Monday, January 24, 2011

Burt With A Badge: Fuzz (1972)

The problem with making something seem effortless is that people may start to resent you. It could look like you’re not trying; paying audiences occasionally want you to suffer for your art, or at the very least show your work. Conversely, there are times when familiarity truly does breed contempt, when a talent comes so readily to a performer that they begin going through the motions. It’s a tough line to walk, ease versus laziness.

Which brings us to Burt Reynolds.

Burt was once as big as stars got; at the time William Goldman wrote Adventures in the Screen Trade, he was the world’s top box-office draw for four years running and about to claim a fifth. What’s more he was accessible, appearing regularly on talk shows and even guest hosting The Tonight Show at the height of his fame. Burt possessed something that can’t be taught, the ability to be completely relaxed in his own skin. That repose and his casual physical grace have led to his undervaluing as an actor. (Doubters, watch Deliverance again.) But Burt’s bonhomie is also directly responsible for Cannonball Run and other movies in which he and his pals are having a blast, but we’re not. It’s those films that overshadow his strengths.

I’m watching several films from throughout Burt’s career in which he plays a cop. Why? Because I’m a Burt Reynolds fan. Why a cop? Because I thought of the title for this one-man blogathon. Catchy, isn’t it?

Fuzz is the only movie of the bunch I’d already seen. Let us pause to admire the poster in all its busy, Age of Aquarius glory, complete with nod to Burt’s Cosmopolitan centerfold.

Fuzz transplants Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct to the streets of Boston. McBain adapted the book himself under his own name, Evan Hunter. The Precinct’s regular nemesis The Deaf Man (Yul Brynner) launches a Zodiac Killer-style rampage against city officials as part of a larger scheme, and can’t helping taunting the cops he regards as inept. Other crimes are investigated as well, and this being McBain there are also two guys from Public Works Maintenance and Repair who will allow nothing to stop their efforts to paint the squad room apple green.

The movie’s an uneasy mix of procedural and black comedy influenced by M*A*S*H, with the two films sharing a cast member in Tom Skerritt. The humor is too broad, as evidenced by the scene in which Burt goes on a stakeout dressed as a nun with a full ‘stache. The violence strikes a jarring note and generated a degree of infamy when, after a TV airing, some kids set a woman on fire and claimed they were recreating a scene from the film. Raquel Welch’s storyline goes nowhere and could be easily excised, but then we wouldn’t see Raquel Welch. Director Richard A. Colla, who would be back in Boston directing multiple episodes of Spenser For Hire, can’t nail down the tone necessary to sell McBain’s ending, when all plot threads converge and Brynner’s plan is foiled by circumstance and dumb luck, which Jack Weston’s Detective Meyer Meyer describes as “good police work.”

There’s some great ‘70s detail on display in a porn shop sequence and a system of plastic punch cards used to dial a phone. The best thing in Fuzz? Burt as Steve Carella. He’s got an unforced camaraderie with his cohorts, and has a lovely scene with his wife Teddy in the hospital after he’s injured in the line of duty. Even better is the moment when Weston asks him if he feels weird about their adversary being deaf like Reynolds’ wife, and Reynolds marvels that he never made that connection. Both Burt and McBain deserved better.