Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992)

Screwball comedy never treats me well on these series. Last time round, I had the frankly awful Married to the Mob inflicted on me, and didn’t enjoy a second of it. This time around, 21st August saw the release of The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, which I’d never even heard of until it came out of the blocks. Frankly, this is never a good sign on The Birthday Series reviews, as if you haven’t heard of it, then there’s usually a fairly good reason. Still, I looked at the cast and saw Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Thal, Alfre Woodard, Julianne Moore, Xander Berkley, William Forsyth and Cathy Moriarty and thought that any film with this cast can’t possibly be awful.

Contains the transformative effect of taking off glasses and spoilers below.

I was right. It’s not awful, not in the slightest. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not very good either, but I don’t want to kick a puppy having just sat through it. In fact, compared to the tripe that masquerades as comedy on my list, The Gun in Betty Lou’s handbag is a pleasant and relatively gentle diversion, a light and reasonably amusing little film that doesn’t hang around for too long, but doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings either. In its own cute way, actually, this is a really likeable little film, although it is very slight and the last third is really quite unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, there are a handful of absolutely cracking gags (one in particular, that I’ll come to in a minute) made me laugh out loud, and the cast are all very nice in their roles.

Betty knew how to handle a weapon

Penelope Ann Miller is an actress that I’ve always liked. I rate her, actually, particularly in Carlito’s Way, and she’s a very easy presence on screen. Here she plays Betty Lou Perkins, small town librarian and mousy little doormat.  Her husband (Eric Thal) is local police detective Alex. He’s a dick, actually, and treats her like utter rubbish, cancelling their anniversary dinner, stomping on her feelings and generally being a boorish and obnoxious cockwomble. He’s lead detective on the murder of a local scumbag who’s having an affair with Faye Grant’s Cathleen, and has cancelled everything that’s important to her in the meantime. Then he whines about her not doing his ironing. Betty Lou discovers the gun, and when Ales treats her like shit again something in her head snaps. Next thing she knows, she’s confessed to the murder and started a whole chain of unfortunate events.

Banged up in the tank, she makes friends with Reba (Moriarty), a hooker. One sluttish makeover later, and Betty is brimming with confidence. Alex, on the other hand, is having a pretty rotten time, being suspended and thinking is wife was having an affair on him. Eventually, things go from bad to worse, when it turns out that the scumbag had a tape of local mafioso Cajun Billy (Forsyth), confessing to all sorts. Furthermore, Cathleen’s husband Bob has transferred the title of the scumbag’s car into Betty Lou’s name. Billy, wanting that tape back, kidnaps Betty’s Lawyer (Woodard), and it’s up to our heroine and her suitably penitent husband to save the day.

Smoking is hot, cool and chicks dig it. Search your feelings, you know this to be true. At least in films.

Bits and pieces work here. It’s not all plain sailing, by any stretch of the imagination, but Miller is charming, and Moriarty superb. Thal is a tool, but the character is meant to be, and Forsyth insane. Watch out for a Meatloaf cameo, that only exists to establish what a sociopath Billy is. Woodard has the most difficult role in the film, and does her best, but the part is totally underwritten and she’s fighting against the tide. Overall, the acting here is pleasant, even Julianne Moore, who I usually hate.

As mentioned, it is patchy. The best jokes are all after Miller’s transformation, with Betty blossoming into local harlot and good time girl. The scene in the bar contains the single best gag in the film when an irate Alex turns up. It’s a superbly staged joke, one that plays with our expectations of these scenes, and the punchline is absolutely brilliantly played. Basically, he has an argument with Betty Lou, she tells him to do one, not unjustifiably, and a nerdy looking guy in a bad jacket and glasses asks her to dance. Alex, again not unjustifiably, tells him to fuck off. The suitor persists, and Alex turns away before spinning round and delivering a very solid punch to the guy’s stomach. So far, so as expected. However, this is where the film earns it’s brownie points, as the guy doesn’t fold, in fact he barely even blinks. What he does then do, is take his glasses off, and remove his jacket showing that his collared shirt has the sleeves cut off and he’s built like an absolute tank. He then proceeds to beat Alex like he stole something. This is brilliantly shot, and a cracking joke that comes out of the blue.

Voilá, duckling to Swan, just like that.

Director Allan Moyle (also at the helm of the vastly superior Pump up the Volume in this series) whips the film along at a fair old pace. He makes a few clever choices, with the first half of the film containing a lot of close ups on the people shouting at Betty Lou with the second half all set further back. It’s quite a nice visual metaphor: Betty Lou has established a personality and therefore her own space. The camera, actually, loves Miller after her transformation, and while she does look sort of slutty, she also looks pretty damned hot. Nevertheless, he knows that the material here is very slight, and as such it’s all about the speed he can run the film at- it really does come out of the blocks at a hell of a rate, and while it’s lying down gasping for a smoke with about 20 minutes to go, he’s still got just enough momentum to push it over the line.

He has, however, made some strange choices, particularly regarding the violence. The Meatloaf scene, for example, has Billy take a switchblade to a woman’s face in an act of utterly gratuitous sadism that frankly has no business being in the film. The less said about the Murphy pose (not the one with Don in his pants making love to a donut, think Robocop) at the climax the better. I can’t, actually, see any justification for their being any violence on camera on any level in this film. It’s incongruous and utterly unnecessary.

“Oh, so that’s where you left the car keys”

Overall, this is an OK film. In fact, it’s vastly better than both its reputation and my expectations for it. It passed the time in a reasonably amusing fashion, didn’t piss me off and the cast, particularly Miller and Moriarty had a certain charm that I really wasn’t expecting. While no cinematic masterpiece (and it really, really isn’t), if this came on on a Sunday Afternoon, then I would have absolutely no problem with sitting through it again. This was, frankly, a pleasant shock and films like this are part of the reason for doing these series. Overall, I give it 2 slutty librarians out of a possible 4, not really a recommendation, but certainly not hateful at all.

Next up is Moyle’s calling card movie, Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis Pump Up the Volume.

Until then,

Jarv

The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

6 responses to “Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992)”

  1. Droid says :

    I like Penelope Ann Miller. The Shadow, The Relic and Kindergarten Cop, as well as Carlito’s Way of course.

    This sounds alright. Probably won’t seek it out, but as you say, if it’s on tv on a sunday arvo and I come across it, I’ll check it out.

    • Jarv says :

      That’s what it is: OK.

      It’s a time-passer, and the joke with the barfight is executed superbly. If I want to be a dick about it, it is highly predictable and you’ve seen almost everything here elsewhere.

  2. ThereWolf says :

    No, never heard of it. The title and the box art would put me off.

    May have a look if the opportunity arises. It’s good to get a surprise film or two in a series like this – a ‘this is gonna be awful’ moment and then it turns out not bad. Just gives you a bit of incentive to carry on…

    Nice one, Jarv.

    • Jarv says :

      If you blunder across it, then it’s not too bad.

      Wouldn’t seek it out.

      I was expecting the worst. Screwball for me is certainly balls and I almost always get screwed.

  3. Spud McSpud says :

    Yeah, but you’ve got PUMP UP THE VOLUME coming up next. Absurdly high levels of navel-gazing, teen pretension and hormonally-induced hysterical teen angst aside, this is a great vehicle for Christian Slater – the movie rises or falls on how likeable you find him onscreen – and his sub-NETWORK rants are fairly entertaining. Samantha Mathis is excellent as the hot arty emo chick we all wish we’d banged in our teens, and the movie moves at a fair old clip. Don’t think about it for more than a second – it’s ludicrous on every level – but watch it for Slater’s not inconsiderable charisma and PUMP UP THE VOLUME is a great teen movie. All bluster and angst, with some decent music in there too.

    Slaterthon – HEATHERS, PUMP UP THE VOLUME, KUFFS. Throw some beer and pizza in that mix, and that is one excellent night on the sofa at Casa Spud 😀

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