I often find my way into a movie via the director. Being aware of directors and their bodies of work has always proved very valuable to me in that it gives me perspective right out of the gate when I see their names pop up on screen. Suddenly a movie I don't know at all or can't remember becomes a movie by the guy who did PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION, THE LAST OF SHEILA, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, FOOTLOOSE, THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS and MY BLUE HEAVEN (all Herbert Ross flicks). While it may seem like a scattered bunch of stuff, I can say that I do personally like all of those movies so that is one thing. Secondly, knowing that what I'm about to rewatch (in the case of UNDERCOVER BLUES) is a comedy, I can have at least some confidence that there will be funny parts. Seeing a name like Herbert Ross just gives me a new angle on what I'm about to see. It can end up being a bad thing too and skewing my take on a movie towards dislike (which is unfair I'll admit, but it happens). Anyway, what I like about this director context is when it turns out to be on the money and I enjoy a movie that I had forgotten about or that I somehow recalled thinking was bland when I first saw it twenty years ago (man it still feels weird to say that about a 90s movie). With UNDERCOVER BLUES specifically, I can't triangulate the last time I watched it. I do know it was probably during my video store tenure in the early 2000s that I became aware that the movie had a following of sorts. At least a couple of my coworkers were fervent fans of it and I feel like we threw it on the TVs we had on display there on at least a few occasions. I was only able to half watch it at the time so my initial impression remained relatively intact and I saw it as a dopey comedy and nothing more than that. Upon this rewatch it clicked into place for me why people have a soft spot for this one. Seeing Herbert Ross's name at the top gave me some confidence that it was comedy in the hands of a man who was quite a seasoned veteran in the field. That's a solid beginning, but it was the first few scenes with Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner that quite amused me and I was taken with them both as a duo. They play two basically retired spies who are more or less just trying to enjoy a vacation in New Orleans with their new toddler and they keep getting pulled into one farcical espionage scenario after another. An early bit with Quaid defending himself from attackers with his martial arts skills and a baby stroller is very hilarious and sets the tone for what will be a somewhat over the top, but very entertaining screwball comedy. On top of its cleverness and comedic chops, the movie has a cast of would-be star actors in various small rolls that are sprinkled throughout the proceedings like delectable seasonings that create a flavorful mix of supporting talent. Stanley Tucci (My name is Muerte!) shows up with a young Dave Chappelle in that early ambush of Dennis Quaid, Richard Jenkins pops in as a spy co-worker, and Larry Miller and Tom Arnold make appearances shortly into the show as well (plus: Saul Rubinek!). I can't quite imagine why I didn't take to this movie when I saw it initially, but there might have been an unfortunate disconnect between me and screwball comedy when I was in high school that could explain it. As it stands, UNDERCOVER BLUES is the kind of twilight career comedy that Howard Hawks might have made had he loved to be ninety-seven. I realize that I reference Hawks a lot, but I guess that's because he's become quite engrained in my cinematic DNA and I see him and his nature in things that maybe others might not. That said, you should still watch UNDERCOVER BLUES because it is charming and quite funny.
You can buy UNDERCOVER BLUES on Blu-ray here:
This movie is anchored squarely in what might at first glance look like a slight downswing in Bill Murray's career in terms of quality films. It is followed by the delightful farce SPACE JAM (detecting my sarcasm?) with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE in tow. There's a chance you might have lumped it in with the not-so-good Danny Glover/Ray Liotta/Dennis Leary Disney comedy OPERATION DUMBO DROP from around the same time and that could really leave a bad taste in your mouth for sure. You might take one look at all those films and then this "elephant movie" and immediately right it off, and I couldn't completely blame you but you'd be making at least a minor mistake. As I mentioned above with Herbert Ross, I often find my way in via directors. If they've earned my trust in some way, I'll allow them to briefly waste my time whilst they attempt to reveal something good that they were able to pull out of even the most seemingly slight movies. Director Howard Franklin got his start in the business as a screenwriter and then did some directing in the 1990s, but is mostly still a writer (his most recent credit is on the movie THE BIG YEAR from 2011). His script for the Sean Connery/Christian Slater movie NAME OF THE ROSE is pretty good and so is that movie (you should see it if you haven't). Franklin's true masterpiece though (which he also directed) is QUICK CHANGE. Seriously, go watch it right now. It's one of those buried treasures in Bill Murray's dense comedic filmography that has been nearly forgotten by most and unjustly so. In fact, you should make it a requirement to yourself that you see QUICK CHANGE before you see LARGER THAN LIFE. The context is very important I think. QUICK CHANGE is a story about a group of bank robbers who pull off a very slick heist, but then find themselves unable to get out of the city to get away. LARGER THAN LIFE is the story of a man who makes his living as a motivational speaker (Murray) who finds himself saddled with an elephant that he has inherited from his late father. I know you're thinking, "Oh man, an "animal" movie? It's all cute and warm and fuzzy isn't it." and you'd be partially right. There is a lot of cuddliness and warmth here, but Murray really makes it his own. Think about that scene in GROUNDHOG DAY when he's driving with the kidnapped groundhog and talking to him in the car. That's a pretty funny scene in my opinion and Murray has lots of similar jolly exchanges with the pachyderm in this movie. Beyond that (and this may be the most memorable thing) is a completely unhinged, almost Nic Cage level performance from Matthew McConaughey that is not to be missed.
As broad animal-centric comedies go, you could do a whole lot worse than LARGER THAN LIFE. It's a Bill Murray movie and a road movie and an animal movie so there's a lot going on there. It will tickle you in one way or another. If you are looking for a way to introduce your kids to Bill Murray (and why haven't you already by the way?), this might be the perfect place to start.