicide, he convinces Paul to desert Julie by saying "What's she gonna do, kill herself?"

Catherine O'Hara plays Gail, a disturbed ice cream vender who believes describing all the "exciting" details of her job and robotic reciting of numbers when Paul is trying to get the phone number of someone who can get him out of his jam is entertaining. She brings him home to mend the cut she gave him by opening a taxi door into his arm and winds up trying to mend his plaster infected arm by burning it.

Verna Bloom plays June, the perpetually shunned reject in the back corner of the nightclub. Paul's night is so bad that he practically begs her to pay attention to him. She saves Paul from the angry mob led by Gail that believes he's the one that's been robbing the apartments by covering him in Plaster of Paris. Unfortunately, she doesn't want to let seemingly the only person that's been nice to her in years go, so she puts a piece of plaster over his mouth to shut him up and continues to statify him after the mob has taken off.

Most people who don't like After Hours complain that Paul is unlikable. While it's true that Paul is a self-centered little liar who tends to "get out of" situations by hurting people's feelings, you have to consider that he's cracking up from the unrelenting pressure and all encompassing paranoia the city is putting on him. He acts more irrationally and has more furiously explosive outbursts as the film progresses and his plight and desperation increases to the latest boiling point. Paul is a pretty simple guy, and like most of us one that's ill equipped to deal with an angry mob that plans to tear him limb from limb and pummel his face beyond recognition for something he didn't even do. Even if you don't like him, it's hard to root against him when all he wants to do is get out of the foreign land and get back to the familiarity of his home where he can enjoy some level of comfort and rest.

Paul's night is going so bad that the only thing he can think to say when he witnesses a murder while hiding from Gail and the ice cream truck mob is "I'll probably get blamed for that." Scorsese, always interested in religion and man's search for redemption, eventually has a birds eye view scene of an exhausted Paul kneel down in the middle of a street and raise his arms to the heavens asking god "What do you want from me? What have I done? I'm just a word processor for Christ's sake!" Paul gets down on his hands searching for an answer, and when he looks up he sees a man at a distance walking in his direction.

Paul thinks god has sent him an angel, but it turns out to be a male prostitute (Robert Plunkett) who is quite apprehensive about his first trick with a member of the same sex. When the police hang up on Paul because his story sounds so ridiculous he asks the street pickup if he can crash at his house for a few hours. The pickup is nice enough that he's probably let him, but he'd like to make some money on someone else so he uninterestingly asks Paul "why don't you just go home?" Paul responds, "Pal, I've been asking myself that all night long" and winds up not getting any sleep because he proceeds to tell the street pickup the entire blow for blow. This is a really basic scene with simple audio and video dissolves to condense the scenes of Dunne pacing around quicker and quicker, getting louder and more insanely animated as he acts out his nightmarish night. In addition, there are straight cuts to the bored pickup trying to act semi-interested as he raises his eyes as if to say "yeah right" or "sure, pal." As with all Scorsese movies the techniques and soundtrack are excellent, but one of the things that makes him a great filmmaker is he knows when to keep it simple. This is the best scene in the movie because it captures the alienation, insanity, and implausibility that sums up the entire tale he's telling.

This film is by far Dunne's best performance - good enough that you won't be disappointed that the string of Scorsese & Robert De Niro collaborations temporarily ended here - but in particular this description of his night scene is probably the best acting Dunne has done. He's constantly verging on his breaking point, but you can't tell if he's going to babble on until collapse, jump out the window, attack the pickup who is about the worst possible audience for Paul in this time of crisis, or what. Countless actions would be justifiable, but unlike overrated mediocrity such as Fatal Attraction that starts off promising but then has a ridiculously forced by the numbers conclusion that sinks below Friday The 13th level because it's easier to do something implausible and ridiculous than write the intelligent conclusion the movie deserved, Scorsese never dumbs his movies down.

In spite everything written in defense of Paul's actions, Scorsese's biggest accomplishment here actually plays into the fact that sometimes you don't like Paul. After Hours is a rare film that evokes several emotions at once. I didn't like the way Paul was acting at times, but I understood what was driving him to this behavior and would probably be just as selfish if so many bad things were happening to me. Other times I did like the way Paul was acting, but I enjoyed his misfortune anyway. At the same time though, it was nerve wrecking. There just isn't a sense of good character and bad character here.

You can sympathize with each of the characters because they are drawn so sharply, cast so perfectly, and acted so well. I don't think Scorsese cares if you know how to take things at every moment: I think he wants to create a sense of confusion and uneasiness. That said, in their own odd way, everyone acts fairly rationally and justifiably based on who they are and the present situation. Most of them don't have large roles, but in most cases they immediately intrigue us. In almost every case, we feel like we've gotten to know them by the time they are done, which is something lost on current filmmakers and one of the reasons why this film comes off as believable enough rather than absurd and outrageous. Not only have we met them, we've also been entertained by their odd and funny lines and overall bizarreness.

If this film doesn't sound all that funny, it's partly because I'm unable to translate the genius of Scorsese onto paper. At times he's made a classic farce, but as a whole the brilliance of the picture is that he made a situation that doesn't read that funny into one that's not only funny for most of it's 96 minutes, but also constantly gripping, riveting, and entertaining. More than a decade and a half later, the dizzying nightmare still bombards you with the same power and relevance it did when it was released.


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Gift Set DVD


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