Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Twenty-one year old Jack Jericho has a way about him. A teacher and wordsmith with a talent for charming seemingly any woman he meets, Jack’s ability with the opposite sex helps cloud the many failures in his personal life, such as his inability to truly connect with anyone other than on a sexual basis. Like a ticking time bomb destined to eventually implode, Jack Jericho suddenly finds himself feeling something very real when he meets young red-head Randy Jensen, the one girl who has the ability to tell him no.
Of the many great, and near-great, films in writer and director James Toback’s canon, 1987’s The Pick-Up Artist is perhaps the easiest to overlook. Running a slim 75 minutes without credits and reeking of studio interference, The Pick-Up Artist still feels frustratingly incomplete but for at least half its running time it is one of Toback’s great films, a funny and frenetic work propelled by a startling performance by a young Robert Downey Jr., an actor made for Toback’s ongoing portraits of damaged male psyches.
Released a near decade after Toback’s remarkable debut feature Fingers and the follow-up film to 1983’s highly underrated Exposed, The Pick-Up Artist fits in nicely with the writer and directors clearly autobiographical works and can be viewed as a light (if penetrating) companion piece to 1997’s Two Girls and a Guy, a striking film also starring Downey. The collaborations between Toback and Downey are among the most noteworthy, if unnoticed, in modern American cinema and the two make a brilliant and bruising team. With this in mind, view The Pick-Up Artist as the troubling Chapter one of what has turned into a remarkable story.
Shot beautifully by legendary Gordon Willis in New York and Atlantic City in the spring of 1987, The Pick-Up Artist manages to be both of its time and separate from it. One can imagine the studio, 20th Century Fox in this case, pulling their hair out due to Toback’s inability and unwillingness to make the quirky brat pack teen comedy they most likely envisioned The Pick-Up Artist to be. You can also feel what was probably a real struggle for Toback as well watching the film, as his hard R-rated vision has obviously been compromised into a PG-13 film. For all of its charms, and there are many of them, The Pick-Up Artist is a film marred by a real struggle between an artist with an extremely personal vision and men only interested in the money, and that conflict really damages what should have been a really masterful film.
Working with one of the best casts he ever had at his disposal, Toback had a real shot at a genuine breakthrough film with The Pick-Up Artist. Toback needed a strong supporting cast to balance against Downey’s astonishing scene devouring performance, one of the first great ones in a fascinating career filled with them. Particularly memorable are Dennis Hopper as Randy’s deep in debt and pretty much always hammered father Flash and the great Danny Aiello as Jack’s smooth-talking mentor Phil. Future Sopranos stars Tony Sirico, Tony Cucci and Lorraine Bracco are on hand for small but memorable roles, and the prolific Mildred Dunnock makes a final film appearance as Jack’s aging mother. Other memorable faces include a young Vanessa Williams in a funny failed pick-up bit and SNL alumni Victoria Jackson in a successful one. Also be on the look out for the much missed Victor Argo and Joe Spinell in small roles as well.
One has to wonder what the impact of casting Molly Ringwald in the role of Randy had on the way the studio viewed and handled The Pick-Up Artist. Toback has a knack for casting actors against type in his films, check out wonderful Neve Campbell’s startling turn in When Will I Be Loved, and his instincts about Ringwald were right. She’s quite good in the film and her Randy Jensen stands as one of her most memorable roles, but audiences weren’t ready to see her in Toback’s universe. This was after all just a year after Pretty in Pink, so the temptation for the studio to try and force a brat-pack stamp on the film probably wasn’t a surprising one. Ringwald’s career began to falter after The Pick-Up Artist’s failure with both the public and critics, which is a real shame as she shows herself as a real sharp and intelligent actress here.
Robert Downey Jr. owns The Pick-Up Artist though and it is no surprise that he would go onto be one of Toback’s main go-to actors. From the first moments in the film, where the live-wire Downey practices his pick up lines in front of a mirror (an image Toback and Downey would return to oh so memorably in Two Girls and a Guy) to the film’s final moments where Jack seems momentarily destroyed, Downey is simply mesmerizing. It’s one of those hold your breath performances that is such a real pleasure to watch. While 1987’s Less Than Zero might have done more for Robert Downey Jr’s career, The Pick-Up Artist is the unpolished gem that really got everything rolling for the mega-talented young man.
The Pick-Up Artist, with its many memorable shots of New York set to Toback’s typical fifties soundtrack (although The Beastie Boys make a memorable soundtrack appearance as well), finally falls apart in its last section. Everything from the weak finale to the obviously re-dubbed dialogue (no doubt due to the studio wanting a PG-13) does an unbelievable amount of damage to what had been a really fascinating work. The Pick-Up Artist is finally as fractured as its title character, but one wonders what it would have ultimately been like had Toback been left the fuck alone.
The Pick-Up Artist had a solid opening weekend but the critical blasting (Roger Ebert especially crucified the film with a brutal half star rating) took its toll and it failed to make back its budget of 15 million. A bruised James Toback wouldn’t make another feature for a decade, but Two Girls and a Guy marked a real resurgence for the really gifted artist, and I am so glad Robert Downey Jr. was the actor that helped with that notable comeback.
The Pick-Up Artist might be too compromised for some viewers, and it is ultimately an easy film to pick apart, but to my eyes there is something really great about this beat-up little film. For Robert Downey's Jr.'s magnificent and strangely haunting performance alone, I will take it over most of the 'great' films from 1987 you care to name.
For another look at The Pick-Up Artist, may I recommend this terrific piece by Brad Stevens, the extremely well-regarded author of the essential Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision.