Sunday, June 26, 2005

Operation Travolta: Peter Weller

Last week’s film meme asked which movie character I’d like to be. My back-up reply: Buckaroo Banzai. Surgeon. Rock star. Adventurer. Lover of two incarnations of Ellen Barkin.

Wait. Can I change my answer?

Anyone who can carry off such a role with the casual aplomb Peter Weller brought to it should be besieged by work. But as I have done before, I’m challenging the filmmaking community to give this man a part worthy of his talents.

I first saw Weller in 1983’s OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, in which he plays a New York yuppie waging war on the rat sharing his swank new digs. Weller’s performance elevates the movie to the level of allegory, and established his prowess at playing superficially successful men beset by neuroses.

THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE EIGHTH DIMENSION followed a year later. 1987’s ROBOCOP introduced the character for which the actor is best known; Paul Verhoeven’s film remains a scabrously funny comic book satire. I even like the 1990 sequel, which some critics found too dark. Weller was smartly paired with the hangdog Sam Elliott in 1988’s SHAKEDOWN, an appealingly low-brow actioner from B-movie maestro James Glickenhaus.

The early ‘90s brought Weller’s best work. In David Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH, he embodies both the writer William Burroughs and the narrator of Burroughs’ seminal novel. Personally, I prefer his other collaboration with actress Judy Davis, who referred to herself and Weller as “the Astaire and Rogers of dysfunction.” 1994’s THE NEW AGE is one of the decade’s great films, an unsparing portrait of a privileged Los Angeles couple as their marriage buckles under financial and spiritual woes. Weller has never been better, and he’s perfectly matched by Davis. The film also features a scorching cameo by Samuel L. Jackson before he became “Samuel L. Jackson.” It’s a crime that Michael Tolkin’s film remains unavailable on DVD.

The latter half of the decade wasn’t as kind. Weller turns up briefly in Woody Allen’s MIGHTY APHRODITE, but what should be a surefire collaboration goes nowhere. In the low-budget Philip K. Dick adaptation SCREAMERS, he issues my favorite order by a military officer: “Relent!”

Weller plumbed the moneyed depths of Southern California again in Bernard Rose’s IVANSXTC, which combines Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” with the tragic story of Hollywood agent Jay Moloney. Weller received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his performance, but sadly, I haven’t seen it. The film, which may have cut too deep for many in the business, did not get theatrical distribution and has never been released on video in the United States.

Behind the camera is where the actor has flourished of late. In 1993, his short film “Partners” was nominated for an Academy Award, and he directed a sharp adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel GOLD COAST for Showtime.

I look at the career that Christopher Walken has had and wonder why Weller hasn’t gotten similar opportunities. They share many qualities: a flair for the theatrical, flawless timing, a great sense of personal style. Some enterprising filmmaker should think of Weller’s name the next time Walken is too busy to take on a juicy supporting role.

And I, for one, haven’t given up hope of seeing Buckaroo take on the World Crime League.