Recently I’ve been thinking about my favourite screenplays and I realised that I had a great affection for the work of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel but that there were swathes of their filmography with which I wasn’t familiar. I decided to acquaint myself with their whole canon, which proved to be a project of two distinct halves. On the one hand, their best work (most of which was done in the 80s and the first half of the 90s) still feels underrated, its comparative accessibility leading to its critical undervaluation. On the other hand, their worst work is sometimes lamentable and devoid of the elements that make their classic scripts so lovable. There’s an even split here of eight films that are good to great and eight that are ok to terrible. In the case of the latter films, Ganz and Mandel often feel like writers for hire, brought in to punch up scripts that weren’t working, whereas the screenplays they developed entirely themselves are often extremely clever, well-structured and hilarious, with my number one pick being one of my favourite screenplays of all time. Don’t be put off by the first half of this ranking, from number eight onwards there are numerous gems to discover.


There’s a very funny story John Landis tells about how he received an enthusiastic call from Paul McCartney just after he’d finished shooting Spies Like Us. McCartney had written a song for the film and felt it was one of the best things he’d written since he was writing with John Lennon. Though Landis protested that the film was finished and there was no space for a song, McCartney sent it to him anyway. Landis thought it was abysmal but there was no way the studio was going to let him turn down a specially-penned composition by Paul McCartney, so the song Spies Like Us ended up being added over the credits of the film. Landis tells the story very amusingly and it’s true that, while the song is not as dreadful as he makes out, it’s not exactly amongst the finest McCartney compositions either. However, the story would be a lot funnier if there was anything at all salvageable about Landis’s film in the first place. As it turns out, McCartney’s contribution to the soundtrack is probably one of its highlights.

There’s a level of discomfort with any John Landis film released after 1983 because they simply shouldn’t exist. After Landis’s well-documented negligence on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie which cost three actors their lives (including two child actors who should not legally have been there), it’s unconscionable that he avoided a conviction, let alone was allowed to keep on working. Still, after his acquittal Landis’s career certainly took a noticeable downturn in quality. He had a few more hits and the likes of Coming to America and The Three Amigos have their fans but he never reached the level of The Blues Brothers, Trading Places or An American Werewolf in London again. One of the first films Landis made after the tragedy was Spies Like Us and it feels as if the bleak mindset he must’ve been in bled into the film, rendering it stiff and joyless, with an airily flavourless, overcompensatary topping of celebrity cameos and unspectacular action. The flaccid screenplay originated with Dan Aykroyd and Dave Thomas but the finished product is credited to Aykroyd, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, with the latter two contributors presumably brought in to punch the writing up a bit. Coming off the back of their Oscar-nominated success with Splash, Spies Like Us became Ganz and Mandel’s first critical flop and the fact that you can’t really detect their distinctive fingerprints on it suggests that they struggled to bring life to an existing storyline that is basically a blandly conventional Spy Thriller with awkwardly inserted skits.

One of the regular criticisms you see of Ganz and Mandel’s screenplays is that they are more like sitcoms than films but I’ve always found this to be a strength, with the well-defined characters and warm familiarity of the best sitcoms expertly transplanted to the big screen. But Spies Like Us is more of a star vehicle, aiming to capitalise on the contrasting personalities of Aykroyd and Chevy Chase in an attempt to emulate the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby dynamic from the old Road to… films. Hope himself even shows up wielding his golf club in one of the film’s ten million cameos and it is perhaps testament to the comedy instincts he had honed over the decades that he immediately decides to play through. I’ve always been a big defender of the much-maligned Chase, at least from a performance point of view, but he has always seemed like a comedic actor who thrives when given the spotlight rather than one who works well as part of a duo or ensemble. In the Fletch films or as the overbearing patriarch in the Vacation series Chase dominates in a way that plays to his strengths but in The Three Amigos he feels marginalised by having to accommodate the performance style of others. Even in his acclaimed comeback as part of the Community ensemble his character was pointedly the outsider of the group, often pitted against them. Fans of Spies Like Us frequently cite an early scene in which Chase attempts to cheat in an exam as the comedic highlight and this makes sense as Chase is allowed to completely dominate here, with Aykroyd serving as his sidelined straight man. Having read a good number of reviews that mentioned how funny this scene was, when it arrived early on I knew I was in trouble because I didn’t find it funny at all. Even for a prominently physical performer like Chase, it is overplayed and the comedic beats poorly defined.

To be honest, I knew I was in trouble even before the exam scene arrived because Landis’s direction is conspicuously leaden right from the word go. My stony-faced reaction continued throughout Spies Like Us, which gradually reduces moments of broad comedy in favour of an increasingly boring espionage plot. It then tacks on a couple of negligible romances which fall short even of the absent development that is supposed to create a friendship between the leads. Landis seems aware of this complete lack of character development and hopes that his flashy cameos and explosions will be enough to compensate. They are not. Spies Like Us was on regular rotation as a Saturday evening TV movie when I was a kid but it never registered with me like most of the others did. I think I only watched it once and I couldn’t remember any of it when I sat down to watch it again. The reason quickly became clear. Spies Like Us feels like neither one thing nor the other. It is too juvenile and broad to feel like it’s aimed at adults but too crass and tediously complex to feel like it’s aimed at kids and neither factor is strong enough to make it effective as a family film either.

While there is enough evidence out there to make a judgement on Landis’s culpability in the Twilight Zone tragedy, my research on the accident unearthed a thread in which people were discussing whether Landis felt any remorse. I feel more uncomfortable speculating about the frame of mind of a man who witnessed the decapitation of two people by helicopter blades than I do judging his level of responsibility but there is a part of me that can’t help but feel that the cold, empty atmosphere that hangs over Spies Like Us is a direct result of its production being in the immediate aftermath. All the joie de vivre that was evident in Trading Places feels completely absent and the laughter struggles to fight its way to the surface past this conspicuously bleak aura. Perhaps this isn’t the case for those who grew up loving the film and maybe the existence of that fanbase raised my hopes too much. After all, there’s no chillier reception than the failed delivery of hoped-for nostalgia. But given the amount of talent involved here, it’s a deeply disappointing experience to watch the film collapse under Landis’s visibly feeble direction and it’s unsurprising that Ganz and Mandel ran back to the familiar arms of Ron Howard for their next project.

I lied through omission in the opening paragraph of this review. While I admitted that Spies Like Us the song was not Paul McCartney’s strongest work, I didn’t mention that I secretly have a bit of a soft spot for it too. This may be due to my own nostalgia for a Beatles-obsessed youth in which I consumed McCartney’s entire solo catalogue with the undiscerning fervour of a superfan. But perhaps it could equally be attributed to the fact that the song plays over the end credits of Spies Like Us and the positivity I’m experiencing stems from a subconscious Pavlovian relief response.


When I saw the horribly cheap looking poster and the schmaltzy title of Where the Heart Is, I must admit I immediately braced myself for the worst. But when a little more research revealed that this film featured a primarily female cast and was based on a bestselling novel by Billie Letts which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, I really, really hoped I’d find something redeeming here. I desperately didn’t want to join the ranks of a particular kind of male reviewer I knew would be lurking around the edges of this film, who would denounce it for being about and, as I’m sure they would surmise, exclusively for, women without giving the actual content of the story any consideration. It was through splayed fingers then that I watched one of the worst films I’ve recently sat through unfold before me.

The problems with Where the Heart Is are numerous but one thing they have absolutely nothing to do with is the cast. An extremely impressive group of actors has been assembled here, with Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, Joan Cusack and Sally Field all making appearances of varying length. These women are working very hard to make this material work, especially Portman whose central performance has to carry the film as she pinballs wildly between the ludicrously excessive storylines with no clear set of themes to use as a map. I haven’t read Billie Letts’ source novel so I don’t know whether she was clearer on what the point of all these offbeat plotlines is but in this adaptation they just play like a pile of ideas, desperately trying to hide a lack of substance behind a disorienting forward motion. Fortunately, in my desire to avoid my dislike of this film being mistaken for misogyny, I can comfortably lay the blame for many of its failures at the feet of men. Exactly why Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel were hired to adapt this thing I have no idea. Perhaps it was assumed that their skilful juggling of numerous plots in Parenthood would translate to this film but their amusing, down-to-earth wit is entirely unsuited to the brand of wistful, folksy pseudo-wisdom in which the film is so intolerably marinated. Director Matt Williams, creator of the sitcom Roseanne, fails to escape those televisual origins here. The dull, washed-out cinematography of Richard Greatrex makes Where the Heart Is seem like a cheap TV movie.

Where the Heart Is has an interesting starting point in which Portman’s pregnant teenager is abandoned by her boyfriend at an Oklahoma Walmart. Alone and with nowhere to go, she secretly moves into the Walmart where one night she goes into labour. She passes out and awakes in a hospital, a media sensation surrounded by paparazzi. There are countless places you could take this story from here but Where the Heart Is chooses instead to dispense with it quite quickly before piling on an attempted abduction, a domestic abuse case, two instances of child molestation, a few deaths, a downward spiral into alcoholism, a train accident and a twister! There’s nothing wrong with a narrative packed with events but they need to be drawn together by some common theme or thread that explains why we’re seeing them, otherwise what we get is just random chaos. If there is a point to all this then it has been badly lost in the process of adaptation. If there isn’t a point then it seems ambitious at best to expect such a wayward narrative to work, and at worst it feels exploitative to touch so fleetingly on a subject like child abuse for no other reason than shock and emotional manipulation. By the time this event occurred I was already deeply confused by Where the Heart Is. Afterwards, I was a little bit disgusted by it too.

Given the lightheartedness of Ganz and Mandel’s filmography, it’s tempting to characterise Where the Heart Is as a heavy, dramatic anomaly. But the film is so unintentionally silly that it doesn’t seem all that out of place sandwiched between Spies Like Us and Vibes at the bottom of my list. Spies Like Us, as a Comedy with no laughs at all, still holds its place at the bottom of the list but Where the Heart Is comes a close second by being almost the opposite of that: a Drama with too much drama! But with no apparent point to it all, there’s little to make us care about these thinly-drawn characters. The film could be more accurately titled if you jumbled up the words and added a punctuation mark: Natalie Portman in Matt Williams’ Where is the Heart?


Vibes is probably the most forgotten film by screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and unfortunately it’s not hard to see why. Having thoroughly enjoyed the critical panned Gung Ho, I was hoping for another hidden gem. There were certainly enough reviews out there by people who seemed charmed by Vibes. There’s an element of having to manage expectations, given that Vibes audaciously tried to sell itself as “Romancing the Ghostbusters in the Temple of Doom.” Although it probably looked tempting on a poster, Vibes was doing itself no favours by aligning itself with huge summer blockbusters to which it bears no resemblance. It may have a strange glowing pyramid built by an alien race at the centre of its plot but it takes a lot of sucking to get to that centre… and Vibes does a lot of sucking! What Vibes really feels like is a little B-movie and had it not aspired to ride the wave of bigger budget smashes it may have drifted along pleasantly enough on a tepid flow of low expectations. However, given its almost unanimous critical drubbing, I did go into Vibes with reasonably low expectations. But given its writers, its cast and sitcom veteran Ken Kwapis being at the helm, I did expect a little more fun than I ultimately got.

Although it involves an adventure in the Ecuadorian Andes, Vibes feels claustrophobic throughout. Its largely turgid opening half hour sets up some lead characters who are all quirk and no substance and this turgidness somehow carries through to the blandly shot wide open landscapes. The film feels so caught up in its rambling nonsense about neurotic psychics that it traipses past incredible vistas and promising plot points with its nose buried in its nonstarter of a script. Of its trio of leads, Cyndi Lauper stands out. It’s hard to tell with material this weak whether Lauper can really act or not but she’s certainly giving it her all and there are fleeting facial expressions and line readings that betray a greater comic talent than Vibes allows her to explore. By contrast, Jeff Goldblum appears to be sleepwalking through his role, never giving more than that standard Goldblum style to which he reverts when he’s visibly bored. Reportedly, Lauper and Goldblum did not get on and this would account for their detrimental lack of chemistry. The film blows its stack too early trying to compensate for this with a kissing scene that feels rushed and anticlimactic. Vibes seems to hope we’ll root for the two oddballs to get together based on their mutual weirdness but they never seem like a match. Peter Falk completes the trio as a devious and manipulative treasure hunter. I’m always pleased to see Falk but his performance here is too over the top even for this film. It’s tempting to class him as miscast but I don’t think that’s the case, as the role seems like a fit for him on paper. It seems far more likely that he was misdirected, prodded by Kwapis to up the quirk factor to match that of his co-stars when really he should be offsetting them with a more grounded performance in a different comedic register.

Unlike the execrable Spies Like Us, Vibes does have a mild charm in its obvious desire to please but that is overshadowed by a lamentable inability to do so. The plot rambles, stuck in tedious minutiae in a manner that conspicuously keeps its high concept premise waiting frustrated in the wings. Ganz and Mandel are at their best when they’re engaged with their characters’ humanity, something they managed to achieve admirably in their previous Fantasy film Splash. But lumbered with underdeveloped ciphers as they are here, they lean into half-hearted gags and contrived situations that never allow room for the sort of recognition that would make the audience care. Those with a taste for unloved oddities may have a kind word for Vibes but I found it a frustrating watch.


There’s an obvious metaphor to be had from the fact that Multiplicity, a film in which four Michael Keatons create a chaotic too-many-cooks situation, has four credited screenwriters. Among them are Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, fresh off their underrated and sensitively-pitched Rom-Com Forget Paris, and Chris Miller, on whose National Lampoon Magazine story the film is based (The fourth writer was a woman, Mary Hale, whose lack of other writing credits suggest she has subsequently been marginalised, which could also be used as a handy metaphor for this film). The fact that the film wasn’t called National Lampoon’s Multiplicity suggests to me that director Harold Ramis was aiming for something with a little more heart than the majority of previous Lampoon films and perhaps Ganz and Mandel were hired in an attempt to provide the human side. Although some of the early scenes, in which the everyday pressures on Keaton’s Doug Kinney are established, have a level of relatability about them, the moment the solution of Doug cloning himself is suggested Multiplicity begins to lose sight of its own themes. The difficulties of family life, job pressures and the need to find time for yourself are ample motivation for an incisive Comedy and when you throw in the 90s hot-button issue of cloning it opens up even more interesting ethical, dramatic and comedic avenues to explore. But in the case of Multiplicity, the introduction of cloning is the moment the film just becomes a sloppy mess in which cheap laughs are purchased at the expense of some much-needed depth.

There are many who, in retrospect, find Multiplicity problematic on several levels. I’ll get into that but for me the main problem was that the film just isn’t funny enough. I’d happily take some cheap laughs without much substance if they were worth it but whatever Multiplicity is charging for these gags is too much. There are those who claim that Michael Keaton gives one of the great comedy performances of the 90s here but really these are just broad types and, while Keaton squeezes a couple of small laughs out of them, they’re hardly insightful variations on a single character as some have suggested. It’s just Keaton doing some funny sketch-comedy-level bits. MacDowell is completely underserved by her role, essentially becoming a sexualised prop the ownership of which the male characters can fight over. I’ve always avoided this film because its concept seemed to suggest a loud, over-the-top farce in which the protagonist is forced to stack lie upon lie in order to keep his secret. There is definitely a lot of that here. Witness an early restaurant scene in which Doug, dining with his wife Laura (Andie MacDowell), spots one of his clones in the same restaurant with another woman. In their attempt to escape without her noticing, one of the Dougs ends up distracting Laura with an unnecessarily over the top kiss that practically forces her underneath the table, while the other Doug and his date are somehow unable to leave the restaurant without knocking over every chair and dragging off every tablecloth. It’s the most clumsy slapstick imaginable, turning everything up to eleven with no degree of convincing escalation. I had found Multiplicity unremarkable up to this point but that was my first big uh-oh moment.

Something that many people now find problematic about Multiplicity is the different personalities of the clones. One represents Doug’s masculine side, one his feminine side and the final one, a clone created from another clone, is barely able to function mentally. Obviously we’re dealing in broad stereotypes here so the feminine Doug is clearly coded as gay, while others have found the clone-of-a-clone to be an offensive take on mental disabilities. As a white, cishet, non-disabled man who grew up in the 90s, I’m admittedly not in the best position to deem what’s offensive and what isn’t, but from my point of view the fourth clone seemed to be merely a slapstick dunderhead, a far cry from the problematic roles of W. Earl Brown in There’s Something About Mary or Will Sasso in Drop Dead Gorgeous from around the same era. Then again, the fact that the fourth clone is named Lenny is clearly a reference to the mentally disabled character in Of Mice and Men, a continuation of a questionable tradition from Hollywood cartoons. The third clone, meanwhile, is shown to be effeminate but not lascivious, but he is very pointedly associated with housework and childcare in the same way the masculine clone is sent off to project manage construction work. Get these roles mixed up and uh-oh! Suddenly Doug has no job!

Where Multiplicity really loses it is when it becomes a strange sex comedy. I’ve always thought from the poster that this film was a goofball Family Comedy but no, it has that National Lampoon sexual angle in spades. A big chunk of the overlong runtime is taken up by the fact that Doug has forbidden the clones to have sex with his wife but uh-oh! One night when Doug’s out, Laura is suddenly super horny and the clones are all accidentally gonna get it! The sexual question could’ve proved interesting to explore in relation to cloning. Is it cheating if the clone is essentially a part of the same person? More to the point, Laura sleeps with each of the clones believing them to be her husband. That icky accidental sex with the wrong person card has been played in far more skin-crawling ways (hello Revenge of the Nerds and The Boat That Rocked) but Multiplicity attempts to get round it by making Laura surprisingly aggressive. There’s a very long scene in which feminine Doug is caught in bed with her and no matter how much he protests, Laura will not stop her amorous advances. The tone is problematic in two ways here. First, there’s an obvious “haha, look at the girly man trying to fend off the hot woman” angle but then there’s also a distinct rejection of no means no. The clone’s eventual submission is portrayed as a “he wanted it really” justification but Laura’s insistence is clearly coercive and her lack of informed consent is uncomfortable. Then she goes through the same process twice more in a row with the other two clones, at which point that decision to name the fourth clone Lenny feels really misjudged. His subsequent line “She touched my peppy, Steve” is one of the most celebrated and quoted in the film. That’s the level we’re working at here.

Fans of Multiplicity will probably claim that I’m taking a silly Comedy way too seriously and there is a grain of truth in that. My disappointment stems more from the fact that Multiplicity pisses away such a promising premise on a script that is so consistently unfunny and completely unengaged with any of the themes it initially lays out. If you’re just here for the laughs then fine (if you can find them) but Multiplicity so obviously starts out wanting to be more than it becomes. It seems to shed its ambition the minute the main concept kicks in and yet it still manages to drizzle on for nearly two hours. The overwhelming feeling at the end of the film is OK, what was the point?


The 1983 French Comedy film Les Compères starring Pierre Richard and Gérard Depardieu was not a hit with critics but fourteen years later Hollywood thought it could solve the problem by remaking it in English and casting Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. The result, which somehow cost 85 million dollars to make, was also a critical and commercial flop. It’s hard to see why. I mean, they had the Ska Punk soundtrack and the cameo from the band Sugar Ray. What more could they have possibly done? The one smart move they made was hiring Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel as screenwriters. If anyone could bring a bit of heart and wit to this remake, surely it was the men behind Parenthood, Night Shift and A League of Their Own. Unfortunately, the thin premise of two men sent on a quest to find an ex-girlfriend’s missing son after she tells them both they are the father doesn’t give Ganz and Mandel much to work with, a superfluous subplot about drug dealers throws the script even more off centre, and the incessant ad-libbing of the two leads makes for a jarring experience. To be fair to Ganz and Mandel, the best parts of the film are those that are clearly in their script, like Crystal’s story about a birthday trip to the circus that ended in his dog being put down. But when the stars, particularly Williams, are allowed free rein the whole film starts feeling like it’s for their own amusement above ours.

There are numerous reviews out there that wonder just how a film starring two huge comedy names could be so weak. But casting two ad-libbers and best friends side by side in a film is more likely to create a mess than an enjoyable experience. Crystal manages to show a little restraint, although his Jack is nominally the straight man of this odd couple, with Williams’ emotional, anxiety-ridden Dale providing the shrill, out-of-control energy. Despite its reputation, Father’s Day can’t help but be occasionally funny because Williams and Crystal are undeniably amusing, but the sheer amount of improvisation is tough to take when layered on top of an attempt at storytelling. Williams pitches his neurotic flailing at such a wild level that you can almost see the edges of the screen shaking. His best moments are when he comes back down to Earth for a few minutes, although there are also moments when director Ivan Reitman has clearly gone “Let’s just shoot Robin for a while and edit together the best bits.” It feels like it was probably funnier in the room.

Speaking of Reitman, there are numerous reviews that also wonder how he could’ve been involved in such a disaster. That’s a bit strange given that his previous film was Junior and that, glancing at his filmography, only Ghostbusters really stands out. Stripes and Dave were OK, I suppose. Some people love Kindergarten Cop but even they probably wouldn’t see it as evidence of its director’s unimpeachable comedic genius. Father’s Day pretty much fits comfortably into the filmography. I don’t think it’s the complete catastrophe it has sometimes been painted as and it is even fitfully entertaining but as a film it just doesn’t hold together because the emotional beats are drowned out by the loose and loud approach to the material. You could watch an isolated scene from Father’s Day on YouTube and be fooled into thinking it might actually be alright. But a three minute snippet is about the right length for the sort of boisterous comedic flights presented here. Start stacking them end to end and it becomes intolerable very quickly.


Fever Pitch is nominally an American remake of the 1997 British film based on the book by Nick Hornby. I say “nominally” because the two Fever Pitch’s are so different that if it weren’t for their shared title I probably wouldn’t even have made the connection. In the UK, the American Fever Pitch was given the terrible alternative title The Perfect Catch, perhaps to deaccentuate the relationship with a film that was reasonably well-known to a British audiences. Still, the original Fever Pitch never really reached the accepted level of a British classic and its comparatively thoughtful, low-key and melancholy approach to the Rom-Com genre didn’t exactly make it an obvious candidate for a US adaptation. Really, the only thing the two films share (aside from a name, in certain territories) is a central character with a sporting obsession that conflicts with his relationship. The UK film really got under the skin of that obsession, taking it seriously enough to examine it astutely without missing out on the inherent comedic opportunities. Colin Firth’s protagonist was unable and disinclined to hide his obsession with Arsenal Football Club and the damaging selfishness of such an obsession was examined in parallel with the positivity of having a passion. By contrast, the US Fever Pitch is keen to set up Jimmy Fallon’s baseball-obsessed protagonist as a great guy before we even dig into his passion. This is cleverly orchestrated around the off-season, allowing a romantic connection to develop between Fallon’s Ben and Drew Barrymore’s Lindsey before the full extent of Ben’s dedication to the Red Sox is revealed.

At this point, further comparisons between the two versions of Fever Pitch are largely pointless given that directors the Farrelly brothers and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel clearly took the premise as a jumping-off point for a completely different kind of film. That they decided to make a movie that fit into the more traditional upbeat mould of an American Rom-Com means an individual’s enjoyment is best judged on their own reaction to that kind of film. The Farrellys’ Fever Pitch does not fail because it doesn’t live up to the quality of or follow the same narrative as the original. For my money, it just fails by being a very bland example of a genre that is flooded with comparably generic examples. Ganz and Mandel had proved themselves able to write a smart, offbeat Rom-Com with the previous Forget Paris, Splash and even elements of their debut Night Shift. Fever Pitch just never feels like it engages with the genuine psychological implications of an all-consuming obsession because it is in too much of a hurry to get to the whipped cream of goofy romantic joshing and scenes where everyone claps and cheers (the ending, in fairness, does feel like a partial lift from Forget Paris, which was not immune to these tropes but deployed them more interestingly). If this is your comfort food then more power to you, you might just love Fever Pitch. If you’ve been ground down by just how many times you’ve seen this stuff then Fever Pitch won’t change your mind.

The most interesting aspects of Fever Pitch relate to the production rather than the film itself. The script focused on the 2004 season in which the Red Sox astounded the baseball world by winning the World Series. The problem was, given their decades-long losing streak, it had been assumed that the Red Sox would lose again this time and when it became clear that they were turning things around against the odds, the screenplay had to be hastily rewritten to accommodate these events. The original Fever Pitch was based around an unlikely sporting victory that had already happened. The remake got lucky when it happened in real time around the production, which actually allowed the cast and crew to shoot footage at the event itself. The other interesting thing about Fever Pitch is its title. The UK title is a pun, with “pitch” referring to the field on which football is played. The US version was able to switch sports but retain the punning element, in this case referring to the pitching of the ball in baseball. For me, this detail gets at the crucial difference between the two films. In football terms, the pitch is the playing surface and therefore absolutely foundational, just like football is to Firth’s protagonist’s character. In the case of baseball, the pitch is just one element of the game, and this reflects the comparative lightness with which Fallon’s character’s passion is treated. He is able to toss it away for love, whereas there is no such concession in Firth’s case, and any attempt to do so would undermine his whole world.


What’s worse: a treasure hunt story that ends with the revelation that the real gold was friendship all along or one that then goes on to undermine that point with the promise of actual gold on top of that? That bet-hedging second option is the one that City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold plumps for but by that point this jumbled contradiction of a climax hardly matters because we know what kind of film we’re watching. This is a sequel that is trying its best to please everyone and so it can no more end on the revelation of fake gold than it can refrain from cramming in eleventh hour cameos from every available actor from the first film. Those actors who didn’t return are not even mentioned. Bruno Kirby’s importance to the central trio of friends is somewhat undermined by the way he is ghosted here (an allergy to horses prevented his return), while the absence of Helen Slater’s Bonnie feels consistent with the lack of chemistry she had with her supposed intended, Daniel Stern’s Phil, but it deprives the film of even the limited female presence of its predecessor. Patricia Wettig’s Barbara, the wife of Billy Crystal’s leading man Mitch, is good for the limited time she has on screen. Couldn’t they have written her into the adventure instead of plugging in Jon Lovitz as Mitch’s brother and struggling to build up the required emotional resonance to justify this decision? And even though Phil’s relationship with Bonnie has presumably failed (it’s never mentioned but he’s considering going back to his mentally abusive wife) did they really have to erase all of his progress from the first film and make him the same neurotic mess all over again. Writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s work is often criticised for being too much like a sitcom. I’ve never found this to be a problem up until now but this resetting of the status quo feels very much like a lazy reversion at the beginning of a new episode. Meanwhile, Jack Palance’s Oscar-winning performance as Curly was one of the first film’s major talking points but his character was killed off. How do we get him back for the sequel? You guessed it, a long lost identical brother! As narrative cop outs go, that’s up there with amnesia and multiple personality disorder. Palance, though hardly Oscar-worthy, was a lot of fun in the first City Slickers. Bringing him back as the brother of his previous character waters that down a bit and Palance seems unsure whether to just replay his shtik from the first film or try and create a different character, resulting in a conflicted and less enjoyable performance.

Because of this truckload of transparent problems, City Slickers II has long had the reputation of a standard bearer for bad sequels. In truth though, it’s not absolutely abysmal. It’s not good either, let’s not get carried away, but it passes the time amiably enough (at least for a while. Nearly two hours is clearly excessive, especially given that it takes 35 minutes of strange sex comedy setup before we get back in the saddle). There’s another stampede, some more of those wide-open landscapes, some decent zingers here and there. Crystal takes on co-writing duties with Ganz and Mandel as he did on Mr. Saturday Night but here his one-liners actually enhance the script rather than overwhelm it, presumably because the script itself is so paper thin. The main problem is the lack of themes. City Slickers was about male mid-life crises, with all of its Western beats playing into that theme. City Slickers II is very much just about a treasure hunt, with its little asides about friendship and family barely amounting to a wilted garnish. That’s why the climactic revelation that the real treasure was friendship has to be heftily clonked on the head with an actual gold bar in the epilogue, because no-one’s buying that crap based on this evidence. Still, we get to check in with Norman the calf and guess what… he’s all grown up and goes jogging now. Take my money!


Robots arrived at a time when there seemed to be an avalanche of animated films in which the basic concept could be summed up in one word and often was: Cars! Antz! Robots! Sure, the toys had a story, the bugs had a life and the sharks had a tale but you could get a vague idea of what to expect from those films in the same way you could from those one-word titles. The important thing was the approach to storytelling and, while they were arguably about to make their first major misstep with the insipid Cars, Pixar were head and shoulders above the competition at this time. Robots, though commercially successful, is a comparatively forgotten film and it’s not too hard to see why. Its plot is comparatively interesting but for the most part it leans more heavily on an endless stream of robot gags, some good and some tiresomely forced. Co-written by David Lindsay-Abaire, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, Robots clatters along entertainingly enough but it struggles to settle down enough to tell its story. Imagine Toy Story if the opening gags about various types of toy had superseded the plot. The film moves quite fast but its spindly, metallic aesthetic becomes quite confusing to look at as the frenetic pace clashes with the visual intricacy. Casting Robin Williams as one of the leads doesn’t help, his rat-a-tat delivery being less suited to a lumbering mechano-man than an ethereal, shape-shifting genie.

I can only presume Ganz and Mandel were brought on board because of their knack with a gag and there are some funny ones here. The opening sequence shows a robot rushing home to his expectant wife and being told “You missed the delivery”, only to see a delivery van pull out of his driveway. His wife then seductively says that “making the baby is the fun part anyway” before enthusiastically holding up a self-assembly robot kit. That’s pretty funny but it feels like someone then said “That’s great, now do that again five hundred times.” So we quickly sink to the level of a homeless robot with a screw sticking through his head holding a sign that reads “Got Screwed.” Is that even a proper robot joke? It’s a bit of a stretch, to be sure. Still, it’s hard not to like Robots despite its clunkiness. It hits a lot of expected beats, including the seemingly mandatory dance-off finale that was one of Shrek’s many gifts to the world. There is also a large-bottomed character called Aunt Fanny who I can only assume was Ganz and Mandel’s creation, given their unfortunate penchant for a “your aunt’s big ass” gag in previous films. Not all of her scenes play especially well today but she fulfils her main purpose, which is to facilitate the delivery of the prerequisite fart gag (we can’t blame Shrek for that one. Farts permeated mainstream animation way back in the 90s and have lingered ever since).

Robots resides firmly in the overstuffed OK-I-Guess file of 21st century computer animations. It performed well at the time but it’s no surprise to find that few people remember it fondly today. Rodney, Cappy and Fender just don’t have the staying power of their contemporaries and though a sequel was discussed, Blue Sky Studios decided to pursue their Ice Age franchise into the ground instead. Still, say what you like about it but everyone remembers Scrat chasing his acorn. Unless you were the right age at the time of its release, not many people remember poor old Rodney Copperbottom.


Old school stand up comedian Buddy Young was a character Billy Crystal created in the 80s for an HBO special and he later appeared as the character on Saturday Night Live. Obviously Crystal had a fondness for this creation as he went on to co-write, produce, direct and star in a film about Buddy’s professional rise and fall. It’s a nice idea for a film and it opens up the opportunity to explore more than just the life of a fictional jokester. There are beats in here about race, family, the aging process and the thin line between comedy and cruelty. In choosing his City Slickers collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel as writing partners, Crystal ensured his screenplay at least hit some interesting notes but it never really settles into any of its themes and doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to put across. Crystal feels too in love with shtik and one-liners and keeps getting sidetracked from the more interesting topics that surround the over-foregrounded Buddy. There are moments when I genuinely don’t know whether we’re supposed to be finding Buddy’s antics hilarious or excruciating. This also makes the examination of the cruelty inherent in certain types of comedy feel disorientingly blurry. In the opening half hour alone there is a fat joke every two minutes and certain romanticised scenes, such as the one in which the young Buddy first deals with a heckler, seem to celebrate body-shaming as an essential tool of the art-form, which is strange in a film that also seems keen to denounce other forms of comedic cruelty. It’s sometimes hard to tell in a 90s film partially set in the 50s but I’m sure at least some of the fatphobic zingers are meant to be hysterical, even weak jibes like “you look like New Jersey in pants”, which is repeated for emphasis as an apparent slice of comedy gold.

There are bigger, more immediately apparent problems that prevent Mr. Saturday Night from being a great, or even particularly good, film. The old age makeup worn by Billy Crystal for the majority of the movie is ludicrously unconvincing. It looks like the kind of makeup you’d be satisfied with for a comedy sketch but the dramatic ambition of Mr. Saturday Night is incompatible with such shonky visual work. Unfortunately, Crystal gives a performance to match the makeup. This is a broad caricature at best and the sentimental finale never feels earned because neither the performance nor the writing ever gets under the skin (or plastic, or whatever the hell that stuff is on his face) of the character. We’re just left with another predictable tale of a guy who made it big and let his ego take over, followed by some vaguely redemptive gestures in the last ten minutes or so. It’s a shame Crystal isn’t great because David Paymer’s performance as his brother Stan is excellent. Understated, real and emotionally affecting, Paymer was Oscar-nominated for his work and it was a richly deserved accolade given that he is one of the major reasons Mr. Saturday Night emerges as a tolerable failure rather than an absolute disaster.

As a very different kind of Saturday Night Live spinoff film, Mr. Saturday Night is laudable for its ambition but it is not quite willing to lean hard enough into its dramatic side. If Crystal had been willing to go darker with the material, as Tim Robbins did that same year with his own unconventional Saturday Night Live spinoff Bob Roberts, then Mr. Saturday Night might’ve really found its groove. As it is, this is a film that jars like a kangarooing car, stopping dead in its tracks for insufferable, extended comedy bits or self-conscious cameos like Jerry Lewis’s depressingly unfunny appearance. Crystal’s direction feels like it’s conflicting with his acting and he might’ve been better handing the reins over to someone else. Ganz and Mandel’s steadying hands are apparent but this is Crystal’s show and he wants the audience to know it. It must’ve been a painful experience when he hosted the Oscars that year and the sole nomination for his passion piece was for the performance of his co-star. Still, Crystal dealt with it classily, cheekily appending the title of Mr. Saturday Night to the end of the list of Best Picture nominees and quipping “I just wanted to see how it feels, so sue me!” That’s actually a funnier line than anything in the film.


Early on in Tooth Fairy, Dwayne Johnson’s hockey player Derek “The Tooth Fairy” Thompson advises a young aspiring player to lower their expectations to avoid disappointment. It’s good advice for approaching the film because, despite its widespread reputation as an utter disaster, Tooth Fairy is perfectly serviceable family entertainment. It’s probably not quite what you’d call good but it’s also not what I’d call bad either. Bits of it are very bad. There are plenty of predictable moments of bland sentimentality and gags that are trying too hard. The twinkly, bombastic score by George S. Clinton is often smothering but the whole thing is so relentless in its cheery desire to please that if you can go with it you’ll have a bit of uncomplicated fun. The ludicrous premise actually works in the film’s favour, successfully differentiating it from other films of its kind. I can understand why some people struggle to accept “Dwayne Johnson is forced to become a tooth fairy” as a viable concept but there’s no reason why Elf should be accepted as a classic while this is unceremoniously binned before it’s been given a chance… I mean other than the fact that people are a bit more charitable around Christmastime.

When something isn’t quite as dreadful as you’re expecting, it’s easy to get carried away in defending it. In the case of Tooth Fairy, it’s not a film that left me scratching my head over why it is so derided. Written by a committee of five different writers, it feels like a bit of a jumble of ideas and its attempt to equate older childrens’ hopes and dreams with their ability to believe in things like Santa and the tooth fairy is singularly unconvincing. The supporting cast includes a visibly struggling Julie Andrews who, as the head of the tooth fairies, gets saddled with having to switch gears into maudlin speeches lamenting how children don’t believe anymore, moments which the overwhelming score assures us we’re supposed to take very seriously. Stephen Merchant appears in one of his most regrettably over-the-top “and Stephen Merchant as Stephen Merchant” type roles, while Ashley Judd gets lumbered with the underwritten girlfriend role and is subject to the least romantic last-minute proposal I’ve ever seen. It’s totally unnecessary as the film naturally arrives at a decently rousing finale in which Judd’s character’s son proves himself at a talent show. This ties in with the film’s themes of hopes and dreams but the superfluous proposal seems like it was grafted on after a puritanical executive pushed for it. They may as well have had Johnson turn to the camera afterwards and say “Thank God we waited.”

Unlike some of the other later Ganz and Mandel films that stretched thin premises to near two hour runtimes, Tooth Fairy is a reasonable length and manages to pack quite a lot into its 100 minutes. The hockey subplot is quite good fun and I assume Ganz and Mandel were behind these scenes given their history with sporting comedies. After the film was over, I knew I’d never watch it again but I also didn’t regret having watched it once and the time passed quickly and pleasantly, albeit with intervals of cringing. That the roundly reviled Tooth Fairy has ended up at number 10 in my ranking is either testament to it not being as bad as its reputation or else a comment on how awful the latter half of these once-great screenwriter’s career really was.


City Slickers was a huge critical and commercial hit in 1991 and remains one of the most beloved films by screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It is also, from my point of view, a bit of an overrated disappointment. I acknowledge that one of the reasons I might not love City Slickers as much as many is that I didn’t see it at the time. I came to the film much later in life but in a way that might have worked in the film’s favour, given that its central theme is male midlife crises. As a 41 year old man, some may expect my recent rewatch of City Slickers to have resonated far more strongly than it did. But the trouble is that at this midpoint in my life, I’ve never felt less in the midst of crisis. I know who I am better than I ever have, I’m comfortable and happy with my situation and dedicated to my family. I’ve never been a terribly adventurous person so there’s no longing to get out there and try extreme new experiences. Consequently I struggle a little to relate to the characters in City Slickers. But perhaps the major problem here is that I like to get my action/adventure kicks vicariously through movies and consequently I know my way round a good Western quite well. City Slickers feels like a Western pastiche written by people who haven’t seen many Westerns.

There’s absolutely no reason why you have to have had similar experiences to the characters onscreen in order to enjoy their stories but there is something in the writing and performances in City Slickers that just fails to convince. Billy Crystal’s Mitch claims to feel lost but his constant smirking wisecracks and jocular manner don’t really communicate this. His best scene comes early on in the film as he gloomily delivers a dour rundown of life expectations to a classroom of young children. Here, the writing feels sharp and funny, whereas when it delves deeper into the sources of its three male leads’ dissatisfaction it ends up turning up those hoary old chestnuts: lack of job satisfaction, fear of commitment and, of course, the ball-breaking wife. In the case of the latter plot, the film makes the mistake of thinking we’ll be fully sympathetic to the fact that Daniel Stern’s domestically browbeaten Phil has been driven into the arms of a woman half his age who also happens to be his work subordinate at the supermarket he manages. Perhaps this was seen as a forgivable symptom of midlife crises by an early 90s audience but there’s a high level of ick to it from a modern perspective, especially since the casting of Yeardley Smith lumbers Phil’s youthful conquest with the voice of 8 year old Lisa Simpson. It makes Phil hard to see as anything other than creepy and it’s difficult to root for his redemptive, chemistry-free romance with Helen Slater’s Bonnie, which feels completely underwritten.

I’d never call the cineliteracy of Ganz and Mandel into question but their attempt at a modern Western here feels too generic and fails to channel the magic that make City Slickers’ classic predecessors so enduring. For this film to work as well as it could, it needs to evoke the widescreen atmospherics of John Ford and Howard Hawks but instead its Colorado landscapes are rendered almost claustrophobic, feeling somehow like a jeujed-up quarry. I don’t know exactly why that is but I can only assume it is the strangely anticlimactic material infecting my perception of the surroundings. Ron Underwood’s flat direction doesn’t help but the stop-start midlife crisis plots, the underdeveloped ragbag of supporting characters and the disappointing bursts of action never allow for a proper flow to develop. The film feels unfocused and it seriously crashes and burns in its final beats in which the men are distressed to find that the cattle they have been driving are due to be sold to a meat packing company. This final dilemma is apparently solved by Mitch turning up back in New York with Norman, the calf he delivered himself, in tow as a pet. Don’t worry everyone, he saved the cute one!

It sounds like I absolutely hated City Slickers but in all honesty it is still passably charming in its distinctly 90s way. Billy Crystal is a likeable leading man even if he doesn’t really escape his well-worn public persona. Jack Palance is a lot of fun as the menacing tough-guy trail boss Curly, an Oscar-winning role, no less (it does seem like a bit of an overreaction but it’s hard to begrudge an old legend like Palance his belated statuette). Ganz and Mandel’s writing, while not firing on all cylinders as it was in the previous Parenthood, is still capable of delivering very fine scenes such as the aforementioned classroom oratory or a moving and funny scene in which the three men discuss the best and worst days of their lives. The latter scene is the film’s highlight for me and it is that relaxed hanging-out vibe that delivers most of City Slickers’ appeal. It struggles to step things up when some action is needed but lovers of Westerns like myself will likely get some enjoyment out of even this vague engagement with the genre’s tropes. 


Some films are overlooked because of their similarities to others. Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe lives in the shadow of Staley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The Oscar-nominated short film 12:01pm and its feature-length remake remain little-known while Groundhog Day became a classic with the same time loop premise. The Bugs Bunny short Rhapsody Rabbit, in which he battles a mouse hiding inside a piano, is far less beloved than The Cat Concerto, the Oscar-winning Tom and Jerry short which utilises not only the same concept but the same piece of music as its soundtrack. In the case of all these films, legal action was brought to bear with one or both parties alleging plagiarism, but in the case of Ron Howard’s Edtv the filmmakers just got unlucky when a similar but not identical examination of Reality TV called The Truman Show emerged less than a year before it. No foul play was suspected (Edtv was actually based on a Quebecois film called Louis 19, King of the Airwaves, which pre-dated The Truman Show by four years) but the similarities between the two films ended up sinking the latter one, which became an underserved box office bomb. Edtv is still generally only mentioned in relation to The Truman Show, something which I simply can’t avoid perpetuating here. While certain elements are uncannily similar (chiefly the depiction of the cross-section of viewers watching the films’ protagonists), the concepts are a little different, with The Truman Show focusing on an unwitting lifelong captive and Edtv centring on an initially willing participant in a TV network’s experiment of televising a normal person’s life 24/7. The stakes are much higher in The Truman Show and the ethical questions more interesting, with Roger Ebert calling it a “parable” compared to the “ambitious sitcom” of Edtv. There’s definitely a televisual simplicity to Edtv but that feels like a deliberate stylistic choice, given its preoccupation with small screen phenomena, and as someone who considers sitcom to be an underrated medium, Edtv works well enough for me that I think it is unfair to only speak of Ed as a poor man’s Truman.

Reuniting writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel with director Ron Howard, with whom they made four great films in the 80s, Edtv is a worthy final chapter in this underrated collaboration. The previous couple of Ganz and Mandel screenplays, Multiplicity and Father’s Day, had been more about gags and comedy bits, but Edtv sees them get back to the warm humanism that is key in their finest scripts. There are plenty of decent laughs here, as well as a couple of gags that slightly overreach (if you’re going to have a man accidentally crush a cat, the cat has to die for the gag to work. Here the cat lives, because Edtv isn’t the sort of film that should be crushing cats in the first place), but for the most part the humour comes from the characters and the situation. Matthew McConaughey is magnetic as Ed, constantly addressing the audience with folksy aphorisms and cockeyed smiles. Woody Harrelson is enjoyably obnoxious as his macho brother, Rob Reiner is effectively smarmy as an unscrupulous network boss and Martin Landau is moving as Ed’s slightly bewildered ailing stepfather. But it is the women who really excel in this cast, with Jenna Elfman’s Shari shouldering the brunt of the pitfalls of unwanted fame (it’s an astute observation, given that Reality TV was in its infancy, that women would be the ones to suffer excessive misogynistic scrutiny even when the men were the ones behaving badly) and Ellen DeGeneres providing an impish moral centre as the gradually awakening producer Cynthia. Other pieces of casting are more puzzling. Dennis Hopper’s appearance is virtually a cameo and he is given little to do, Gedde Watanabe, previously the star of the Howard-Ganz-Mandel film Gung Ho, is lost amongst a faceless crowd of executives, and Harry Shearer’s appearance as a talk show moderator is so similar to his role in The Truman Show that it must either be a big coincidence or a deliberate tip of the hat added late in production.

While the enormity of The Truman Show’s fictional world allowed it to mount an epic third act escape, Edtv knows its limitations and provides a smaller but very satisfying equivalent. While Ed begins as a willing participant, the increased effect on his loved ones forces him to reconsider, at which point he finds himself trapped by his own fame and rigid contractual clauses. The notion that our privacy can be forfeited just by signing the wrong document is almost as frightening as the idea of being unknowingly imprisoned, perhaps because it is easier to imagine, and Edtv’s grounded approach brings that home. It’s unfortunate that this element snaps into focus so late in the film and that Ed comes up with a solution so quickly, as there’s a sense that Edtv could’ve benefited from exploring this angle for a bit longer when it was exhaustively exploring the romantic angle instead. Still, Edtv’s breeziness manages to make its two hour runtime zip by and it’s never less than entertaining. It’s not the sort of film most people would go out of their way to recommend but it’s solid fun with an interestingly prescient take on a TV phenomenon that was about to explode at the turn of the millennium. 


After the cult success of their debut movie script Night Shift, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel reunited immediately with that film’s director Ron Howard for their next project, Splash. Written in collaboration with Bruce Jay Friedman and based on a story by Brian Grazer, Splash is a Rom-Com in which one member of the central couple happens to be a mermaid. Though this dramatically changes the thrust of the third act, taking it briefly into the realms of Heist Comedy, for the most part Splash functions as a fairly normal Rom-Com but for the fact that the secret one of the protagonists is keeping is of a more fantastical than average nature. Herein lies Splash’s real charm. Many writers would be tempted to have the mermaid’s secret revealed early on and derive the gags from how her lover adjusts to the situation. Splash is content to let us enjoy seeing the couple fall in love first before fully slapping the audience in the face with its tailfin. Night Shift had followed a similar pattern, setting up a big concept and then essential hanging out with its characters and watching them connect for a full hour before really furthering the prologue’s dramatic tension. Splash languishes in the surf with its stars Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah for that same sixty minute period before unleashing Eugene Levy’s frustrated scientist and his buckets of water.

Splash is famous for being the first film released by Touchstone Pictures, essentially a pseudonym for Disney to release more adult films under without soiling their perceived purity. Though its mermaid storyline often made it a favourite in the afternoon family film slot on TV, Splash is surprisingly sexualised throughout, from Hannah’s seemingly perpetually horny male-fantasy of a mermaid to John Candy’s porn-loving upskirter of an older brother. There are no bare breasts like there were in Night Shift but those 3 seconds of titillation are significantly trumped by extended sequences featuring a very naked Hannah, shot from the back to preserve the PG rating. When the Disney+ streaming service was first launched, Disney received much criticism for censoring Hannah’s buttocks with an awkwardly added CG fur wrap. This has now been removed but it is telling that Disney still think a woman’s body is offensive while Candy’s antics went untouched by the censor’s scissors. Splash certainly feels of its time in some regards but its combination of whimsical fish jokes, sweet romance and a refusal to deny the sexual component of adult relationships makes it feel a lot less patronising than a more sanitised version might have.

The cast of Splash are all good, with a then-unknown Tom Hanks minting his likeable everyman persona in a way even the subsequent Bachelor Party couldn’t destroy and Hannah doing some of her best work as Madison, her wide-eyed naivety of human ways never tipping into a potentially problematic childishness. Levy is enjoyably hammy as the increasingly frenzied scientist and his broader humour complements the gentler pace of the romantic material. Candy, the most well-known member of the cast at that point, is the perfect choice for the sleazy brother, the childlike innocence of his expressive face making some of his grosser transgressions feel more forgivable than they perhaps should. Bizarrely, Roger Ebert’s 1.5 star pan of Splash pleaded that Hanks and Candy should’ve swapped roles. I can just about see the potential in the mermaid-falls-for-lovable-schlub angle but I struggle to see Hanks in Candy’s role. Perhaps that’s to do with me having seen the direction in which Hanks’ subsequent career went, although I suspect it’s also to do with the fact that Candy plays the part so well I can’t imagine anyone but him doing it.

Although Splash follows the same structure as Night Shift in its leisurely first hour, its script is noticeably tighter as it enters its second. You can see how it became Ganz and Mandel’s one Oscar-nominated screenplay. The plot comes together smoothly, hitting all the necessary emotional beats and upping the stakes as Hanks, Candy and a reformed Levy set about rescuing Madison from a government lab. By contrast, Night Shift just got looser and looser as it ambled to its scrappy climax. And yet, there is a free-spirited hilarity to Night Shift that makes me like it more. Splash provides a consistently warm, feelgood experience but overall it’s more fun than it is funny. While I may still prefer their debut though, Ganz and Mandel clearly demonstrate a progression as more focused writers in Splash, even if superfluous flourishes like Dody Goodman’s batty secretary feel like nods to their sitcom roots. Still, there’s no reason to disparage sitcom. While it takes a very different skill set to write a sitcom and a comedy feature, part of the charm of Ganz and Mandel’s work is how often they manage to translate the appeal of one medium into the other. Splash is one of the prime examples of that skill yielding hugely satisfying results.


Greedy is that rare thing: a feelbad Hollywood Comedy. Generally forgotten and undervalued in the filmographies of writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and director Jonathan Lynn, Greedy is well worth a reappraisal. The main problem many critics had with Greedy was that it felt like neither one thing nor the other to them. It seemed to begin as a vicious satire on avarice, manipulation and mental abuse, only to descend into a moralising, pious letdown that takes itself too seriously. Of course, Greedy has a moral viewpoint. It’s virtually impossible to pull off material like this without some kind of underlying message, even if it is implicit rather than spelled out. But I’d argue that the film is more complex than many reviewers credited it with being. In particular, our assumed point of entry, Michael J. Fox’s Danny McTeague, is quickly revealed to be as susceptible to the influence of money as his gaggle of abysmal cousins, all of whom have their sights set firmly on the fortune of Kirk Douglas’s elderly scrap metal tycoon, Joe. Joe McTeague is not the sympathetic victim you might expect in a plot like this however, and his devious manipulations make him equally as suspicious a presence as Greedy’s winding plot unfolds. The resolution that the film reaches is nominally a happy one but its focus is still very much on financial gain, with the cynical moral seeming to be that we are all susceptible to greed and the only way to prevent its power over us is to remove ourselves from the equation altogether. It’s not exactly a cheery message to take away from a mainstream film Comedy and this gloomy outlook may well have soured audiences on Greedy more than anything else, in much the same way viewers originally objected to Billy Wilder’s scathing Ace in the Hole.

If you’re the sort of viewer who finds a lack of likeable characters to be a problem, Greedy might not be the film for you. But if you relish seeing terrible people treat each other in a comically repugnant way then seek out the film immediately. As with Parenthood and A League of Their Own, Greedy finds Ganz and Mandel working with a large ensemble cast. While they are eventually marginalised by the focus on the battle between Danny McTeague and Joe’s new nurse and “companion” Molly (Olivia d’Abo, slightly struggling in one of those American-penned Brit roles), the gallery of character actors portraying the cousins are having a wonderful time being reprehensible. Ed Begley Jr., Colleen Camp, Jere Burns, Joyce Hyser, Mary Ellen Trainor, Siobhan Fallon and Bob Balaban are all fun to watch but it is Phil Hartman who stands out as the odious Frank, the most relentlessly hideous of the group. Frank’s detestable nature is not undersold and his ultimate violent comeuppance by table-pummelling is a deliciously wicked moment of schadenfreude (witness how his battered body bounces on its own after the final blows). But if Frank is easy and enjoyable to hate, Greedy challenges the audience by presenting them with the infinitely lovable Michael J. Fox and then making him surprisingly difficult to root for. Before the influence of Joe’s millions even take hold, Fox’s Danny is presented as the sort of man who will hurl a bowling ball through a window in frustration, brushing off the accusation that he could’ve killed someone with the self-pitying gag “What, the way I bowl?!” Later, fully in the grip of avaricious ambition, Danny comes close to punching Molly and is only prevented from doing so by the intervention of his girlfriend Robin (Nancy Travis, in the film’s one morally pure, and consequently rather boring, role). If Robin hadn’t been there, would we have been able to forgive Danny for his actions and, if the answer is no, how can we forgive him that intention. It’s the same question posed by the flung bowling ball and another uncomfortable one at that. Moments like this made me realise that Greedy doesn’t so much moralise at us as force us to do it for ourselves.

Greedy was pulled up by many for not being funny enough and there’s certainly a sense that the gags fall away a bit once the main plot is set in motion. However, this is to make way for something more interesting than the initial parade of human nature at its worst. While wrestling, or prompting us to wrestle, with the moral conundrums it poses, Greedy manages to retain a caustically comedic undercurrent and shifts its focus to the delightful surprises of its numerous revelations. There was a trend for twists in 90s and 00s filmmaking that often resulted in directors stacking them end-to-end and going “Will this do?” But Greedy earns its numerous reveals, feeling like a carefully worked out narrative rather than a struggling script that stuck on a plot twist as a last minute consolation. The sheer amount of bait-and-switch becomes a gag in itself, with the final one in particular being a doozy. The cast are mostly good, with Douglas giving a nuanced, comically astute late-career performance and Fox bringing his boyish energy to a different kind of role entirely. He is especially good in the middle of the film as his desire to secure his great-uncle’s money for himself begins to conflict with his personal sense of dignity, leading to an impromptu song-and-dance routine that is both funny and excruciating. Travis, despite her role being underwritten, is reliably likeable, providing the film with its sole hopeful counterbalance (although I think it might’ve been better to go even darker and delete this ray of hope from the narrative). Alongside Hartman’s film-stealing turn as the head cousin, Siobhan Fallon is particularly memorable as his permanently soused hit-and-run driver wife.

Greedy’s screenplay is self-consciously tricked up to be sure but it never feels cheap. Ganz and Mandel once again demonstrate an ability to juggle a lot of content, characters and tones and the heightened level of cynicism makes Greedy a valuable addition to a catalogue mostly defined by its touching humanism. A critical and commercial flop, Greedy feels like the sort of film that would’ve built up a cult following on TV if only it were ever shown. Instead, it appears to have fallen into obscurity, perhaps because its edgy combination of comic exaggeration and disturbing home truths never quite sat comfortably next to anything else in the schedule. Fans of Ganz and Mandel’s smart, distinctive style should seek out this hidden gem in their filmography.


Gung Ho is not an especially well-remembered film in the catalogue of writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel or that of director Ron Howard. The third of five collaborations between the three men, Gung Ho was neither a commercial nor critical success and its reputation for racial insensitivity in its portrayal of Japanese executives has driven many potential viewers away in subsequent years. It’s fair to say that Gung Ho deals heavily in stereotypes but it does not do so unknowingly. In its tale of an American auto plant taken over by a Japanese corporation, Ganz and Mandel purposefully lean in to popular perceptions of the stringent Japanese work ethic while also accentuating a similarly exaggerated schlubby reluctance in American workers in order to create an extreme culture clash scenario. To his credit, Howard doesn’t play these deliberate overstatements at grotesque levels, sidestepping the horrendous “me so solly” racism to which many mainstream 80s directors would’ve been tempted to reduce Ganz and Mandel’s smart and sympathetic screenplay. Gung Ho does not come close to the egregious Long Duk Dong material from John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, although it does star the actor Gedde Watanabe, who played Hughes’s famous facepalm of a racist gag. Watanabe seizes this opportunity to prove his abilities beyond those one-note antics and, while his plant manager Takahara “Kaz” Kazihiro is another in a long line of heavy-accented characters he would end up playing, he is also a rounded human being, free from the Mind Your Language malapropisms that dog so many culture clash comedies (there are a couple of those moments elsewhere in Gung Ho but they are fleeting and even guiltily amusing if your guard is completely down).

It’s tempting to accuse Gung Ho of the same naïve “can’t we all just get along” approach that made Green Book’s oversimplification of racism so hard to stomach. But while the issue of racism is always bubbling just below the surface in Gung Ho, it is not what the film is primarily about. Rather, the focus is on the socio-economic climate of the era, a rarity in the sort of mainstream Hollywood film that usually leans heavily on escapism. I remember being surprisingly young when, while watching the Steve Martin remake of Father of the Bride, I realised the trend for unspoken affluence at the core of most of the big feelgood American comedies that then made up the majority of my viewing. I was torn between an inability to fully relate and a desire to just disappear into a world of few financial worries for a couple of hours. Ultimately, I let the latter desire win and there’s nothing especially wrong with that, but a film like Gung Ho reminds us of the rarely-glimpsed possibility of presenting stories of working class hardship with a similar lightness of touch. It doesn’t downplay the desperation of Hadleyville’s economic depression and reliance on the success of one failing industry but it is able to present those details in a palatably entertaining way suitable for both escapism and engagement with contemporary issues.

Gung Ho’s title has a double meaning. The phrase is more commonly used to mean overeager and could be applied in this way to Michael Keaton’s Hunt Stevenson, whose penchant for poorly thought-out inspirational speeches gets him into trouble on more than one occasion. But in its original language, gung ho means “work together”, the central message of a film that aims to endorse a collaborative, cross-cultural approach to business in which everyone learns a little something from everyone else. Unfortunately, the original language from which the phrase gung ho comes is Chinese, not Japanese. The eagerness to retain this clever double-meaning at the expense of the underlying implication that the Chinese and Japanese are essentially the same seems a little gung ho in itself. Still, the film’s alternative Australian title Working Class Man is worse. It may correctly put the emphasis on issues of class above race (the wrong race, at that) but it also singles out an individual as the protagonist when Gung Ho is pointedly an ensemble piece. Its main focus is split between Keaton and Watanabe but its heart is derived from the supporting turns that are minimal sketches when taken separately but which build up into an effective overall impression of a community.

As a film written and directed by Americans, Gung Ho can’t help but have some level of bias towards its American characters. Crucially, in back-to-back scenes in which Keaton and Watanabe both advocate for collaboration above opposition, the Japanese perspective is shown to focus on what can be learned from the Americans, whereas the American perspective focuses on how the Japanese display the work ethic that its treasured image of the mythic American working man once had. There’s a sense that the Japanese are being urged to look to the Americans for guidance, while the Americans are looking to an older version of themselves with a competitive eye on the foreigners that are daring to put them to shame. Still, Gung Ho is essentially well-meaning in its attempts to find a better way through compromise and Ganz and Mandel are as apt to satirise the power of moist-eyed patriotism as they are to exploit it. Keaton’s numerous grandstanding moments rile up the crowds effectively but also land him in deeper and deeper trouble, with sincerity ultimately providing the only way out. Keaton is superb in the role of Hunt Stevenson, drawing on his inherently likeable persona to balance some of his more questionable actions. Watanabe is equally great, attempting to juggle the demands of his culture with the more empathetic inclinations of his nature. Both men reach moments of comic desperation and their interactions and tentative growing respect for each other make for some excellent scenes. Their chemistry is notably stronger than that between Keaton and Mimi Rogers, who is saddled with a woefully underwritten girlfriend role in which the key moment of dramatic tension is also the one moment in which Gung Ho feels unconvincingly nasty.

For the most part though, Gung Ho has an abundance of the warmth and humour that characterise a Ganz and Mandel screenplay. The duo also know how to deliver a sweet message without tipping too far into sentimentality. The climactic sequences of Gung Ho could have veered too close to cheese but Ganz and Mandel are adept at dropping in a comedic beat at just the right moment and with just the right emphasis that it offsets without undercutting. Keaton’s symbolic attempt to drive away in a tenuously held-together car made me laugh out loud, a chaotic sight-gag amidst a scene that could otherwise have been consumed by back-slapping schmaltz.

Interestingly, given that Ganz and Mandel’s films are often accused of being too sitcommy, Gung Ho began life as a film before becoming a sitcom the following year. Despite Watanabe and several other original cast members reprising their roles (Keaton’s part was taken by Scott Bakula), Gung Ho the sitcom quickly fell apart like that poorly constructed automobile at its parent film’s climax. It seems odd that Gung Ho was the film chosen to be developed in this manner as it feels like the least sitcommy of Ganz and Mandel’s scripts thus far. In contrast with the high concept notions of morgue-workers-start-prostitution-ring or man-falls-in-love-with-mermaid, Gung Ho feels engaged with an underlying reality that gives it an added sense of dramatic satisfaction above its superficial culture clash premise.


A League of Their Own, though always a popular film, seems to have grown in stature in recent years, especially since the much-needed MeToo movement made us more attentive to the representation of women in film and how much Hollywood had previously failed on that count. A fictionalised retelling of the real life events surrounding the establishment of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943, A League of Their Own was directed by Penny Marshall who was inspired by the TV documentary of the same title. Marshall contacted that film’s creators, Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson, to collaborate with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel on the screenplay. Candaele and Wilson received story credit, while Ganz and Mandel turned in one of their best screenplays yet. It may seem like an odd choice to entrust this story to two male writers but Ganz and Mandel, despite the odd slip here and there, had proved themselves sympathetic to female characters such as the largely unobjectified sex workers of Night Shift or the many mothers of Parenthood. Coming off the back of the extremely male-focused City Slickers, the process of writing A League of Their Own was probably a refreshing experience for Ganz and Mandel and they certainly seem to have thrown the whole weight of their talents behind it. While it would be easy to argue that a female writer would’ve been better suited to this project, Ganz and Mandel avoid all the pitfalls of lesser male-penned screenplays about women. Their refusal to resort to an overcompensatory distortion of 40s values in order to insert unlikely victories over sexism for a quick feelgood thrill speaks of their appreciation of the human side of the story as well as its political significance. Consequently, A League of Their Own feels progressive in an authentic way, rather than a cheap consolatory one. If A League of Their Own had to be written by men, whoever was responsible for hiring this particular writing team clearly made an astute choice based on an impressive résumé.

As with the wonderfully sprawling Parenthood, Ganz and Mandel once again proved their skill at writing for a large ensemble in a way that ensures the smaller characters don’t get lost. While Gena Davis’s Dottie, Lori Petty’s Kit and Tom Hanks’s Jimmy are established as the primary focus, it is not at the expense of great supporting turns by Madonna (thumbing her nose at the critics with one of her finest screen performances as the extroverted “All the Way” Mae), Rosie O’ Donnell, Megan Cavanagh and Bitty Schram. Schram, later to find TV fame as Sharona, assistant to Tony Shalhoub’s obsessive-compulsive detective Monk, is especially memorable and gets to play a major part in A League of Their Own’s most iconic moment, for it is her tears that provoke Hanks’s incredulous T-shirt-slogan-in-waiting line “There’s no crying in baseball.” Amongst the male cast, Jon Lovitz has a droll cameo in several of the film’s early scenes and David Strathairn is solid as the AAGPBL general manager Ira. Garry Marshall is oily and appropriately infuriating as the opportunistic candy bar mogul who founds the league. Only Bill Pullman feels marginalised as Dottie’s soldier husband but it is somewhat refreshing to see this happen to a man in a film full of women, especially after Ganz and Mandel’s own Gung Ho so woefully underused Mimi Rogers in a comparable girlfriend role.

I do like very much that it is established early on that Dottie is married and there is never any question of her being unfaithful. You can imagine executives having pushed for a romance somewhere at the centre of this story but any romantic pairings that do happen are incidental, allowing the focus to remain squarely where it should be: on the game, the relationships between the women and their manager, and the entertaining period detail. On that last count, Hans Zimmer’s wonderfully ebullient score works wonders, evoking the lively jazz standards of the era. The score is especially effective when laid over the numerous thrilling montage sequences of gameplay, edited with exceptional verve by George Bowers. Aptly, A League of Their Own feels like a real team effort and it very rarely drops the ball. Pity poor Pauline Brailsford as chaperone Miss Cuthbert who gets sexually assaulted, insulted and poisoned in the space of about two minutes (three strikes and out!) in the name of the film’s only mean-spirited moment. Perhaps a bigger problem is a tendency to push too far the other way. The flashback structure was very popular in 90s movies and always good for a bit of easily established sentiment. I’m not saying it is unearned here and the climactic reunion of the surviving team members is enjoyable but it drags on that little bit too long in a film that is already stretched past the two hour mark.

If you’re looking for a reliably entertaining evening’s viewing, A League of Their Own fits the bill in that way that Ganz and Mandel films had almost made their own by this stage. It is dramatically engaging but consistently funny, thought-provoking but undemanding, fast-paced but enjoyably leisurely, and you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. There’s a scene in A League of Their Own which briefly nods its head towards racial discrimination, leading some to accuse it of marginalising important issues. But this well-judged scene actually speaks of the film’s laudable focus and refusal to tie itself in knots in an attempt to address every injustice of the 1940s. God knows it would’ve been momentarily gratifying to see the women of the Rockford Peaches refusing to wear the revealing outfits in which they are forced to play but ultimately such an amendment would have rung untrue and undermined the overall credibility. A League of Their Own is tuned into the gradual forward motion of progress and celebrates it in a manner that doesn’t instil false expectations. This is part of why its invigorating feminism has continued to stand out amongst scant comparable company amongst its 90s Hollywood contemporaries. 


After honing their skills on high profile sitcoms like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, writing partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel started out strong with their impressive feature debut Night Shift. The second film by director Ron Howard, with whom Mandel and Ganz would collaborate a further four times after this, Night Shift sounds on paper like it would fit into the subcategory of so-called “T&A Comedies”, a strand of raucous and vaguely explicit sex films of which the infamous Porky’s has become the retrospective standard bearer. But there was also a plethora of more polished, softened equivalents which retained small bursts of gratuitous nudity but interspersed it with better writing and plots that weren’t just a series of sexual mishaps and retrospectively regrettable attitudes. I’m thinking of films like Used Cars and Trading Places, in which the fleeting moments of newly-pauseable titillation (thanks, home video!) were merely the baited hook to reel viewers in to a well-told story. These films were sometimes described as “raunchy”, although Ganz and Lowell’s screenplay for Night Shift, despite its themes of prostitution, is so warm and light-hearted that even that term feels like it’s overselling what amounts to about 3 seconds of bare breasts. Some have bemoaned its comparatively sanitised view of sex work but it’s a positive flipside to the limited range of standard cinematic prostitute stereotypes that generally amount to either streetwise or, to use the derogatory language that the more egregious brand of film might favour, “skanky.” The majority of the female characters in Night Shift, particularly Shelley Long’s Belinda, arguably fit into another stereotype, the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Usually seen as nothing more than a male fantasy, the way this trope is used in Night Shift feels instead like a move to depict the women working as prostitutes as just that: women whose situations have led them to a profession they would not have otherwise chosen. Night Shift doesn’t explore its female characters backgrounds enough to fully capitalise on this non-judgemental angle but it does trust its audience to understand that sex workers are people worthy of empathy rather than either patronising pity or unfiltered disdain. Hence the regular accusation that the excellent Long is miscast in her role usually seems to stem from the assessment that she’s not streetwise or skanky enough. The only major criticism I have of her role is that, given that her iconic performance in the sitcom Cheers would very soon prove her to be one of the finest comedy actresses of her generation, she simply isn’t given enough laughs.

Night Shift has a devilishly delightful premise about two mismatched morgue workers who decide to capitalise on their unsupervised late working hours by becoming “love brokers”, stepping into the shoes of a recently murdered pimp in order to create a mutually beneficial situation for themselves and the working women, to whom they can offer 90% of their earnings as opposed to the 10% they used to get. The wild, cluttered poster for the film suggests a bawdy farce but Night Shift ultimately proves to be a sweeter and more restrained confection. Only one scene involving an impromptu party at the morgue veers into that raucous Animal House territory and it ends up feeling a bit out of place. Viewers may also be expecting the murdeous pimps who appear in the film’s prologue to feature heavily, driving third act mayhem for a big finish. Instead, they disappear for an entire hour and are speedily dispatched before they can create anything but the most negligible hijinks. The film opts instead to make the personal growth of nervous pushover Chuck Lumley its main narrative thrust, his brief run in with the pimps proving to be only one factor in his decision to toughen up. As Chuck, Henry Winkler surprised fans who had seen him as nothing but The Fonz by playing a character who is almost the antithesis of that leather-clad “ayyyyyy”-dispenser. In 1982, Winkler’s casting was probably seen as a self-conscious joke in itself and the differences from his famous sitcom persona likely drove his surprising Golden Globe nomination for Night Shift. But the major talking point of the film was undoubtedly Michael Keaton, whose hilarious performance as the self-appointed “ideas man” Bill Blazejowski provides Night Shift with its underlying energy. Keaton is finding his comedic voice here and there’s a definite hint of Bill Murray in his performance but he takes the role to different places than Murray would’ve gone and that extra wild-eyed ingredient that Keaton brings makes him perfect for this affable but dangerously irresponsible and opportunistic character.

If Night Shift manages a tentative progressiveness in its non-judgmental depiction of sex work, it drops the ball pretty badly in its mean-spirited portrayal of Chuck’s fiancé Charlotte, played by an ill-served Gina Hecht. Her entire storyline is based around the fact that she thinks she’s fat and is constantly exercising to try and lose wait in time for the imminent nuptials or else secretly snacking and feeling terrible about it. Chuck cheats on her with Belinda and yet it is Charlotte whom we’re supposed to dislike, with her neuroses depicted as being somehow detrimental to Chuck’s masculinity. The oppressive girlfriend trope is often a problematic one (see Sarah Silverman’s turn as Woman: Destroyer of Dreams in School of Rock) and while making the girlfriend character more unlikeable doesn’t necessarily reduce that problem, it would make it a damn sight easier to stomach the places to which Night Shift goes. Essentially, Chuck cheats on an incredibly vulnerable woman who is worried about her appearance and, while he assures her that he thinks she’s beautiful in an early scene, when he cheats with Belinda the lead up to their first kiss is a speech by Chuck focused entirely on Shelley Long’s body. He acts as if seeing her in her pants is revelatory, suggesting that Charlotte’s body issues might be caused by more than just neurotic paranoia. In a scene where he finally stands up to a bullying delivery man and a vicious dog, Chuck declares “Bad jobs, bad sandwiches, neurotic girlfriends. No longer for this man!”, confirming Charlotte’s place in the narrative as nothing more than an obstacle. Night Shift wants us to consider only the effect women like this have on men but it inadvertently poses a more prescient question about the effect films like Night Shift have on women.

It’s a shame this clanger of a sexist stereotype is such a prominent part of Night Shift because the rest of the movie is so much fun. The central trio of Winkler, Long and Keaton are all great and if the chemistry between Winkler and Keaton is arguably stronger than that between Winkler and Long then that is not necessarily to the film’s detriment. There’s a terrific argument scene early in the film in which Chuck hurts Bill’s feelings and has to apologise to him while he lies sulkily in a morgue drawer replaying their spat on his dictaphone. It’s the moment their dynamic blossoms, the couple’s first fight after which they start to really know each other. Keaton uses these moments of humanity to flesh out his character between hilarious bits. Particular favourites of mine are the moment he breaks down the meaning of the word Prostitution on a blackboard and his reply to the offer of a beverage with an offhand order of lamb chops. Typically in this era, especially in a film filled with sex workers, a character like this would also be a hideous sleazeball but Keaton’s performance feels more boyish than predatory, limited to one fleeting moment when he attempts to get a room full of women to show him their breasts which itself feels like the half-hearted ploy of a prepubescent.

Night Shift gets a bit baggy in terms of plot in its last third but by this time the characters have endeared themselves to us enough that it’s just enjoyable to watch the consistently funny sketches that Mandel, Ganz and Howard lay end to end in the final stretch. The closing scene in which the three estranged friends come together in a private adult club is gloriously loose, delivering all the closing beats we’re craving with a refreshing dedication to keeping things funny above all. The screenplay cleverly wrongfoots us as the wrong person gets punched, the wrong person says “I love you” and the final heroic gesture collapses into a childish push-and-run lark. It’s an eleventh hour reminder that, for the most part, Night Shift really knows what it’s doing and Ganz and Mandel are delivering the same witty take on a recognised formula with a slight twist that would come to characterise their best work. Due to its subject matter, Night Shift never became the early Saturday evening TV hit that so many of its contemporaries did but its modest box office success and its role in boosting the early careers of Keaton, Long, Howard, Ganz and Mandel have ensured it remains a hidden cult gem that immediately evokes that same feeling. For all its flaws, I loved it so much I watched it twice in the space of a week.


It sometimes seems that there are not many good Romantic Comedies out there. I don’t think that’s actually the case though. The greater problem, it seems to me, is that the genre was largely co-opted by purveyors of cinematic whipped cream, aligning the public notion of a Rom-Com with the same three act structure involving a meet-cute in act one, a misunderstanding and an argument in act two and a reconciliation in act three. There’s nothing wrong with this narrative per se and, like anything that becomes familiar through repetition, it can be deeply comforting. But as it played out again and again on our screens, this xeroxed story became watered down by extended gross out sequences, the de-emphasis of character in favour of conventional surface attractiveness, and the infantilising notions of fate and destiny that turned an incisive, down-to-earth genre about adult relationships into a vapid, starry-eyed fantasy. Rom-Coms were once actually about love, sex and human beings. Eventually, they seemed to become content to merely show the sex and attribute the love to some greater outside force, detrimentally removing the human element until the people on screen became plastic action figures with three functions: slap, whine and fuck. Character development not included.

I don’t want to disparage anyone’s taste in films. I’m happy that these featherlight Rom-Coms exist but I just wish they didn’t dominate quite so much, since I truly believe the Rom-Com has the potential to be one of our greatest genres. When it is at its very best, as with It Happened One Night, Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally, the results endure as some of cinema’s masterpieces and leave us with a satisfying and enlightening look at the ups and downs of relationships rather than just attributing the complexities of affection and attraction to some ethereal notion of an oxygen supply infected by fairy dust. Writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s most famous Rom-Com was Splash which, while very good, was about a man falling in love with a mermaid so not exactly the sort of grounded example of the genre to which I’ve been referring here. While there are elements of Rom-Com in their other earlier material (Henry Winkler and Shelley Long’s relationship in Night Shift, the split and reconciliation of Michael Keaton and Mimi Rogers in Gung Ho), their filmography up to this point had been more defined by loving relationships between friends and family members: the sprawling clan of Parenthood, the three buddies in City Slickers, the brothers in Mr. Saturday Night. Even Splash’s fishy revelation was viewed through the lens of distinctly human emotions. This penchant for a warm humanism above cheap wish-fulfilment meant I went into Forget Paris with high hopes and fortunately this smart, charming film delivered on them. Ganz and Mandel’s fourth collaboration with Billy Crystal, who co-writes and directs as well as stars, is a significant step up from the previous ones. While Crystal’s influence overwhelmed Mr. Saturday Night completely and City Slickers II was about as generic a retread-sequel as you could imagine, Ganz, Mandel and Crystal have clearly worked hard to make Forget Paris a more thoughtful, interesting and real experience, without sacrificing the laughs in the process.

Forget Paris was a modest hit on release but it has been comparatively… well, forgotten since. This may be because of the prominent influences of more famous films which tend to overshadow this one in people’s memories. The structure of the film, in which the friends of the two main protagonists tell stories about them in a restaurant, recalls Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose and Allen’s influence is clear throughout. The presence of Billy Crystal, meanwhile, can’t help but evoke When Harry Met Sally and the way the film examines a relationship over the course of many years also suggests Nora Ephron’s cornerstone of the Rom-Com genre. But while Forget Paris tips its hat to its predecessors, it never tries to ape them too heavily. Instead, it deftly unfolds its own tale of a couple whose strong attraction to each other is challenged by their conflicting lifestyles and ambitions. The opening portion of Forget Paris, largely set in the titular city, fulfils the hopes of the more romantically inclined viewer as an unusual meet-cute opens out into a dreamy exploration of the first flush of attraction. But in the vignettes that follow, Forget Paris becomes evermore melancholy, with Paris becoming a symbol for the impossibility of retaining the deceptive perfection of that early portion of a relationship. The film implores the viewer to avoid putting too much stock in such naïvely pleasurable experiences, its title phrase deployed several times in the dialogue and a final revelation for Debra Winger’s character indicating that her happiness was never about that romanticised city, in the same way that Billy Crystal’s character learns a happy relationship is about more than real world approximations of movie magic.

While the theme of the difficulty of holding onto happiness in the face of life’s numerous challenges gives Forget Paris a downbeat undercurrent that may put off those looking for simple escapism, Crystal, Ganz and Mandel’s excellent screenplay leavens the experience with a range of different comedic styles. The expected consistent flow of verbal wit is present and correct, while the framing device features strong character comedy in its snappy characterisation of the various storytellers. There are running gags, observational gags and even a couple of lively slapstick routines: one involving Crystal’s Mickey making a mad dash to get a pot of sperm to an IVF clinic and the other, particularly wild example involving Winger’s Ellen getting a pigeon stuck to her face with flypaper. Crystal’s direction seems more confident than in his previous directorial effort Mr. Saturday Night and if he occasionally undersells some of the big moments he also shows admirable restraint in keeping the schmaltz on a tight leash, resulting in a finely judged emotional register that defines the film above all else. The cast is full of familiar faces, with Cynthia Stevenson amusing as the emotional outsider Liz and Robert Costanzo making the most of his handful of lines as a sarcastic waiter. Basketball fans will also no doubt enjoy the numerous cameos by NBA players. But, as it should be, it is Crystal and Winger who stand out as the central couple. Crystal adds a morose edge to his usual persona, while Winger is effervescent and charismatic, her expressive eyes hypnotising the susceptible viewer.

There are few things more satisfying than discovering an intelligent Rom-Com in amongst the detritus of the genre’s more egregious entries. In some ways Forget Paris has those comforting formulaic elements from the meet-cute to the breakups and reconciliations and the borrowings from comparable predecessors. But in its dedication to exploring romantic love in a realistic context, Forget Paris delivers such a satisfying experience that its handful of contrivances are hardly an issue. Ironically, there are comparatively few Rom-Coms out there that are really worth falling in love with. Here’s one that is.


Certain films hit very differently depending on at what stage of your life you see them. Some films get better with age and experience whereas others are exposed as shallow or problematic. I’ve always been a huge advocate for Ron Howard’s underrated Comedy Drama Parenthood because it’s a film that I’ve been watching since I was a pre-teen and at every different time of my life it has connected with me in a different way that has only made it even better with each viewing. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s remarkable screenplay juggles a huge ensemble of characters ranging from the youngest children to elderly great-grandparents and, while some characters are inevitably marginalised in favour of others, the cross-section of generations, personalities, attitudes and issues provided by this sprawling domestic framework allows a wide range of viewers to find their foothold. As a nervous, emotional pre-teen who struggled to hold back tears at school and constantly sought the safety of home and family, I related strongly to the nine year old Kevin, played by an excellent Jasen Fisher, whose emotional problems were something I’d never seen depicted on screen before. Watching Parenthood last night for the first time since I became a parent myself, I identified more strongly with Steve Martin’s Gil, a father who will do anything to try and be the perfect Dad but is driving himself to the edge of a nervous breakdown in the process. I’m not quite at that level yet, given that Gil has three children and I have only one, but I instantly related to a small moment in the opening montage as Gil and his wife Karen attempt to load their kids into the family car. After much good-natured wrangling, clowning and playing, Gil finally closes the door and his mask momentarily slips, showing the exhaustion he is experiencing. He allows himself a one second holiday before climbing into the fray once more for the long drive home.

Parenthood is often disparaged for overt sentimentality. Although it does up its emotional content considerably towards the end, I’ve never seen the sentiment as excessive and consider it crucial rather than detrimental. I think it’s a mistake to always perceive sentimentality as a negative. As a rank sentimentalist myself, the key ingredient in differentiating between the good and bad is sincerity. Anyone can draw a big eyed kitten in a cynical attempt to melt our hearts and access our wallets but it takes more than that for someone to convincingly tell us why they love the real kitten that inspired the picture. Parenthood’s characters were mostly derived from real kittens, so to speak. Between Ron Howard, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel and producer Brian Grazer there were fifteen children (Mandel became a father to triplets during the script discussion stage) and all four men drew heavily on their own life experiences, with many of the plot points and dialogue exchanges being lifted directly from reality. Few things fuel sincere sentimentality better than our own families. That’s why Parenthood has so much enduring heart. But Ganz and Mandel’s masterful screenplay (unsurprisingly their own favourite amongst their scripts) never loses sight of the fact that Parenthood is a Comedy. While it is usually described as a Comedy Drama, the emphasis is clearly on the former throughout and every scene has a fantastic piece of dialogue or a terrific observational moment to tickle us. Some scenes are absolutely loaded with treasurable zingers, such as the hilarious scene when Dianne Wiest’s beleaguered single parent Helen confronts her teenage daughter about photographs of her sexual exploits with her boyfriend. Ganz and Mandel never lose sight of the dramatic thrust but the argument that ensues is liberally peppered with wit and physical comedy. Witness Wiest jumping up and down in frustration, her heels clattering on the wooden floor.

Over the years, my shifting perception of Parenthood’s various plots has sometimes changed the film a great deal in my eyes. As a kid who felt secure in a happy, loving family, I remember I used to find Wiest’s storyline deeply sad and even mildly distressing. When her scenes arrived, I thought they were the serious counterbalance to the broader antics of Martin’s desperate Dad-of-the-year and Rick Moranis’s pushy egghead. But later in life I realised Wiest has all the funniest material. Her phenomenal Oscar-nominated performance plays a large part in accentuating that fact, with every line-reading and reaction attesting to her brilliance. She hits some punchlines hard (“Here’s one for my wallet!”) and expertly throws others away (“I guess… you’re curious about sex… y’know, or filmmaking”). She is the character around whom the deft intersection of comedy and drama best coalesces and her comedic talents consistently keep potentially maudlin scenes from becoming overly upsetting. Elsewhere, the plot involving Moranis, Harley Jane Kozak and their prodigious daughter is almost entirely comedic. Crucially, it has serious themes at its core, but Lowell and Ganz largely use it sparingly to offset more dramatic moments. It’s the one storyline you could very easily cut from the film but Parenthood is a richer experience for its two hour runtime and skilful tonal juggling act.

Most of Parenthood’s screentime goes to Steve Martin, whose storyline provides the clearest opportunity to mix comedy and drama. His issues with Kevin are deeply moving, as is his troubled relationship with his own father, played by Jason Robards. The pair share one of Parenthood’s most dramatically effective scenes towards the end of the film, in which Robards consults Martin for parenting advice himself. The sequence was nearly cut for time but Ganz and Mandel begged Howard to keep it in and it’s testament to the strong working relationship they had built up that Howard agreed. The scene is absolutely needed as it provides a certain level of resolution to the underlying tensions between Gil and his father, which tie in psychologically with everything we know about Gil. His hilarious daydreams, reminiscences and nightmares that manifest themselves as fantasy sequences are rendered far more effective by this one scene’s presence. The film opens with one of Gil’s childhood memories and that smart, funny sequence requires this bookend at the film’s other end. There are a couple of underrated performances that sometimes feel overshadowed by the big hitters Martin, Wiest and Robards. A young Joaquin Phoenix (credited as Leaf Phoenix) is heartbreaking as the troubled, morose Gary, Tom Hulce is infuriatingly real in his constant insincerity as the wayward son Larry, and Mary Steenburgen is quietly excellent as Gil’s wife Karen. A lot of screenwriters would’ve made Karen an eye-rolling straight-woman designed to react to Martin’s antics but as written by Ganz and Mandel and wonderfully performed by Steenburgen, Karen is as funny and occasionally hapless as Gil, making them a convincing, as well as very entertaining, couple. Mention should also be made of Keanu Reeves, who I’ve always enjoyed as a presence more than been impressed with as an actor. Here he is doing a more realistic variation on what was then his most famous role, the time-travelling Ted Theodore Logan, but in one moving and funny scene between him and Wiest he gives perhaps his best screen performance as he recalls his abusive upbringing with a fleeting poetic wistfulness that he then physically shakes off.

I’ve spoken a lot already about Parenthood’s screenplay but I feel like I can’t praise it enough. There are so many different types of comedy here: observational, conversational, absurdist, tragicomic, visual gags, physical gags, acidic one-liners and sweet-natured relationship beats. Towards the end there is a scene involving Helen Shaw’s Grandma, previously deployed for fleeting moments of comic relief, in which she delivers a metaphor for life involving a rollercoaster. The point is clumsily oversold via a visual effect in the next scene but before that Ganz and Mandel demonstrate the delicacy of their writing at its best. Having told her story of how she loves the rollercoaster, Grandma says she’ll see Gil and Karen in the car and heads out to wait for them. Gil, who has missed the point completely, makes a sarcastic comment to which the frustrated Karen replies “As far as I’m concerned your grandmother is brilliant” before storming off. Shocked, Gil waits a beat, looks to his side off camera and then shouts after her “Yeah, if she’s so brilliant how come she’s sitting in our neighbour’s car?” This is an exceptional example of putting a button on the scene. It leaves us on a satisfying laugh while acknowledging that wisdom and absurdity can spring from the same source. The sort of viewer who finds the rollercoaster metaphor too syrupy is often the same kind of person who is moved and impressed by Bill Hicks’s regular closing monologue about how life is “just a ride.” While essentially the same point, Hicks’s metaphor would be delivered after an hour or so of caustic cynicism and was never undercut by a punchline, which often gave it the impression of being more profound than it perhaps was. Parenthood’s rollercoaster moment does the exact opposite, bringing us back from the edge of earnest profundity with a slam dunk gag that returns us to a less sentimental state.

I’ve been impressed by all of Ganz, Mandel and Howard’s 80s collaborations but Parenthood is significantly ahead of the pack. It’s a brilliant film whose two hours fly by and leave me wanting more. The closing montage of the entire extended clan (save for the absconded Larry) celebrating a new birth is often cited as the patience-testing peak of Parenthood’s supposedly saccharine approach but it absolutely worked on me, its gentle piano accompaniment allowing the silent images to speak for themselves and wring copious tears from my already well-wrung face. This climax feels not only earned but necessary. It shows us snippets of the characters ongoing lives without suggesting easy answers. Kevin is still in therapy, Julie and Todd still might not make it as a couple, Cool might be irreparably damaged by Frank’s belated fifth shot at parenting. We don’t need to know where these stories will go next but we long to anyway. It is testament to the entire creative team behind Parenthood that in two short hours they have established these characters to the extent that they can present us with silent, two-second vignettes of them all and we can infer so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.