Monday, January 7, 2013
JACK NICHOLSON DIRECTED A MOVIE?! A review of DRIVE, HE SAID
Everyone is familiar with Jack Nicholson as a brilliant actor, but how many people knew he tried his hand at directing very early in his career? Not many, and it’s probably for the best. When it comes to creating something, his thoughts are disorganized, and he lacks the discipline to pull everything together. That’s not to say that DRIVE, HE SAID is a bad movie. In fact, there are a few scenes that might actually be pure genius, but as a whole, the film just can’t overcome its own clunkiness and sadly, it is nothing more than a product of its time.
Part of its inability to make a cohesive statement is that it’s really two movies. One features actor William Tepper as Hector, a horny smalltime basketball player who doesn’t want to get involved in the world; he just wants to play the game. Oh yeah, and he also wants to fuck his professor’s wife Olive, played by a shockingly young and beautiful Karen Black. The other movie is about Gabriel, played by Michael Margotta, who is a fucking lunatic and a hippie and a protestor. Hector and Gabriel are friends despite their clash in philosophy, possibly because they share a love of pussy and weed.
That’s actually a part of the problem with this film. There are extended scenes involving both of these characters’ lives, but they are so large and clunky that they weigh down the movie. If you cut out all of the scenes of drawn-out basketball games and hippie hangouts, this would be a much more streamlined experience, and though it would be considerably shorter, it would stick together a lot better than it does now.
Nicholson is also very heavy-handed with his symbolism, the biggest perpetration of which is his parallel between the basketball draft, in which Hector is trying to go pro, and the Vietnam draft, which Gabriel is desperately and insanely protesting against. It’s a shame that this film is so dated. You can have movies about the army that aren’t dated. Take a look at STRIPES, for example. But this one is too entrenched in the early ‘Seventies, when you could smoke in grocery stores, and there were no scanners at the checkout lanes. Take a look at Hector’s naked body. He’s got back hair crawling all the way up to his neck. No Hollywood star would do that today. (It doesn’t help that Tepper looks like the incestuous son of Robert DeNiro and Sasha Baron Cohen.)
But while DRIVE, HE SAID is definitely a product of its time, Nicholson tries to break it out with a few stylistic things that no one was doing back then. This movie was controversial when it came out because of one scene portraying Tepper and Black fucking in a car. There is no nudity. Everything is suggested. However, Tepper very clearly has an orgasm. Unheard of, back then. Today? It would have been a joke on TWO-AND-A-HALF MEN on primetime TV. Also, there is a lot of full-frontal male nudity, which isn’t even popular today, being that it’s one of the great Hollywood double-standards and will probably continue to be so until the end of time. Not only that, but when the basketball players are hanging out, they speak frankly of sex in a very IN THE COMPANY OF MEN kind of way, which, while it happened in real life back then and continues to happen, was never portrayed on film up to that moment. It should also be noted that black and white players hang out as friends, and race is never even mentioned as an issue, which was a rarity back then.
It’s too bad that Nicholson never brings it all together to make a real point. There are great moments, like the opening scene, in which Gabriel and his friends stage a protest about the subversive element at one of Hector’s basketball games. In fact, a lot of the greatest scenes come from Margotta’s portrayal of Gabriel. He has to take a lot of risks, and he does it unquestionably. There is a scene where he flips out at a recruiting office and winds up attacking a shrink and a bunch of MP’s. He screams at a doctor for trying to give him a rectal examination, and he starts jerking off at one point. He’s such a maniac in this scene (and others) that one wonders if he’s acting. In another scene, he unleashes a bunch of caged birds on Olive just before he attempts to rape her. In the craziest scene of all, Gabriel runs naked through a university’s grounds before he breaks into their laboratory and starts setting free all of the test animals, snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, insects, everything. At one point, his naked dick is right next to a freed rattlesnake; this would make any guy watching it cringe. He also tries to stare down a giant lizard, and when he tries to touch it, it freaks out and could quite possibly have fucked up Margotta’s face with its claws, had it chosen to do so.
Another standout performance comes from Bruce Dern as Coach Bullion. He’s just so convincing that it’s hard to imagine that he’s never coached basketball before, even as he says the line that no one could get away with today to his players: “Don’t play like fags.”
But all the greatness in the movie simply cannot come together and make this movie become great. The only explanation is that Nicholson found himself in an existential quandary at the time, and he was trying to figure out what path he should take. Anyone who saw him in the movies he’d made before then, chiefly among them EASY RIDER, could tell that he was not happy with the way the world was turning out back then, that he had a strong streak of rebellion in him. There is a lot of Gabriel in his heart, but at the same time, he wanted to pursue his acting career, so much so that all he wanted to do was hone his craft and fuck the world, just like Hector with basketball. (And basketball is one of Nicholson’s joys in life, so that was an obvious choice for the film.) When it came right down to it, he saw how things turned out for both of these characters who are opposite halves of his own personality, and he decided to walk Hector’s path. It’s a good thing, too. Even though he’s mostly become a parody of himself these days, he acted wonderfully in a lot of amazing movies. What if he’d chosen Gabriel’s path instead? We would have never had THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, CHINATOWN, or any number of awesome movies.
If this is indeed the case, thank you, Mr. Nicholson, for making a mediocre movie like this to help you make up your mind. Like Indy at the end of THE LAST CRUSADE, you chose wisely.