Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Movie: Mike’s Murder (1984)

For years I knew three things about Mike’s Murder, all of them making the film nigh on irresistible to me.

1. It had a test screening so legendarily disastrous that any mention of it to certain key participants turns them green to this day.

2. The compromised version that was tossed into a handful of theaters in 1984 after two years of studio tinkering still gained a fervent cult following. Leonard Maltin, in his always-within-reach Movie Guide, gives the film one-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it “One of the worst movies ever made by a filmmaker of (James) Bridges’ stature ... Escapes BOMB rating only because several critics thought highly of it.”

3. It was impossible to see. Usually movies with flawed reputations surface on cable in the wee hours of the morning, but not Mike’s Murder. It essentially vanished without a trace.

The on-demand Warner Archive made Mike’s Murder one of its early titles. I finally bought a copy and sated my curiosity.

Bridges’ original cut was longer, featuring a fractured narrative, a brutal murder sequence, and a lot more of Joe Jackson’s music. The film that was released was straitjacketed into a more conventional structure with lush John Barry accompaniment. But no amount of second-guessing was going to transform Mike’s Murder into a box office sensation. Not because it’s a dark, downbeat story, but because it tells the tale of losers in a city of winners. Mike’s Murder is not a great movie. But I’d lobby for it to be considered one of the great Los Angeles films, with a seductive, doomy vision all its own. (I’d wager that one person who has seen it is Paul Thomas Anderson; the ‘80s section of Boogie Nights has a similar feel, and Thomas Jane’s character in that film is a doppelganger for one here.)

The critics who loved the movie did so largely because of Debra Winger’s lead performance. She’s sensational as Betty Parrish, a woman who moved to L.A. for sunshine not stardom, a bank teller who still calls her parents when she lands a promotion. Part of the easy SoCal vibe means a hook-up with her tennis instructor Mike (Mark Keyloun). Mike is a looker of modest charm, a happy hustler who does what he can and who he can to get by. Sometimes that means crashing proto-Kato Kaelin-style at the guest house of a minor show biz luminary. Sometimes that means selling small quantities of drugs. Anything to keep alive the dream of flying high in the City of Angels. Mike is a telling gender reversal of a character common in L.A. lore, the young woman who uses sex to get ahead and soon finds herself lost.

Some of the digressive style Bridges intended lingers in the film’s first act. It unfolds hazily, spanning several months without making the passage of time immediately apparent. Bridges’ Los Angeles is a metropolis of low-slung ugly buildings and manicured medians, where life is lived in transit. Betty and Mike cross paths, mix signals, then drift apart for weeks at a time. Until Mike gets murdered following a drug deal.

The particulars aren’t that clear or even that interesting. What matters is that Betty suddenly feels a void where she didn’t even realize there was a presence. It’s here that Winger’s performance occasionally touches the transcendent. She’s not mourning Mike as a person but as a possibility; she’s grieving over the prospect that at some point they might have drifted together for good. She tells another of Mike’s paramours, a record executive played by Paul Winfield, that she loved Mike, but she’s only trying the sentiment on for size. Casting the little-known Keyloun pays dividends. He would leave acting a few years after this movie to work in I.T. Mike’s Murder is his sole cinematic legacy, a quirk that only intensifies the haunted feeling surrounding his character.

Betty doesn’t investigate Mike’s death. She simply wants to know more about the man who’s never going to come back into her life, and that interest puts her in harm’s way. The tense ending includes an only-in-California gambit at once completely ludicrous and wholly plausible. The movie leaves Betty and the audience in an in-between place, where the ground beneath your feet can’t be trusted and there are plenty of clear skies but no clear answers. A place an awful lot like Los Angeles.