Sunday, February 19, 2017

Heaven Can Wait (and some Oscar picks)

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I decided on a change of pace by discussing a film that makes me feel good whenever I view it. This 1978 movie, co-written, along with Elaine May, co-directed, along with Buck Henry, produced and starring Warren Beatty (for which he received Oscar nominations in all of the above categories), is a delightful romantic comedy. But, it also has its sad moments, which it balances very well with the humor, a difficult task to accomplish. Add to this cinematic recipe a dash of satire regarding the American capitalist system, and you have the ingredients for a successful motion picture.
The film begins with the main character, Joe Pendleton (Beatty) running. He runs all through this story, whether outside or later inside in the Leo Farnsworth mansion. In addition to running, he rides a bicycle. He is a professional quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams, so being an athlete, one would expect him to exercise. But the movie implies that Joe just wants to move forward, to get to a goal that he was born to reach. Of course, his running inside the big house also adds comedy to the scenes.

Joe has done a remarkable job of repairing an injured knee without surgery. As trainer Max Corkle (Jack Warden, Oscar-nominated) tells the Head Coach, played by Dolph Sweet, Joe isn’t taking any medications whatsoever. In practice, Joe successfully completes many passes, prompting the Head Coach and Max to say, “He’s looking awfully good.” And that about sums up Joe – besides being a handsome fellow, he is just a good guy, as the rest of the film shows us. The Head Coach decides to make Joe the starting quarterback for the next game, replacing aside the usual starter, Tom Jarrett. Before Joe hears the good news, a reporter asks Joe, after his practice, what he thinks of the Rams’ chances this season. He says that they will go to the Super Bowl and will win. When the reporter then says what does he really think, off the record, Joe repeats the same thing. Joe is a honest person – he doesn’t have separate answers for the same question, because for him, the truth is constant. The reporter then asks him what does he think of his competition, Jarrett. Joe says that the quarterback is not his competition, he’s the starting quarterback for his team. Joe is a team player, who unselfishly wants to help all of his fellow teammates win, not just himself.

However, that doesn’t mean he has no personal aspirations. He tells Max that he doesn’t know if he’ll have a chance to see if all of his hard work (even on his birthday Joe is studying films of his football opponents) will pay off, an ironic statement given his imminent demise. Max is his close friend, to whom Joe administers neck realignments for his aching spinal problem. Max remembers Joe’s birthday, goes to his house with a cake, and tells him, ironically, that he hopes he has many more birthdays, not realizing that this is the quarterback’s last day on earth as Joe Pendleton. This scene is one of many where the sadness sits well along with the comic, as we witness Joe’s extreme health food obsession which includes drinking liver and whey shakes, and we hear Joe badly playing his soprano saxophone, as he does several times in the movie. The film’s soundtrack, with its jaunty (music to jog by?), well-played saxophone, adds a feel-good comic touch and contrasts with the sadness of Joe’s death and the feelings of loss by other characters. But, its well-played music, just like a well-played game, also symbolizes what Joe can accomplish if given time.
After Max gives Joe the good news about him being the starting quarterback the following Sunday, Joe, of course, goes out running, and then biking. But, we see a truck veer into an oncoming lane of the road on which Joe is traveling, and there is an unseen accident in a short tunnel. It is important that we don’t see the accident, only hear it, because it allows some suspense until we find out what happened. Joe is now walking with his saxophone in the clouds with an escort from the afterlife (Buck Henry). There are others there in line ready to board a plane to go to their ultimate destination. Joe thinks it’s just a dream, and, of course, runs around and does push-ups, his body comically appearing out of the cloud formation with each upward thrust of his arms. Because he refuses to board, a higher up on the celestial pecking order Mr. Jordan (James Mason) appears to handle things. He convinces Joe that he is not dreaming, and Joe realizes he is dead. However, he is adamant that he shouldn’t be there. Mr. Jordan gets a readout on Joe’s time of arrival and it is years in the future. The escort is new to the job, and took his assigned person “out” just before the accident to save unnecessary suffering. Mr. Jordan lectures the escort that they operate on probability and outcome, and each outcome is different. So, an escort cannot remove the probable victim’s soul before the outcome. As Joe later tells Max, the escort didn’t take into account that Joe was an athlete, and his sharpened reflexes would allow him to dodge the truck. Mr. Jordan says Joe must be put back into his own body. Joe says, “anybody can make a mistake.” Here the comical thrust is that even heaven has its bureaucratic glitches.

Unfortunately, when the escort and Joe return to earth and attend Joe’s gravesite burial ceremony, they discover his body was cremated. Max can’t see Joe, and says that he hopes that if there is football in heaven, God will make his dead friend first string. Mr. Jordan takes over and tries to find a substitute body for Joe, and the audience sees a few comic possibilities, including a German speaking race car driver. Joe’s persistence to achieve what he considers his destiny predominates, as he wants an athlete so he can still play football. Mr. Jordan takes him to the house of mega rich businessman, Leo Farnsworth, who is sedated and about to drown in his own bathtub after his wife, Julia (Dyan Cannon, Oscar-nominated) conspired with her lover, Leo’s personal secretary, Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin) to kill Leo. True to his nature, Joe runs through the house, despite no one seeing or hearing him, looking for help for the victim, even though the man’s body will allow him to be human again, because he cares about other people. 

What makes Joe accept the use of Farnsworth’s body is a woman, Betty Logan (Julie Christie). She has been sending letters and trying to meet Farnsworth. She is from a small English town that will be displaced when Farnsworth’s company builds a refinery there. She meets with Abbott, and says besides callously altering the town’s inhabitants’ lives, the rich man’s company produces toxins that harm the environment. Joe is immediately smitten with Betty, and wants to help her, Mr. Jordan says Joe can help her if he becomes Farnsworth, which Joe agrees to do, but only if it is a temporary arrangement. After he becomes Farnsworth, he tells Mr. Jordan that he still looks and sounds like himself. The “angel” says that inwardly, Joe is the same. So, no matter what we may look like, as we alter our appearance, or grow old, the thrust here is that our essence stays the same, our inner being. From a practical standpoint, this plot element allows Beatty to still portray the main character.

When Joe meets with Betty, she hits him with an onslaught of outrage, and he, in an attempt to quiet her, tries to tell her the truth.  At this point, a funny moment occurs when Joe attempts to calm her by saying she shouldn’t be afraid of who he is because he doesn’t frighten anyone. This statement is immediately followed by his wife entering the room, seeing her supposedly dead husband alive, and screaming. Betty, of course dismisses Joe’s statement that he is not Farnsworth, and thinks he is just playing a demeaning game. She vows to continue her protests. Joe tells Abbott to make sure the company isn’t hurting anyone. Joe is sincere, but his secretary, coming from a corrupt mindset, assumes they are being bugged, and Farnsworth is just putting on a show of honesty. Joe also questions the dishonesty of leaking the rumor of a merger to manipulate an increase in stock prices, which Abbott takes as standard operating procedure.

We then get a humorous attack on the excesses of the super-rich. The Farnsworth house and grounds are extremely oversized. A small canon is discharged when the flag is raised and lowered, depicting an act of usurped importance. Farnsworth wore polo outfits, including a helmet, and various dress military uniforms with epaulets and medals. Joe and Julia, dressed like she is going to visit a head of state, eat at a stretch dinner table. There are servants everywhere, who are conditioned to indulge the wealthy in their normalcy-challenging ways. So, when Joe seems to be talking to no one when the escort and Mr. Jordan show up, they prepare hot cocoa for the unseen guests. Joe is out of place and appears awkward when the servants keep handing him hats representing various pursuits. He asks if he (Farnsworth) plays polo or sails, and the response is, “not really.” At first, he tries to play the part, but the rich man’s phoniness goes against his straightforward honest nature. That is why he says he doesn’t want to see any more hats. He also is not dismissive of the help, and always thanks the servants for preparing his meals. 
Joe prepares for a corporate board meeting, hoping to help Betty. At the event, he invites reporters, and Betty, into the board conference room, to the alarm of the members, because, unlike transparent Joe, they wish to hide the activities of the company that puts profit before social responsibility. He is taken aback that an intelligent creature, such as a porpoise, is killed in the processing of tuna. He points out that there are a number of lawsuits and protests against the company. Joe gives a speech that on the surface seems comical, but which is a blueprint for the way large businesses should be run. And, he appropriately, delivers it using football as a metaphor. He asks if they are having a winning season, and is told that they have had a profitable year. So, if you are ahead, he says, you don’t make mistakes, such as building plants that are harming the environment. He says you protect your players, i. e., society. He says we’re not in it for one game, but for the whole season. In essence, he is urging action that doesn’t shortchange the future for immediate wealth. He says that they shouldn’t be making products that harm the environment, and to Betty’s joy, urges the relocation of the refinery. He says what if these actions cost more. They’ll charge a little more for their considerate behavior. Referring to the porpoise problem he tells them, “If it costs too much, we charge a penny more. Would you pay a penny to save a fish that thinks?” He says, “Let’s be the team that plays by the rules.” So, he and Betty have in common the belief that one should care about the community of people as a whole, the notion that it takes a village, or a team, working together for the individuals belonging to that larger group to prosper.

Joe asks Betty, who says what he said at the meeting was wonderful, to have dinner, and they go out to eat at a hamburger drive-in joint. He says he took her there because Joe thought she wouldn’t want to be seen with a big shot corporate jerk in a more public setting. The place fits his down-to-earth style. She has become enamored of him, saying even when she was yelling at him, she saw something likable in his eyes. What she saw was Joe’s inner goodness, which could not be disguised. They can’t stop looking at each other, and Joe assures Betty that he is getting a divorce.

The escort shows up and says they have found an athlete for Joe. But, he has fallen in love, and now doesn’t want to give up Farnsworth’s body, since he wishes to continue to build on the relationship he has established with Betty as the businessman. He decides to get the body in shape so he can still pursue his athletic dream. He acquires athletic equipment and has Max show up, hoping to convince him to help Joe. (Max’s inability to just light his cigar because Farnsworth’s lighter is a too complicated device for a simple task, emphasizes the rich man’s excess). When he can’t persuade Max to do it for money, Mr. Jordan shows up and tells Joe that he can tell Max the truth, and will be believed. Joe tells the trainer things about his life only a close friend would know. He realigns his neck the way Joe did. He recalls Max’s words at the grave by saying that there was no football in heaven, so God couldn’t make him first string. The convincer is playing the saxophone just the way Max’s quarterback pal did. Joe was talking to Mr. Jordan, invisible, of course, to Max, but then the supernatural helper disappears. Max starts talking to the spot where he thinks Mr. Jordan is standing. After going out for a liver and whey shake for Max, Joe comes back in, sees the trainer talking to no one, and delivers the funny line to Max, “Don’t go crazy on me,” after he appeared earlier to Max to be out of his mind.
Joe starts to practice with the hired help on Farnsworth’s grounds. This activity implies that Joe wants them all to be on the same playing, thus eliminating the social divide between the privileged and the working classes. The only way, however, for Joe to get a tryout with Rams is to buy the team. In the context of the story, we find this acquisition acceptable, but it indicates that those with a great deal of money can get what they want, as opposed to the less financially endowed. Once the rams’ football players allow Joe to get a pass off, he excels. The Head Coach now repeats what he said about Joe, when he was in his own body, when he says, “He’s looking good,” showing that, in a way, you can’t keep a good man down.

Joe invites ecology groups to the estate, which shows how productive the rich can be when they use their influence to provide meaningful change. Betty is also at this gathering, and the two wander off together, which leads to a foreshadowing image, as they talk near a well. She sees that he is worried, which is due to his concern that he will not be able to stay as Farnsworth. He says to her, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” and tells Betty what she saw in his eyes she would recognize in another, whoever that person might be, even a quarterback. Later, Joe tells Mr. Jordan that he won’t leave Farnsworth’s body, but Jordan tells him that he must abide by what is written. He assures Joe that there is always a plan, a reason for everything, and, as it turns out, God does, in this film, work in mysterious ways.

At that same water well, Abbott shoots and kills Joe’s Farnsworth, comically because the gun goes off at the same time as does one of the silly daily cannon shots, but also sadly, because Joe is temporarily, again, without a body. Because Farnsworth is missing, having fallen down the well, Max goes to the police because Joe told him about Abbott and his wife plotting to kill Farnsworth. Betty also goes to the police when Farnsworth is nowhere to be found, since he proposed to her, and she knows he would not have gone away. The policeman Krim (Vincent Gardenia) brings Max with him for an interrogation of Julia and Abbott. While the Super Bowl plays on the TV, Krim unleashes Max on the suspected couple. Since the trainer knows so much about their plot to kill Farnsworth, they crack, trying to blame each other for murder. At the same time, the Rams’ quarterback, Jarrett (the athlete the escort was talking about, but did not name), sustains a head injury. It is important that we never see the real Jarrett, because the audience might identify with him, and feel sorry for his loss. He is supposed to die, as Mr. Jordan reassures Joe, saying that it was his time to expire. Joe steps in as Jarrett, and wins the Super Bowl for the Rams.
It seems that there will be an unmitigated happy ending, but that is not the case. Max knows that it is Joe who stepped in, which Joe confirms in the winning locker room. But, Mr. Jordan appears to Joe and tells him when he leaves, Joe will not remember anything about him, or what happened to Joe Pendleton. He will live his life out as Tom Jarrett, because, as it turns out, that is his destiny. When Max sees him again, Joe questions why the trainer is calling him Joe, as he does not recall anything about what had happened. We feel sad for poor Max, who, in a way, has lost his friend Joe for the second time. When Jarrett leaves to go to a celebration party, he runs into Betty who is looking for Max. He asks if they had ever met. The lights go out because they are shutting the stadium down, and in the darkness he repeats Joe’s words, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” When they are outside (significantly on the playing field, where these two team players should be) she says that his voice sounded very familiar. He then admits that he really doesn’t want to go the party, and asks if she would like to go for some coffee. She looks in his eyes, and is able to see what she saw in Joe, his inner goodness. She then recalls Joe’s words, and says, “You’re the quarterback,” and says yes, she would love to have some coffee with him.
So, this movie says, the real essence of an individual does not die, and when it comes to achieving one’s dream, and experiencing true love, heaven can, indeed, wait.

The next film is LA Confidential.

Okay, here are a few Oscar picks for next Sunday:

Best Actor: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress: Emma Stone for La La Land

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight

Best supporting Actress: Viola Davis for Fences

Best Director: Damien Chazelle for La La Land

Best Movie: La La Land

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