If we can stop talking about Catherine Zeta-Jones for a moment, we might give Michael Douglas his due for Wonder Boys. After enduring a lot of jokes about May-December romances, Douglas comes bouncing back with one of his best performances, the central role in an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s comic novel.
The role is Grady Tripp, novelist and college professor at a university in Pittsburgh. If he is not actually over the hill, it is only because Grady never got to the top in the first place, although his previous novel — seven years old now — received acclaim. Trying to bash out that follow-up book has proved difficult, and Grady’s love life is an even bigger mess: his wife has just left him, and his married mistress (Frances McDormand) is pregnant. Oh, and her husband is the head of the English department at school.
At a time when comic book movies were steadily cranking up the Sturm und Drang, 2015’s Ant-Man served as an amiably slouching alternative, gently snarking at superheroic conventions while still staying within the Marvel mandated lines. What’s more, it was one of the rare blockbusters that actually got better as it went along, with a third act that felt like it was beginning to fully grasp the scale-shifting possibilities of its hero. All this, plus a pretty sweet joke involving The Cure, to boot.
Should you encounter a curmudgeon, someone so bitter and grouchy he seems unredeemable, fear not — there is a sure-fire remedy. Simply put this killjoy in the presence of a live birth and have him deliver a baby. It always seems to work in movies, anyway. Case in point: And So It Goes, a middle-aged comedy that uses the cranky-guy formula with very mild results.
The grump in this case is Oren Little (Michael Douglas), a widower who has amassed a fortune as a Realtor. He’s currently living in a small apartment while he waits to sell his million-dollar home, after which he’ll take off for retirement. Screenwriter Mark Andrus, who did As Good As It Gets, contrives a few complications to ruffle Oren’s life. He meets a neighbor, Leah (Diane Keaton), who wants to be a singer; as they are age-appropriate for each other and equally big stars, we can imagine something will happen between them.
The four actors assembled for the old boys’ night out that is Last Vegas all have Oscars on their shelves. This movie will not win any of those. Still, it is a measure of their skill that they do not betray a hint of embarrassment or condescension in the course of this lightweight bash. Perhaps they sense the shrewdness behind the project, which combines Hangover-lite hijinks with last-go-round mellowness.
They’re the Flatbush Four, buddies-for-life who gather in Sin City for the marriage of the slickest and most successful of them, Billy (Michael Douglas—who else?). In a spasm of feeling his mortality, Billy has proposed to his 31-year-old girlfriend, and the occasion puts the chums in a variety of moods. Archie (Morgan Freeman) wants to flee the safety of elderly life; Paddy (Robert De Niro) still grieves over his late wife, who chose him over Billy a lifetime ago; Sam (Kevin Kline) has a free weekend pass from his wife to get as crazy as he wants, as long as it snaps him out of his funk. Does Kline seem the odd man out there, somehow an actor of a different generation?
[This article was written for and appeared in the May-June 1979 issue (Volume 15, Number 3) of Film Comment.]
“The China Syndrome is a moderately compelling thriller about the potential perils of nuclear energy, whose major fault is an overweening sense of its own self-importance. Superior performances by Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas (who also produced) in the lead roles, accentuated by ultra-realistic production values[,] should propel the Columbia Pictures release to some b.o. success, but the message ‘overload’ is going to scare off other patrons.”
—Poll., Variety, March 7, 1979
“Douglas boasts that ‘you won’t be able to distinguish our presentation of the news from your own evening viewing.’ … He has a premonition, he says, that ‘a lot of what’s in this picture will be reenacted in life somewhere in the next two or three years.”
—Michael Douglas, quoted in ReddyNews, Jan.-Feb. 1979
“That thing in Pennsylvania is just too much of a coincidence.”
—anonymous patron, Northgate Theatre, Seattle, after the 9:15 show, March 30, 1979
The China Syndrome opened nationally on March 16, 1979. Advance interest ran high. The casting sounded exciting, talkshow drumbeating had been provocative and selectively closemouthed at the same time, and the title had a ring even if, as the promo spots kept repeating every half hour, “only a few people know what it means.” A lot more people wanted to find out, which suited Columbia Pictures just fine.
The subject matter proved to have nothing to do with our new kissin’ cousins on the Chinese mainland or, as the preview art may have suggested, more sci-fi sperm from outer space. Nuclear energy supplied the narrative battleground—nuclear energy, its inherent dangers, the likelihood of catastrophe at a specific power plant. More precisely, the specter of nuclear catastrophe raised the narrative ante on the real subject: the collaboration of greed, stubbornness, bureaucratic obfuscation, job paranoia, perimeter-protecting, institutional loyalty, and native stupidity in aggravating an already perilous situation, virtually confirming us in disaster.
“The China syndrome”? That’s the technosardonic designation of what could happen if the nuclear core of a reactor became drastically overheated, melted down, burned its way through the concrete floor of its containment tower, and kept on going—hyperbolically speaking, all the way to China, or until it hit groundwater and exploded radioactive steam and waste over several hundred square miles.
Interesting. Less than two weeks into its run, The China Syndrome had grossed $11 mil. Then came a crooked smile of serendipity that transformed the picture from just another top-grossing flick into a news event, and eerie prophecy.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]
I have this fear of doctors. I don’t know whether it comes from a low pain threshold or from years of horror movies. I thought the only genuinely scary scene in The Exorcist was Regan’s spinal tap operation. So Comawas halfway home with me before it ever started: I came ready to be scared to death, knowing that the film’s milieu alone would be enough to do it. Even so, Crichton didn’t really score as many frissons as he might have; and the film ends up a minus rather than a plus, chiefly because of a storyline more devoted to its red herrings than to its corrosive moral implications. The early sequences place us firmly in a world of moral dilemmas, questions that promise some kind of integral relevance to the ordeal we know must come. How far can a woman distance herself from a man in the name of independence before she ceases to be a reasonable, loving human being? How embroiled in hospital administration politics does a young doctor become before he loses sight of the humanism of his calling? What is death? Who should play God? Is abortion for reasons of personal convenience a moral action? … But except for the whodunit’s guilty party’s speech, toward the end, about how “someone has to make these decisions,” the film’s goings-on are never effectively related to the moral questions that abound in its universe.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
The China Syndromedidn’t have to be about nuclear power. A serviceable suspense thriller about a few people’s public responsibilityâ€”or lack thereofâ€”could be built on any number of contemporary issues. Nuclear power works so spectacularly well here, however, because of its enormity of risk. Proponents of nuclear power like to dramatize its safety by comparing it with other forms of energy, in which far fewer precautions are taken and to whichâ€”so farâ€”more people have succumbed than to nuclear accidents. But that’s like comparing the airplane with the car: everyone knows flying is safer than driving, but if an accident does occur the extent and the likelihood of damage and death are much greater in the air than on the highway. Much of The China Syndromeis built upon the rhetoric of pro-nuclear assertions of safety, which have made the term “safe” so ambiguous as to be meaningless. If an accident actually occurs, it doesn’t matter how great the odds were against it. The film suggests that those oft-repeated declarations of nuclear safety rest not upon the actual fact of safety but upon having said and heard the declarations so many times. Even the plant operators feel safe, and utter the same platitudes as the corporate executives and their public spokesmen, as if saying it often enough makes it so.