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The January Man
(1989)

Director: Pat O'Connor
Cast:
Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio


Though I certainly love to watch movies, and I also love to write in great length on this web site about the movies I see, that doesn't mean to say that I would instantly grab any opportunity to be part of the making of a movie. While I would probably jump at the opportunity to be a background extra - which in most cases is fairly easy work - practically every other position that might be available I would simply say, "No thanks." That's because I have learned many times over the years that while watching movies may be easy, the making of movies is anything but. It seems that pretty much every role on a movie set or back at the studio headquarters is so important and so vital, I would hate to have all of that responsibility. I know that if I didn't do my particular movie job well, it could be the difference between the movie being a success or a failure. Just list any particular role on the making of a movie, and I can tell you all the responsibility that it holds and how important it can be. For example, there is the music for a movie. A composer has the task of making music that either will have the audience humming it as they exit the theater, or compliments the action in the movie so well that the audience isn't distracted by the music. Then there is cinematography. The person who photographs a movie has to in every shot make the movie look nice, or at least consistent to the setting of the movie's story. I can't tell you how many times a movie has been ruined for me by a cinematographer photographing a movie in a way that looks like there was an aquarium full of urine right in front of the camera lens.

Whether it is music composition, cinematography, or any of the rest of the dozens of positions a typical movie production has, any one of them done badly could make the difference between a movie working or not working. But I have learned that more often than not there is one particular position in the making of a movie that most of all determines if a movie works or not. And that is the director of the movie. It's the director who is responsible for many of the things about a movie. He or she is responsible for hiring various people who work on the movie, from the actors to the special effects artists. He or she is also responsible for giving the various people working on the movie proper instructions, as well as keeping a close eye on these people as they work. This is a lot of work. It's no wonder that I once heard a Hollywood insider more or less comparing directing a motion picture to steering a ship out of a large crowded harbor... while the ship is taking on water. Also, not only do you have to take on a lot of expected jobs in the role of a movie director, you also have to handle the unexpected. What, for example, do you do when one of the members of your cast all of a sudden comes up to you and asks, "What is my motivation?" Also, how would you handle when (not if) the studio brass all of a sudden requests script changes in the middle of the shoot? A director has to do all that, and a lot more. He or she is the heart of a movie. So it's no wonder that I once heard from a famous movie critic that he would rather watch a movie that had the world's best director filming a script written by the world's worst writer, rather than watch a movie that had the world's worst director filming a script by the world's best writer.

So it's no wonder that many movie critics judge the success or the failure on any movie by the director. I've done that a lot of times myself, but I have learned over the years that many times directors have been forced to work under pretty dire conditions, and that even their best efforts The January Mancan't save some films. Phil Tucker, who directed the notoriously awful movie Robot Monster, once said, while acknowledging the movie's awfulness, "To this day I still believe that not a soul alive could have done as well for as little money as I was able to do." So I try to keep an open mind about what makes a movie succeed or fail. Which brings me to the movie I'm reviewing here, The January Man. I had first seen it some years ago, and I was struck by how it seemed to fail in just about every area you could think of. When I recently stumbled across a DVD copy of it in a used DVD store, I remembered how bad it was. But I couldn't remember if the blame fell squarely on the director's shoulders or not. I decided that this movie could be a good test for the theory that a movie's success or failure mainly depends on its director. The plot: New York City has for the last eleven months been terrorized by a serial killer, and city Major Eamon Flynn (Rod Steiger, The Naked Face) has had enough of the city's police force's inability to catch the culprit. He orders police commissioner Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel, Wrong Turn At Tahoe) to get the services of the one man who might be able to crack the case. That man is Frank's brother Nick (Kline, Consenting Adults) a former police officer who in the past was drummed out of the force after a financial scandal. Making matters worse for Nick at the time was that his girlfriend Christine (Sarandon, Joe) dumped him for Frank. But Nick agrees to take on the case after the police department agrees to some odd demands, like they also hire Nick's artist friend Ed (Alan Rickman, Die Hard) to work as Nick's assistant, all of which doesn't please the precinct's Captain Alcoa (Danny Aiello, Once Upon A Time In America). Nick soon gets to work, but things soon start to get stickier when his work causes the Mayor's daughter Bernadette (Mastrantonio, The Abyss) to get involved in the investigation.

I think you'll have to admit that The January Man has quite a cast, having during it release two Oscar winners (Steiger and Kline), a future Oscar winner (Sarandon), an Oscar nominated actress (Mastrantonio), and two other actors who years later got Oscar nominations (Keitel and Aiello). And the movie also had the talented Rickman in its cast. But what's a real surprise is how poor the acting is by just about everybody involved. Of those seven actors that I just mentioned, the only one who survives unscathed is Rickman. He isn't given that much to do, but in his limited appearances he comes across as eccentric but quiet and likable. Compare that restrained performance with other members of the cast. If you know Steiger's usual method of acting during the twilight years of his career (like with The Naked Face), it should come as no surprise he gives the worst performance in the movie. Sporting a real bad toupee, Steiger screams out most of his dialogue and is frankly embarrassing to watch as he chews the scenery. Keitel and Aiello tie in for second place for the movie's acting dishonors, either shouting out their dialogue in a frankly unconvincing manner or acting in a somewhat constipated manner. Kline manages to receive the bronze medal. His acting is all over the place, sometimes acting irritatingly goofy, sometimes underacting so much that he almost blends into the background and disappears. As for the two female members of the principal cast, you get the idea that they are quite unsure of what note they should be playing with their performances; Sarandon, for one thing, has a visibly bewildered look on her face in most of her scenes.

It's incredible that almost all of this acting talent in The January Man does such a terrible job, and that of course begs the question as to how this could have happened. I think a big reason is due to the screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, who previously won an Oscar for Moonstruck. The characters are quite frankly underwritten, which would prove to be a challenge for any actor to try and bring to life. Take Kline's character, for instance. We are told that in the past his character was shot down unfairly by a scandal when he was once a great detective. The details of this scandal, however, are somewhat vague. And we never learn what accomplishments Kline's character did in the past that made him such a great detective years earlier. By the way, when Kline's character is reinstated, he doesn't at first come across as such a great detective, taking over a third of the movie before he starts his investigation... and then doing the investigation very slowly. This fact, and the fact he spends so much time romancing the Mayor's daughter, doesn't exactly make him endearing or believable. For that matter, none of the other characters are written to have those two positive attributes as well. When the Mayor finds out that Kline's character has been seeing his daughter, you would think that would soon result in a heated exchange between father and daughter. But believe it or not, this doesn't really happen at all, and the issue is quickly forgotten about and never brought up again. Likewise, the thorny relationship between Kline's and Sarandon's character doesn't seem quite finished, even though screenwriter Shanley seems to think so with what Sarandon's character does in the final scene of the movie.

It isn't just the central characters that are written so poorly; the whole serial killer aspect of the movie is also written to be quite unbelievable. Even though it's stated that the killer is smart, his modus operandi is eventually revealed to be so complex and convoluted that it's really hard to swallow. The fact that parts of his m.o. are never explained doesn't help as well. But while director Pat O'Connor (Sweet November) was certainly saddled with a script that quite frankly could have used a lot more work, he does have to share some of the blame for The January Man's failure, not just for the fact that he couldn't coax better performances from his talented cast. I will admit that O'Connor doesn't totally botch things in the director's chair. The movie looks very nice, both slick and expensive in its look. But the movie's tone is wildly inconsistent. O'Connor doesn't seem to know whether the movie is supposed to be funny or serious. It changes from scene to scene, sometimes in one scene itself, such as the climactic sequence. I illustrated earlier that the serious elements in the movie simply don't work, but the comedy in the movie doesn't work any better. Whether it's Klein telling Sarandon's visiting character, to "Take off your clothes - coat!" or injecting slapstick in the climactic sequence of the movie, the various kinds of comedy touches O'Connor forces in are simply not funny at all. So although the movie certainly suffers from a script with many shortcomings, a better director would probably have made the movie a lot more watchable, maybe even successful enough to earn a marginal recommendation despite its flaws. But as it is, it's apt in more than one way that the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio released The January Man to theaters in the month of January.

(Posted August 27, 2021)

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See also: Confessions Of A Serial Killer, Lucky Stiff, Million Dollar Mystery

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