Joel Schumacher's New Nightmare

If the pioneering film critic Andrew Sarris were to update the taxonomy of auteurs he developed in The American Cinema, I bet he'd place director Joel Schumacher in his "Lightly Likable" category--alphabetized in between Franklin Schaffner (Papillon) and George Sidney (Pal Joey), and pegged for his chronicling of the dark man's journey into, um, darkness. Perhaps best known for his ingratiatingly soapy Brat Pack epic St. Elmo's Fire (1985), Schumacher, 59, makes star-driven studio films (Falling Down, A Time to Kill) that are regularly flawed and even pernicious but always interesting: His new 8mm is essentially a classic Western transposed to the world of illegal porn, with Nicolas Cage playing a private dick who tries to find the maker of a no-budget snuff film that claimed the life of a Laura Palmer-esque innocent. In conversation, the director comes off as lightly likable indeed, apologizing profusely for being late to begin our phoner on account of "a very lovely and very slow-talking Texan--who kept saying, 'Joel, one more question off the record...'"

"I never expected to be the summer blockbuster king," admits Schumacher, whose bloated (and unfairly maligned) Batman & Robin (1997) inspired the "Anti-Schumacher Batman Web Site" (members.aol.com/BatmanLite) as well as the director's strategic return to "straight filmmaking" with the $40 million 8mm. "8mm didn't cost a lot," he says, "and I just finished shooting another film in New York with Robert De Niro [Flawless] that we did for scale. I think if it wasn't for Leaving Las Vegas, which never could have been made on a studio budget, Nic [Cage] wouldn't have the career that he has now. Imagine the executives looking at the script and saying, 'Okay, so there's a drunk who kills himself and a hooker? Who are you supposed to like in this?'"

Although Schumacher regards the indie-film renaissance of the '90s as "fantastic," the purportedly gritty 8mm might easily be read as evincing an A-list director's fear and loathing of down-and-dirty cinema--particularly as the Cage character's search leads to "the Jim Jarmusch of S&M" (Peter Stormare) and his bare-bones crew, whom the hi-tech-equipped detective succinctly disses as "small-time muthafuckas." Schumacher does confess that 8mm, like Falling Down, is "a vigilante film that obviously comes from some frustration and anger on my part--a kind of fantasy about making things right." So it seems, yet the most infuriating thing about the film is its reluctance to sully Cage's avenging angel, whose climactic dilemma of whether to kill the human monster is made much easier by a sudden twist of fate. ("If you'd asked me about this [finale] before I made the movie, I would have reconsidered it," says Schumacher, who's nothing if not adept at flattering his critics.)

Ultimately, if Joel Schumacher's self-proclaimed interest in posing tough questions doesn't much manifest itself on screen, it does in conversation. "A friend of mine told me that his young child kept asking, 'Why do bad things happen to good people?'--so he took the kid to see a priest and the priest said, 'You know, that's the wrong question. The question is, Bad things do happen to good people--and what are you going to do about it?'"

 

8mm starts Friday at area theaters.

 
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