Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Hell does not always look like Hell"

“A wretched Tarantino rip-off, this trashy thriller aspires to flip black comedy but manages only moments of unintentional hilarity…Duchovny doesn’t so much sleepwalk his way through the film as remain in a coma.”
-Liese Spencer, Sight and Sound-

Playing God is David Duchovny's first starring role, unless you count Showtime's Red Shoe Diaries episodes. It seems crafted to match his new stardom on The X-Files, and it does: He has the psychic weight to be a leading man and an action hero, even though his earlier TV and film roles might not have revealed it. And he also has a certain detachment, a way of standing above the action, that stars such as Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum have.”
-Roger Ebert’s Original 3 Star Review-
It’s funny when you find out that a personal favorite film of yours was almost universally hated by both the critics and public when it was released. I actually just recently began to comprehend how much I should probably consider Andy Wilson’s 1997 feature Playing God starring David Duchovny, Angelina Jolie and Timothy Hutton a ‘guilty pleasure’ but since I really don’t believe in that whole idea, I will just celebrate it as a film I like very much…a hyperkinetic B-movie that has always reminded me of the kind of vehicle Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney might have made together early in their careers with one devastating girl thrown in for good measure.
David Duchovny had certainly done a lot of work before his iconic and much loved Fox Mulder came into view on The X-Files, but by 1997 Mulder had became virtually all the talented actor was known for. Playing God was to mark Duchovny’s breakthrough role on the big screen and his first major step away from the character that had made him a household name. Unfortunately Playing God, a miserable failure financially and critically, did neither and it is often overlooked by even the most rabid Duchovny and Jolie fans…a mistake as it is a key work for both of them.
Playing God marked the American and big screen directorial debut from British born Andy Wilson, a man who had previously only had his hand in some British television (Cracker being one series) and a handful of music videos (with the band Underworld being most prominent). Wilson directs Playing God like a love letter to the kind of modern neo-noir genre that began to populate American cinemas soon after Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs first began to make a major impact. Bloody, brutal and using every trick in the book (from slow motion shoot-outs to classic car chases), Playing God is very much a film aware of the trappings of its genre but it delights in playing directly into them, making it a much more watchable and successful venture than some of the more pretentious offerings from the period.
Working from a script by relative novice Mark Haskell Smith, Wilson’s Playing God is a successful hard boiled adrenaline ride fueled by three incredibly charismatic performers that is only marred by a last act that has studio interference written all over it. I have always suspected that if Wilson was able to revisit this film for a Special Edition DVD and reinstate the original darker ending then the picture would have a shot at becoming a small cult film instead of the footnote it is usually labeled as.
Future Traffic Producer Laura Bickford reportedly put a lot of time and energy into Playing God, a project she was excited about in the mid nineties but one that would cause her to nearly reconsider her career all together (according to Sharon Waxman’s book Rebels on the Backlot) and that makes sense as Playing God does have a compromised feel about it (part of which is due to the fact that the film's original backer Columbia Pictures stepped out just two weeks prior to shooting leaving the production in total distress before the camera's even rolled) but I will stand behind my opinion that Playing God is a very successful and tough modern noir that despite the flawed last act works as well as any other ‘Tarantino knockoff’ from the mid to late nineties you care to name.
Playing God’s plot, one that allows its leading man to be a heavily flawed and easily corruptible junkie, is an intriguing one. Centering on a destroyed doctor named Eugene Sands who has lost his license due to having a patient die during a routine operation because of his addiction to Phenolcitrate (synthetic heroin), Playing God begins after Sands saves a man’s life who has been shot at a club where he buys his drugs. Sands is then brought fairly willingly into a life of crime by a hot shot schemer with big ideas named Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton) and by Blossom’s smoldering girlfriend with a big secret named Claire (Jolie).
As clever as the set up is for Playing God and as great as everything is from the Trip-Hop inspired soundtrack (a real keeper) by Richard Hartley to the kinetic cutting style of former Coppola and Roeg collaborator Louise Rubacky, Wilson’s film is basically a showcase for three extremely charismatic and distinctive stars…it’s the kind of film that helped shape Hollywood…Playing God is an old fashioned Star driven piece and Wilson clearly realizes and plays into this making his film a much smarter production than it might have been in more experienced hands.
Even though he has an Oscar sitting on his shelf (for Robert Redford’s superb Ordinary People), Timothy Hutton is almost always overlooked as one of the great actors of his generation. I’ve always though that if Playing God would have found an audience back in 97 then Hutton’s career would have went into major turn around mode, as his delightfully over the top work as Raymond Blossom is a real blast…the kind of bombastic Molotov Cocktail performance that you typically only see an Al Pacino or Eric Roberts delivering and Hutton really sells it. He’s great as Blossom and it’s an infectiously fun performance to watch.
Roger Ebert would write in his positive review of the film that, “And the surprise in the movie is Timothy Hutton, as the villain. I sense the curtain rising on the next act of his career. Having outgrown the sensitive-boy roles that established him (Ordinary People, Made in Heaven), he returns to his dark side, to notes he struck in such films as The Falcon and the Snowman and Q & A. He shows here what sets the interesting villains apart from the ordinary ones…Hutton creates a character instead of simply filling a space”. I agree completely…Handsome, charming and sinister to the max, Hutton’s Blossom is one of the most memorable villains of the nineties and the fact that he makes you like him in the process makes the performance even more resonate.
Angelina Jolie was at the dawn of her significant career in 1997 and with Playing God she asserts herself as the most fascinating American actress of her generation. Never mind that she is essentially just playing ‘the girl’ here, Jolie is fantastic in the film and like Marlon Brando at the beginning of his career it is impossible to take your eyes off her. She would call the film "very rock n roll and fun and loud and say-what-you-want-to-say, dress wild and love wild", which of course goes a ways towards describing her performance in the film itself. Co-producer Melanie Green was quoted as saying that Angelina has "the wisdom of an old soul...the grace and style of an older woman" but in Playing God she is vitally young and in her role as "the girl" she manages to project that certain vitality that can only happen in your twenties incredibly well.
Within a year a Playing God’s release, Jolie would strike gold with her devastating turn as doomed model Gia Carangi in Gia and she would be the highlight in Playing By Heart, a film that included everyone from Sean Connery to Gena Rowlands to Duchovny’s X-Files co-star, Gillian Anderson. Playing God would mark the last time Jolie would be cast as just “the girl” and it remains one of the most important if little seen of her early roles.
Wilson’s film belongs to David Duchovny though. Featured in nearly every scene and playing Sands with the kind of understatement and subtlety not seen since the likes of McQueen, Newman and Redford in the seventies, Duchovny is fascinating as the addicted doctor who is “always looking for a new way to fuck up.” Showing off his natural humor while still managing to interject a lifetime worth of hurt into Sands, Playing God should have been a major coup (as his follow up film, the wonderful and endearing Return To Me should have been) for the talented actor but most critics (Ebert and a few others accepted) didn’t seem to know what to make of Duchovny’s un-showy performance. It’s a captivating and extremely interesting performance that I think will surprise people who have always put off watching this film due to the reception it got.
Playing God appeared a couple of weeks before Halloween in 1997 and was out of the theaters by the time the trick or treater’s were finishing up their yearly bag of candy. Making less than five million at the box-office and being savaged by the critics, Playing God proved to be one of the biggest bombs of the year and it failed to make David Duchovny into the movie star a lot of us have known for a long time that he should be. The film faired a bit better in Europe but not much and it appeared quietly on home video in the early part of 98 where it didn’t find much of an audience either.
Duchovny was reportedly unhappy with the final product due to the studio forced ending (he admitted later that it was "not the movie I wanted to make" and that "the character is redeemed because it's a hollywood movie...I didn't want to redeem him, but there were other people involved.") and Wilson went back to working in British television shortly after but Playing God is a film that I’m not guilty about loving. It’s a classic genre piece told in a distinctly nineties style and I haven’t tired of revisiting once a year or so in the decade that has passed since it was first released. I’d love to see what the film was supposed to have been originally, but I must admit that I’m really happy with what it became…even if it is a lonely club to be a member of.
For more of my images from Playing God or to resize any of the above photos for your own needs, press any of the above pictures to be taken to my new Zoomr page.


Brandon Colvin said...

This isn't really related to this post, but it's related to you in a more general sense.

A few days ago, I visited the graves of Serge Gainsbourg, Delphine Seyrig, and Jean Seberg. I most certainly thought about you, old pal.

Brandon Colvin said...

Oh, and Jacques Demy.

Jeremy Richey said...

That is really awesome Brandon...hope you got some pics and I am looking forwrad to my post card. Anyway...that is really amazing. I am envious.

Brandon Colvin said...

Your postcard is already on the way!

Jeremy Richey said...

Excellent Brandon...I will keep a look out for it

J.D. said...

Wow, nice article on this forgotten film. I can't say I am really a fan of it but I can certainly appreciate your enthusiasm for it as there are many neglected films out there that I like to champion.

I like Timothy Hutton as well - esp. his performances in Q&A and BEAUTIFUL GIRLS. I had forgotten that Angelina Jolie was in this one. I really dig her earlier work and she seems to be doing less interesting stuff nowadays.

And poor David Duchovny... as you point out, PLAYING GOD was supposed to kick his career into the mainstream but instead stalled it much like what happened to David Caruso with the horrible KISS OF DEATH remake (altho, gahd, Nicolas Cage was brilliant in that one). His film career has been a really hit and miss affair... mostly miss, IMO. But I am looking forward to him reprising Agent Mulder soon...

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks for the great comments JD...I can't wait to see David as Mulder again and I really hope the film does well.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I'll be honest in that I've never seen it. I never even seemed to have interest in seeing it for some reason. Your post, however, has inspired me to give it a shot and see what it's all about. Thanks.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith...let me know what you think if you get to watch it.

andwilson said...


andwilson said...

My name is Andy Wilson, and I directed Playing God.Thanks for your intelligent comments on our movie.

You are right, I had a funky morally confused seventies style neo-noir in mind when I shot the picture. Touchstone had something else in mind and the film was pretty messed up in the final cut.

My references were Nic Roeg's Performance, John Boorman's Point Blank and Billy Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA. You can spot references to these films through out. The film was shot by Roeg's favourite DOP Anthony Richmond, who was the cinematographer on Don't Look Now, Walkabout and Man Who Fell to Earth.

There are a lot of scenes we shot that the studio removed..there was a great sex scene between Angelina's character and Tim Hutton in the back of his Jaguar car..too morally ambiguous..a cool withdrawal scene where David comes off drugs watched over by Angelina, and a tender love scene between their characters which made the story tick much better..Touchstone added the awful voice over and tamed the film down so as to get a summer hit, but they did precisely NO publicity. As David says the film is not what we wanted when we shot it..we all had a very good time on it and improvised a lot. We wanted to make the first film starring an E-Head villain who had seen the light, spken to God and realised it was his place to be BAD! David's character is a fallen angel..there was a lovely scene at the beginning of my cut which showed him working as a carpenter..get it..on a table showing a marquetry image of Icarus..too intellectual..all down the line different forces were pulling different directions..
Even so, it has a quality about if and I'm not quite sure why the critics mauled it so terribly. There's a funky csore by Richard Hartley who wrote the Rocky Horror Show, great cinematography,great design by the then unknown Naomi Shohan who just did I Am Legend, brilliant costumes, a cool cast and some terrificly weird moments..I love the operation scene in Hutton's hotel which climaxes in him killing the Peter Stormare character just after David saves his life. It was the film that introduced Angelina Jolie as a sexy superstar, she really enjoyed it I think..interestingly she was the absolutely last person we auditioned for the part only a few days before filming.She was unknown really as an adult actor. She did the weirdest most interesting audition which I filmed on a little video camera, she hunched in a corner and hardly looked at David or the camera, but was absolutely electrifying, certain actors actually change the atmosphere in a room and she was one of those. We loved her, the studio were horrified..they didn't want her..they had been chasing Charlize Theron, Cameron Diaz and Natasha Henstridge. To his eternal credit David insisted on Angie and the rest is history!

As David says the ending of the movie was a compromise..but quite a good one..the script had Tim and David slugging it out...and David wins..boring..I invented the stunt where Tim is run over by the little red corvette. I thought it MUCH more interesting that God would intervene to save his angel from the devil as fate in the shape of a car from a Prince song. Very funny...

We also wanted a final scene of David in prison, wings clipped for his crimes being visited by Angie's character..he saves her life but gives up his own...never shot....

Contrary to popular belief the movie did not end my career..I work non stop in british tv as we don't make the kind of films for cinema that I want to make, ie a bit cranky and left field..most notably I directed Gormenghast for the BBC's millenial drama celebration..which launched Johnny Rhys Myers as a leading man on an unsuspecting world! I saw David Duchovny in London recently and we talked of how weird it was that the film was so vilified. Its no Citizen Kane, I know, but I am so glad that there are some of you out there who love it. We certainly had a lot of fun on the shoot.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thank you so much Andy for the fascinating comments. I can't tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to stop by and leaving these incredible comments.
I love your film and am thrilled you found my tribute to it...thanks again and all the best.

MovieMan0283 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MovieMan0283 said...


Another spirited defense of an underrated, much-maligned and dismissed work starring David Duchovney (could there be a celebration of Twin Peaks, season 2 around the corner?) I'm really enjoying these contrarian pieces and Playing God has been added to my Netflix queue. Very cool that the director dropped by too, keep up the good work.


andwilson said...

You are welcome..I never get the chance to speak about Playing was a year and a half out of my life and lots of very positive things certainly taught me a lot about myself as an artist and the HOLLYWOOD SYSTEM!!!!
I have SO many stories that I should write a book! Would be happy to answer any questions on this forum. I really like your site Jeremy. You have very similar taste to my own.
If you loved Playing God try to get my TV mini series Lenny Blue, about a corrupt British detective and watch out on UStv for DIAMONDS with Judy Davis which I have just completed. Working with Judy was a dream come true, she starred in two of my faves and two of the weirdest films ever made Naked Lunch and Barton Fink...

andwilson said...

You are welcome. I rarely get a chance to talk about Playing was a year and a half out of my life..and fun and very educational about HOLLYWOOD and the system.
I would be happy to talk about it on the site...
BOY do I have some stories....
If you loved the film try and get Lenny Blue..and watch out for my mini series DIAMONDS on UStv soon with the fab Judy of two of the weirdest films ever made Naked Lunch and Barton Fink...

andwilson said...

weird ..i had trouble posting so there's a duplication

Anonymous said...

I love this movie- I have seen Playing God 15 or more times - and as a former drug abuser - the line of "not using drugs, would be easier not to breathe hit it on the head!!!!

again I love it- and F those crtics - they hated caddy shack, stripes and countless other great movies

Unknown said...

Just watched Playing God again. It's a movie that I always enjoy watching, and quoting to others.

The style is awesome; watching Hutton come out of the water and seeing Duchovny reaction sets a nice tone for the flick. Particularly the posturing, "You asking because you're afraid or because you want me to?" Hutton also looks great during the extended scene with the bus at the beach; “As long as there is an ocean, the surf will be up.”

The writing was smart and cool and perfectly fit the actors. No one acts the way you’d expect them too. Flick, who’s mission it is to kill Eugene, manically solicits his help when his “honey” is shot.

I particularly like the sweet touches, unnecessary to the story, but relishing for the viewer. There are two: Where Cyril (Andrew Tiernan?) is fighting with Duchovny and Jolie and he’s bleeding out while “Jive Talking” is playing. As his life force ebbs out, we see slow motion cuts to his greatest triumph, the recent shootout. It’s completely unneeded, but allows the viewer to see Cyril in a different light.

The other moment follows in the bar afterwards, where the group helps Eugene operate on Claire, “Nothing said”. It’s just a nice set piece.

Thanks for posting a nice summary of the movie and some behind-the-scenes details. I enjoyed reading it and Andy Wilson’s comments as well. Thanks for sharing.