Let's face it -- the 80s will never be remembered as a stellar decade for film, especially what came out of Hollywood. Sure, sure...there were diamonds in the rough, but compared to the 70's it was a veritable wasteland. Volumes have been dedicated to explaining how and why we went from Thieves Like Us to Spies Like Us -- the birth of MTV, the Reagan influence, the rise of the sequel, Judd Nelson, etc. And though some directors turned in their best work during the period (Raging Bull, though it's on the cusp of the 70s), others found themselves surfing the zeitgeist, with results that were often painful disasters.
Take for example Louis Malle's Crackers, from 1984. Everything that's wrong with 80s films can be found in this lame remake of Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street. But how did Malle wind up here? His began his American period with the controversial Pretty Baby (1978), followed by the truly wonderful Atlantic City (1980) and My Dinner With Andre (1981). Three years later -- this.
The bouncy but cloying Michael McDonald song that opens the film (and goes on for what feels like an eternity) is the first sign of trouble. But wait -- there are some good names in the cast -- Donald Sutherland, Wallace Shawn, Jack Warden, and that young upstart Sean Penn (yes, these were the days when Warden got top billing over Spicoli) -- can it be all that bad? Surely Sutherland can bring his patented creepiness, and Shawn...well he's good in anything. Sadly, however, what we get is an extremely wooden ensemble piece with a made-for-TV feel to it.
Warden plays Garvey, owner of a pawnshop in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Sutherland, Shawn, and Penn are the ne'er-do-wells who hang around the store, desperately seeking motivation. A plan is hatched to rob the store while Warden is away, and soon a few more of the neighborhood's colorful characters are involved in the heist. While it occasionally stays close to the source material (including the classic punch line during the robbery), Malle adds a fair amount of filler, including a pointless feel-good epilogue that is cringe worthy. The incessant score, which consists of a cheesy 80s synth-and-drum-machine combo right out of a Caballero Control Corporation release makes the film all the more difficult to stomach for ninety minutes.
The actors stumble their way through the film as if they received no direction from Malle at all. Sutherland skulks around with hands in pockets, while Penn hams it up with a ridiculously exaggerated southern accent. The only interesting performance is by Christine Baranski as a sleazy traffic cop who in one scene attempts to perform an erotic dance in bra and panties. It's a performance without shame, and though uncomfortable to watch at times, is one of the few signs of life in the film.
Fortunately, Crackers didn't signal the end of Louis Malle, though it would take five more years until he made his triumphant return with Au Revoir Les Enfants. Perhaps one shouldn't fault Malle for trying to make un film des temps. After all, 1984 was the year that Lillian Gish and O.J. Simpson made a film together, and Jean-Claude van Damme played a gay karate man. Maybe Crackers isn't so bad after all. . .
Now....stare at the poster for four minutes and yield to the power of the Sutherland!