Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Movie: Best Seller (1987)

Time again for a question that’s a hobbyhorse around here: whatever happened to sleaze? Where’s a guy gotta go to get served up a cocktail of sex, violence and cynicism? Oh, right. Videogames. If I want the cinematic variety, I have to return to the cable staples of my youth.

In Best Seller, Brian Dennehy plays Joseph Wambaugh Dennis Meechum, L.A. cop and successful author. He’s suffering from writer’s block when the perfect story saunters into his life in the form of Cleve (James Woods). Cleve claims to be the in-house assassin for a huge conglomerate and its pillar of the community founder. (“Corporations deal in two things, assets and liabilities. I eliminated the liabilities, and I provided some of the assets.”) As aggrieved as a top salesman passed over for promotion, Cleve has decided to bring the entire enterprise down by collaborating with Meechum on a book – whether Meechum wants to or not.

Best Seller was directed by John Flynn, who brought astonishing fidelity to Richard Stark’s Parker in the tragically still-not-on-video The Outfit. The script is by personal hero Larry Cohen, which means it moves with ferocious energy while still having time for crackpot diversions. Like Woods singing in French and a visit to the hit man’s parents. Cohen wrote the film for Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster but Larry, bless his B-movie heart, can only work in fast-and-cheap mode. The result is the most underpopulated conspiracy movie ever. It’s basically just two guys.

But what guys. Dennehy and Woods are the Hope and Crosby of mayhem. Woods has never been better, playing a true sociopath who is utterly ruthless yet has kind words for the little people and praise for the American dream. Watch his reaction, both deeply hurt and enraged, when Dennehy refuses a gift. This strange hybrid of thriller and jet-black buddy comedy also ventures into meta terrain thanks to Cleve’s obsession with coming across as a sympathetic character.

There are movies with more sleaze, but what’s here – like Cleve’s pickup of a woman in a bar – is cherce. And for a jaundiced view of how the world works, it can’t be beat.

Dennehy is still going strong at age 71, currently onstage in Chicago doing O’Neill and Beckett. I’d like to see him return as the head of the show-within-the-show’s Teamster crew on 30 Rock. Here’s a recent interview in which he demonstrates that good ol’ Irish Catholic fatalism that’s like mother’s milk to me.