“I just wanted to leave my apartment, maybe meet a nice girl. And now I’ve got to die for it!”
AFTER HOURS is Martin Scorsese’s take on the “staying up all night and a bunch of crazy shit happens” movie (see also INTO THE NIGHT, MIRACLE MILE, EDMOND). This one follows Paul (Griffin Dunne), a young word-processing drone who lives alone in a small apartment in New York City. After a boring day at work he goes to a cafe to re-read what he says is his favorite book, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. A woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette, same year as SILVERADO) is by herself at a nearby table, notices what he’s reading and says “I love that book.” He doesn’t even hear her at first. But she starts trying to quote it.
Suddenly she moves to his table to get him to look at the weird cashier (Rocco Sisto, INNOCENT BLOOD, ERASER, THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT), who seems to be practicing dance moves. She’s about to leave but they have a short, weird conversation that includes 1) telling him she’s staying with her friend Kiki Bridges and 2) giving him Kiki’s phone number so he can inquire about her sculptures of bagels and cream cheese.
To me it doesn’t seem at all like she’s saying “Please go home and call this number to talk to me,” but I get how a guy can want to extend a random encounter like that, and not only does she say “I’m glad you called” when he does, she says “I think you should come over.” So spontaneously at 11:32 pm he’s taking a cab to some weird artist’s loft in SoHo to meet fellow Henry Miller fan Marcy. He only has one twenty dollar bill on him, and it blows out the window, so he can’t even pay the driver (Larry Block, HARDCORE). And this is a very mild sign of the type of night he has in store.
When he arrives Marcy is at the drug store, but that sculptor Kiki (Linda Fiorentino, who started her career with VISION QUEST, GOTCHA! and this all in ’85) invites him in to wait while she works on a life-sized paper mache sculpture of a person. An example of the movie’s appealing oddness is that she gets him to take over working on the sculpture because she “could use a break.”
I expect in a movie like this that he’s gonna run into a bunch of crazies and be very put upon. And that’s kind of what happens, but it’s interesting how often I was siding with the crazies over him. Like, he came over to see Marcy, he hasn’t even seen her yet, and her roommate is throwing him some aggressive sexual energy, so he offers her a massage and is clearly trying to get with her! What does he expect to do when Marcy gets back in a minute? Well, Kiki falls asleep before anything happens, so he just goes right back to trying to get with Marcy.
She freaks him out with a weird story about being raped, that ends ambiguously, then by revealing that she’s married, then by breaking down crying during a kiss. There’s some black humor in his attempts to be sensitive and understanding about it all, as if he actually knows and cares about her and isn’t transparently just hanging around hoping to get laid. The breaking point for him is when he snoops in her bag, gets the impression that she has second degree burns somewhere on her body, and gets grossed out, so he starts being an asshole to her and then just walks out while she’s in the other room. What a dick!
He only has 97 cents in his pocket, and the subway fare went up at midnight, so he’s stuck in this neighborhood in the pouring rain. He goes into a bar hoping to sit and not order anything, but bored-as-shit waitress Julie (Teri Garr, GHOST WORLD, CASPER MEETS WENDY) becomes enamored of him, and friendly bartender Tom (John Heard, CAT PEOPLE) is actually willing to give him subway fare, but can’t get the till to open, and needs a key from his apartment nearby, so Paul gives him his own keys as collateral for his apartment keys to go and… well, you can see that one problem will lead to another problem will lead to another problem, real nightmare, GOOD TIME shit. The stress of “Oh no, Tom is waiting at the bar thinking he ripped him off” is just one of the stresses way down at the bottom of the pile.
Cheech & Chong (FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST) play some friends of Kiki’s who are clearly the ones everybody’s talking about robbing their apartments. And Kiki has a scary boyfriend or S&M partner or something named Horst (Will Patton, THE POSTMAN, ROAD HOUSE 2). I love when he first sees Paul and says “This the guy?” menacingly. I guess it means the guy who abandoned Marcy, but in any situation you don’t want somebody to have been telling Horst about you.
He ends up awkwardly hanging out in waitress Julie’s apartment. She has good retro furnishings, vintage records and a rat problem. And likes to draw. I think she’s the character I like the most – when she tells him about her second job at the Xerox shop and that she gets free copies, he says “Gee whiz.” And she draws the line at that. Free copies are useful to her, if he doesn’t relate it doesn’t mean he has to dismiss it. “I don’t have to take that kind of shit. What is it with people today? You can’t say anything without getting a smart answer. You have to be so goddamn careful about everything you say.” Get ‘im, Julie. When she says “So I make a few mistakes. Sue me! Call your lawyers!” that might be the one direct dig at yuppies in this movie.
Then there’s Gail (Catherine O’Hara, DICK TRACY), random person getting out of a cab who lets him come in to use her phone. He is not polite enough to listen to her tell him about her Mister Softee truck, and refuses her offer of a pencil to write down a phone number. Both turn out to be poor choices.
Movies like this always have an old fashioned 24-hour diner. Look at this beaut:
I looked it up. It was demolished in 2004. I think it’s still a hole, soon to be a hotel. We need to protect our places like this.
To me a big part of the appeal of this type of movie is that contradictory mix of real and unreal. On the one had, the familiar allure of late nights, lonely streets and bars, and the strange characters and interactions you find in them; on the other, the fun of painting the unlikeliest and unluckiest scenario that could befall you there. Much of the humor is based on coincidence: figuring out that people he’s met in separate incidents are connected, for example. Or little odd details, seemingly random things that are mentioned or shown (flyers, newspaper headlines, twenty dollar bills, bagel and cream cheese paper weights) that pop up again or become more relevant, and the more they come together, the more exaggerated and ridiculous the world of the movie becomes.
So it has less a feel of “it’s a small world, isn’t it?” than a put-on, a joke, a tall tale. There’s a funny part about 80 minutes in where he tells a guy everything that has happened to him in the movie so far. Time-passing dissolves are required.
And it ends up extra weird when he returns to the punk bar Club Berlin for an invitation-only conceptual art event that seems to only be attended by a lonely, older-than-him lady named June (Verna Bloom, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER). She seems out of place and “She’s always here. Usually nobody notices her” according to the bartender (first assistant director/ROBOCOP associate producer Stephen J. Lim), but she’s a sculptor like Kiki and lives in the junk-strewn basement of the club. We swerve abruptly from a quiet last dance as the bar closes up to mother!-level fever dream as she hides him from a raid by anti-burglar vigilantes by covering him in plaster-of-paris.
In these yuppie era movies I can’t always tell how much I’m supposed to be on the guy’s side. Not that it necessarily matters, but sometimes I’m curious if we should take it as a critique of his quest to get various women to have sex with him while being creeped out by the other ones who actually want to have sex with him. Growing up in the era, it didn’t seem like it – it seemed like all the movies agreed that was what life was about.
So it’s kind of liberating when the movie crosses the threshold from normal ‘80s dude behavior to never-considered-reasonable. That’s when (SPOILER) he sort of accidentally ends up back in the loft, decides to go in and apologize to Marcy before leaving her again, and discovers that she’s died from a pill overdose. He calls the police and everything, but the curiosity gets the better of him, and he pulls the blanket down to see her burns. (Sorry, she’s unburned, and hot!) And then he remembers he should get back to Tom so, in my favorite gag of the movie, he hangs up two signs saying “DEAD PERSON” with arrows pointing to her room.
From that point you get to enjoy this prick shouldering Olympian discomfort levels like when he tries to say something comforting to the bartender who just found out his girlfriend killed herself while believing he himself caused her to do it. A perfect illustration of his entitlement is when he runs into Tom, who tells him he has just returned from identifying his dead girlfriend at the morgue, and he frantically asks him for help. Tom is the calm, comforting one to this guy he only knows as a one time customer at his bar. Not even that, because he didn’t buy anything!
Still, anybody can relate to the ending, when he falls out of a van right in front of work as the sun is coming up and the gates are opening. So he just goes to work. The camera flies around the office like the evil dead as everybody else, who are not covered in plaster-of-paris dust and most likely got to sleep last night, arrive at their desks. Life is like that sometimes.
To me, Griffin Dunne is forever the buddy from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. That was only his fourth movie, but he had already started producing with the Joan Micklin Silver movie HEAD OVER HEELS. AFTER HOURS was a script he found and worked to get off the ground so he could star in the good shit he liked. He found a talented Disney animator-turned-short-film director named Tim Burton to direct, but when Burton heard that Scorsese liked the script he said Oh shit, yeah, if Scorsese wants to do it you better fuckin go for it. So as a gesture of thanks Scorsese decided to give Burton the project he’d planned to do next, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE.
That last part is a joke, but the rest is true. Can you imagine what PEE-WEE era Burton would’ve done with this script? I’m not sure I can. I bet it would’ve been good, but completely different. While Burton was at the very beginning of his career, Scorsese genuinely worried he might be at the end of his. THE KING OF COMEDY was seen as a failure at the time, and Paramount had cancelled plans to produce THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, so he went looking for an independent project, hungry to prove himself, throwing all his filmmaking chops and experimentation at a movie very different from everything he’d done before. Though it didn’t make much, and it’s still seen as kind of a tangent in his career, it was well reviewed and won him the Best Director award at Cannes, and I’d have to look this up to be sure but I think they allowed him to keep directing movies. So it was a success.
The script was a Columbia University film school assignment by a student named Joseph Minion. He was 26 when the movie came out – imagine how fuckin cool he must’ve felt! Except he apparently blatantly ripped off much of the first act – even the plaster-of-paris bagels and cream cheese! – from a monologue on NPR, and settled out of court about it and/or immediately confessed and apologized, depending on where you read. (I wonder if the school assignment was to adapt something?) So that probly weighed on him. He’s only made a handful of features since, but one of them is VAMPIRE’S KISS, so he’s in the pantheon. Scorsese also got him to write his episode of Amazing Stories.
There’s a pretty good documentary on the DVD that tells how they struggled to decide on an ending, and the great director Michael Powell (not yet married to editor Thelma Schoonmaker) suggested having Paul end up back at work. Scorsese at first dismissed it as a stupid idea, and didn’t come around to it for weeks. But what I love most about the anecdote is that Scorsese had planned an ending where instead of hiding Paul in a sculpture, June hides him in her womb, smuggles him out and gives birth to him in the middle of the street. Damn, why didn’t they shoot that!? And what kind of world would we be living in today if that was the ending to Scorsese’s “needs to prove himself” movie?
Maybe it would’ve sunk him, and instead of LAST TEMPTATION and GOODFELLAS he would’ve been doing TV pilots and thrillers at that time like William Friedkin and Michael Mann. Or maybe, just maybe, Griffin Dunne would’ve acted as a new Star Child – the American male, or the white man, or the entitled man, reborn anew. Purified, evolved, unburdened of hate, uninterested in domination, submitting to a new era of enlightenment and deeper human connection.
But I guess he would’ve still had to go back to work. Anyway, good movie.
Thanks to my friend Damian for loaning me his DVD to make sure I watch it.