Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: The Big Easy (1987)
I liked New Orléans when I went there years ago. A great atmosphere, easy women, alcohol by the bucketload- what’s not to love? Actually, and this reminds me, and it’s got less than nothing at all to do with the film but may strike a laugh, me and my mate were walking down Bourbon Street 3 sheets to the wind. We stopped to buy another daiquiri off a friendly native selling them from a stall, when I happened to glance up at the balcony of the bar opposite. On this balcony stands two of the best looking women that I’ve ever seen. They’re also clearly hammered, as they’re stripping for the pleasure of the crowd below. However, standing next to them was one of the least attractive and heftiest women that I saw in my entire time in America. She’s clearly 9 Sheets to a hurricane and for some reason best known to herself is also taking her clothes off. I take a swig of my drink, nudge my mate and say “Do you think her mother’s proud?”. Just as I’m going to take another swig of delicious beverage, I feel the clout of a meaty paw to the back of my head. I turn round to see a small and angry middle-aged woman glaring up at me with the vengeance of an angered god in her eyes. Before I can mutter a word, she screams out “I AM ACTUALLY”.
Anyway, that’s got less than nothing to do with the film, at all, so here we go with the review.
May contain stuffed alligators and spoilers below.
The Big Easy (release date August 21st in America) has an absolutely glowing review from Ebert. I don’t like it as much as he does, hell, I don’t think anyone on the planet, even those that made it, like it as much as he does, but I do concede that it’s obviously a good film. New Orléans, actually, lends itself to crime thrillers as it’s a naturally evocative location, being all funny accents, steamy weather and iconic architecture. The Big Easy takes its name from the moniker often applied to New Orléans, which reminds me, incidentally, is San Francisco named “The Big Pain in the Ass”? and makes the absolute most of its natural advantages. Basically, what we have here is a crime thriller/ love story set in one of America’s most iconic cities.
Meet Remy (Dennis Quad), a smooth operator and borderline corrupt cop. Remy compartmentalises his corruption as just the little things, believing that he’s one of the good guys where it matters. Into his life comes Anne (Ellen Barkin), a DA Lawyer with a boner for corrupt police officers. After they meet over the corpse of a low-level wiseguy, she tries to resist Remy’s sleazy charm, but the inevitable is clearly going to happen. Until he stacks it, by taking her to dinner, where she is aghast that the restaurant owner won’t accept payment from Remy. Rightly castigating him for graft, he simply doesn’t think that what he’s doing is wrong- it’s just how things work down here.
He’s wrong actually. As the film develops, we can see that these little bribes add up, and the entire police force is on the take in some form or another. The “Widows and Orphans” fund, for example, is only a pooled resource for bribes, and promotion in the department is based on “favours”. Eventually, Remi does bed Anne (a stunning and surprisingly erotic scene, considering I’ve never found her remotely attractive) that plays out as the meeting of two lonely, bitter, disillusioned but above all else scared people.
Which makes what follows a real kick in the nuts. Remy is set up by his friends on the force (John Goodman and Ebbe Roe Smith) and his father figure Captain (Ned Beatty), and caught literally with his fingers in the till. Anne tries hard to have him sent down, but a neat piece of inter department co-operation erases the incriminating video tape. Anne is devastated; this is shattering for her, and Barkin oozes contained rage, particularly during the Cajun cook-out that she’s shanghaied into attending.
Eventually, as the body count borders on the ridiculous, and they reconcile to take down the bad guys. I won’t spoil who it is, but this is the chief weakness of the film- it’s a bad dose of Jackie from Roseanne syndrome- in that you know exactly who the bad guys are from their very first appearance on screen. Obviously, our heroes survive and the film finishes with them married and about to do the nasty.
This is a good film, and it’s very nearly a great one. The strength of The Big Easy, actually, isn’t the crime thriller stuff. If anything, that’s a touch boring, predictable and extraneous. Rather, this is a film about two lonely but likeable people coming together. Quaid, despite his utter inability to do the accent, is highly likeable as Remy, and Barkin has never been better than she is here. We like these two numpties, and we root for them- we want them to get together. Actually, thinking about this makes me even more cross at Crossing Delancey, because these two would have worked perfectly in a Romcom of some description.
The supporting cast is all good fun. Beatty puts in probably his best performance since Deliverance, and without any squealing, and Goodman displays a neat comic touch when required. Lynch regular Gracie Zabriskie is on rare scene stealing form as Remy’s mother, and Lisa Jane Persky is great fun as Quaid’s subordinate McCabe. However, the start turn from the support is Charles Ludlum as Remy’s lawyer- a magnificently sleazy effort in a blatant stereotype of a part. He’s hours of fun, actually, and I wanted more of him on screen and less of the thriller shenanigans.
Directed by Jim McBride, who also made Gere vehicle Breathless, this feels like a throwback. The Big Easy could have fit in with no effort at all into the noir type movies that Bogart made his own, and in another world this could have been stunning with Bacall in the Anne role. It doesn’t particularly work as a thriller, but it does work as a character piece: a crime movie where the crime is almost incidental.
That’s the big problem, though. As much as I like our main characters and find them sympathetic, I’m watching this because it’s a crime film. The finale, as clichéd and predictable as it is, feels forced, as if McBride knows he’s coming to the end of his run time, and therefore has to jam it all together as fast as he can. It’s also not in the least bit exciting, because there’s no way in hell that a film as good-natured as this one is going to force tragedy down our throats, so there’s no risk to the central characters. Killing the support, frankly, does not have the same effect.
Overall, The Big Easy is a really good film and one that flirts with greatness on more than one occasion. It’s a big thick Gumbo of a film- being all assorted bits thrown into a stewpot, but that’s really not a criticism. At the end of the day, I do recommend this, but with one piece of advice: forget it is a crime film. Watch The Big Easy on a Sunday afternoon and it’ll whip by, and there’s far worse ways to spend 90 minutes than rooting for likeable people to get together. I’m giving the Big Easy 3 drunken Alligators out of a possible 4, and that’s because it really doesn’t work as a thriller.
I wish more Romcoms would look at the characters here, because Remy and Anne are easily strong enough to carry a romance film by themselves, but above all else we like them and want them to triumph. And if they had, then I may have been spared Crossing Delancey.
Until next time,
The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:
- 2011- The Skin I Live In (2.5 out of 4)
- 2010- The Last Exorcism (2.5 out of 4)
- 2009- Post Grad (1 out of 4)
- 2008- The House Bunny (1 out of 4)
- 2007- Knocked Up (1 out of 4)
- 2006- Volver (1 out of 4)
- 2005- Red Eye (2 out of 4)
- 2004- Dead Clowns (Orangutan of Doom)
- 2003- Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (1 out of 4)
- 2002- Talk to Her (4 out of 4)
- 2001- Jeepers Creepers (2 out of 4)
- 2000- Gossip (1 out of 4)
- 1999- All About My Mother (1 out of 4)
- 1998- The X-Files (1 out of 4)
- 1997- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (2 out of 4)
- 1996- The Last Supper (3 out of 4)
- 1995- The Usual Suspects (4 out of 4)
- 1994- Color of Night (2 out of 4)
- 1993- Surf Ninjas (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1992- The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (2 out of 4)
- 1991- Pump Up the Volume ( 3 out of 4)
- 1990- Wild at Heart (3 out of 4)
- 1989- Bull Durham (3.5 out of 4)
- 1988- Crossing Delancey (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1987- The Big Easy (3 out of 4)
- 1986- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
- 1985- Better off Dead
- 1984- Oxford Blues
- 1983- MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn
- 1982- The Thing
- 1981- Honky Tonk Freeway
- 1980- Schock
- 1979- Rich Kids
- 1978- Coma