Friday, March 11, 2011

Not Your Average Noir, Part 1 - Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

I love noir. Of all the sub-genres and niches we use to categorize and organize our beloved warehouse of film, it is perhaps my favorite. Draped in shadows both external and internal, the seedy side of cinema is dangerous, mysterious, sexy and cool. But for all the darkness it exudes and the corruption it proclaims, there is, inherently, an inner light, a beacon battling the shadows and the sinners with a basic, humanistic understanding of what is right. Even when the hero loses, or falls victim to the corruption (as in 1974’s Chinatown, or 1944’s Double Indemnity) there is still an underlying theme of hope, of the realization of “good” and its ongoing battle with “evil”. Noir is a bleeding heart romantic, a masochistic champion of the belief that through suffering we may find triumph.

And I love it. I connect with it. And I can trace that connection all the way back to my childhood, filled with repeat viewing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Guns, booze, sex, lies, violence, corruption and extermination akin to Hitler’s final solution – Roger Rabbit is a hard boiled drama disguised as a kid’s flick. My mom wouldn’t let me see Jurassic Park in theaters, but she got me my very own VHS copy of a nightmare on toon street (can’t win ‘em all, mom).

The hero of this sordid tale is detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), a broken-down alcoholic who never recovered from the loss of his brother. Back in the good ‘ole days, Eddie and his bro were top notch gumshoes, heroes of 1940s era tinsel town. But then a toon dropped a piano on brother Valiant’s head, and Eddie wasn’t so valiant anymore.

Oh right – the toons. The clever spin to Roger Rabbit (that tricked my mom into supporting it) is the shared screen time with animated wackos, bouncing bunnies and talking babies integrated with our earth and flesh real world. Roger (voiced by Charles Fleischer) is a zaney, nut job actor, as incessant as Charlie Sheen, but a little more down to earth. He’s married to a super-hot, super-animated dame named Jessica (seductively voiced by Kathleen Turner). When Valiant’s hired to investigate Jessica’s potential affair, he takes some snapshots of the fatale playing paddy cake with Marvin Acme. Roger sees the pictures and literally blows a gasket. The next morning, Marvin’s dead.

The setup is classic, and the execution is noir 101 – there’s a big-business takeover of the local Red Car public transportation company, a land-grabbing conspiracy fit for Chinatown (and rumored to have been the plot for Robert Towne’s second sequel, had it ever been green-lit), a corrupt judge (Chrisopher Lloyd) and a twisty-turny mystery. Admittedly the majority of this went way over my head when I was 7 years old, but in retrospect it’s easy to see how smart and mature this film is – it thrives on the blood of noir, animated or otherwise.

Check out the paddycake scene, more scandalous than you remembered it (Jessica’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way). Or the scene where Judge Doom murders an innocent cartoon shoe. Doom terrified me then, and still gives me the shivers now.

And then there’s Valiant, a man who has become anything but, who we see drinking himself into a stupor, lowering himself to that of a peeping tom to pay off debts, and falling, if only for a moment, for a va-va-voom fantasy cartoon. “Why don’t you do right” Jessica sings to him, “like some other men do?” Eventually he will – he’s spent years drowning the inner desire to “do right” in gallons of scotch, but ultimately Valiant can’t ignore his inner calling.

Hoskins rumbles and grumbles his way through the role, pitch-perfect as the hard boiled detective. How different the movie would have been, had the role gone, as originally intended, to Harrison Ford.

Roger Rabbit was produced by Disney, who teamed up with the 80s super faves over at Amblin Entertainment. You can feel the enthusiasm and wonder Spielberg and his co-conspirators worked with back then, and the “no limits” excitement in the direction of Robert Zemeckis. It’s this aspect of the production that made this lurid crime caper so accessible, and the blockbuster sensibilities that made it such a hit.

Because as niche as the story may be, Roger Rabbit is truly engineered for mass audiences. It’s a high-concept pitch with big-budget production, and a blockbuster climax that takes up the majority of the third act (the only aspect of the film that really isn’t noir at all). And thank the gods of Hollywood for that, because without it there’d be no Roger Rabbit, and my life wouldn’t be the same.

Dramatic? Yes, but appropriately so. Like so many Amblin films of my childhood, Who Framed Roger Rabbit shaped me, spun me and pointed me in the direction of the man I am today. Is it a coincidence that I married a dame named Jessica, bought a red car and moved to L.A.? Or is there a higher conspiracy in the works? You tell me.

I just hope my brother doesn’t get a piano dropped on his head…

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