Thursday, September 23, 2004

Operation Travolta: Michael Keaton

Look fast in the ads for the Katie Holmes comedy FIRST DAUGHTER and you’ll see Michael Keaton as the President of the United States. From the gonzo heights of BEETLE JUICE to playing the dad (albeit the First Dad) in a teen comedy. Keaton deserves better. So I’m issuing a challenge to filmmakers: give the actor a role worthy of his talents, the way Quentin Tarantino revived John Travolta’s career. (Hence the name of this occasional feature.)

Keaton has a special flair for conveying all-American guy-ness. Genial and decent, with a wariness underneath. He has a uniquely hyper way of moving, like a one-time athlete who still hasn’t figured out what to do with his excess energy. It’s a live-wire quality that charges the screen.

It’s obvious that the man has great comic chops, which come through even in sitcom-style fare like MR. MOM. (Here’s where I confess my affection for the 1984 gangster parody JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY. I even like Joe Piscopo in it, for God’s sake.) Ron Howard made good use of Keaton in NIGHT SHIFT, GUNG HO and the underrated THE PAPER. But it’s really in his collaboration with Tim Burton that the actor bloomed. His fearless performance in BEETLE JUICE is as potent today as it was in 1988. And he remains the only actor to have brought anything to the role of Batman, which as the screenwriter William Goldman points out is “and always has been a horrible part.”

1988 was also the year of Keaton’s greatest dramatic triumph, playing a drug addict in CLEAN AND SOBER. There’s a scene in that film – he calls his elderly parents and tells them he’s doing great while trying to persuade them to mortgage their house so he can have the money – that captures the essence of the addict’s psychology better than any other. The whole movie is Keaton’s show.

The ‘90s weren’t so good to him. But neither were his films. (SPEECHLESS? MULTIPLICITY? Did anybody like those movies?) There were hints of a comeback when Keaton played Elmore Leonard’s cocky DEA agent Ray Nicolette in two movies, JACKIE BROWN and OUT OF SIGHT. Rumors circulated that Ray would get his own feature. I’m glad that didn’t pan out, because the character can’t sustain an entire story. But Keaton was perfectly cast, as he was in the recent HBO film LIVE FROM BAGHDAD.

So what’s on tap for the actor? Playing opposite Lindsay Lohan in the remodeled HERBIE, THE LOVE BUG. That ain’t right, people, and you know it. Where’s Wes Anderson or Dylan Kidd (ROGER DODGER) when you need them?

TV: Law & Order

If Dennis Farina played a cop in real life anything like he did on last night’s season premiere, how could the Chicago PD let him go? Too bad the rest of the show didn’t live up to him or his fantastic assortment of neckties. James Wolcott offers an interesting critique of the show.