Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Best Seller

After sticking guns into himself and taking photos in war-torn Central America, but before telling Michael J. Fox to shut his yap, James Woods starred in little-known and little-praised thriller Best Seller.

Written by Larry Cohen of Maniac Cop and The Stuff fame, and, unfortunately, Phone Booth infamy, the film circulates around Woods and that other 80s thriller stalwart, the flamboyant Brian Dennehy. Dennis Meechum (not Mitchum), played by fluffy jowls Dennehy, is a cop. But not just a cop. No. He is also an author of those novel-type things. Following a traumatic incident involving ski-masks, bellows and a thin, crisp hint of sexual tension, Meechum writes it all up in a burst of autobiographical references and mimetic echoes, and comes up with a successful little paperback. Good for him.

With turmoil at home and words like “doubt” rebounding in his head, he finds himself served with a writ of writer’s block. His publishers eye him up from across a plastic table adorned with all sorts of continental breakfast surplus, and coerce him into getting some prose chucked down on the paper. But the only adjectives around are those that line his tweed jacket.

Then Mr Woods enters the frame. A mysterious cipher of a man who shadily saves Meechum’s life during a high speed chase through a cascading arrangement of technological milieu, or at least a plodding stroll through the docks. Turns out Woods is a hitman by the name of Cleve. Yep, it’s imperative that each protagonist comes complete with stupid name in this one. Anyway, being a hitman his cranium contains an anthology of exciting novellas, and he wants Meechum to write all about it. As an incentive he states that the subsequent writings will not only net him some kudos on the book-signing circuit, but will also bring down the nasty, crooked entrepreneur guy who we don’t like. “Boo,” we say to him.

Fighting the moralistic conundrum of dual vocations of cop and author, Meechum hesitantly agrees. But the double act finds it an arduous endeavour to meld their personalities, and that hilarity, oh how it ensues.

Films about writing are not the most recycled of plot ideas; they are perhaps the two-handed tapping solo of cinema, a rare venture that can easy slide down the slope of monotony, but when carried out well is spellbinding. We have the fictionalised biopic of Naked Lunch, a brilliant and surreal vision of William Burroughs’ life percolated through a sieve of jism and mugwumps. Then the similar, but shoddier, Kafka. How we chuckle at each spotted reference, like when Jeremy Irons in the latter tells someone that he’s working on a story about a guy who turns into a giant big. The cockles shook in writhing joy. Barton Fink also enjoyed much capering around the actual writing; a picture of writer’s block clearly written by those afflicted of that disease in the past.

Best Seller doesn’t quite have the creativity and intelligence of a Cronenberg or a Coen flick, but proves itself an enjoyable romp nevertheless. Just look at those sweeping mid-shots of Meechum making scribbles in his notepad, it just warms my heart. Sadly they are infrequent, I was expecting to be seeing him seated confronting a typewriter, pondering over a good synonym for “hitman”. I would suggest “sharpshooter”. Alright, Cleve is more the burst-in-and-stab-your-eyes-out type of vicious murderer, but this is fiction, if you can’t hyperbole here, where can you?

Cleve, while pretty cold-hearted and sadistic, is still endearingly charming. His witty dialogues with Meechum add much exuberance to the proceedings; while Meechum drags out a dreary few words on “I’m still a cop”, Cleve hectically scampers over Meechum’s belly with the wisecracks. Who else would threaten an editor with a knifing to the gullet in order to find out if he’s coming across well in the manuscript? He is the omniscient test-audience, and I’d take his opinion as fact despite the grin upon his face.

Best Seller is an under-rated thriller, even encapsulating the incipient signifier of quality that is the Orion Pictures marker. R.I.P to that house of eminence, it brought much joy to my adolescent years. As for Best Seller, alas it stops somewhere short of a Penguin Modern Classic. My only question is when will Hollywood make a film about some guy attempts to write a review of the Super Mario Bros movie while making all provisions possible to avoid watching said movie?


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