Saturday, April 25, 2015

American is Paris in the 80s

American Dreamer (1984) is a funny thing - a screwball comedy out of its time, and an 80s movie firmly within it.

It stars Jobeth Williams as an ordinary housewife with an obnoxious husband and two precocious sons. She has one romantic ambition - to win a trip to Paris by writing a pastiche of her favorite dashing international spy hero, Rebecca Ryan.

She wins the trip and heads off alone when her husband forbids her to go. The scenes of her life at home with this conformist, controlling jerk are so oppressive that I could only keep watching because I knew she would be flying free soon. Once in Paris, she loses her purse and then her memory, and wakes up believing that she is Rebecca Ryan.

I guess this is a well-known plot device - for instance, see Highly Dangerous. It's not quite the normal-person-who-thinks-it's-all-a-game plot, like The Man Who Knew Too Little, but it's close. Because she thinks she's a great spy, Williams manages to always foil the plans of the real bad guys. She does this very well, being almost good enough to be believable, but bad enough to be ridiculous. For example, Rebecca Ryan is supposed to know 5 languages - the housewife Williams listened to language tapes, but the one or two phrases she does know turn out to be exactly the codewords that will turn the plot upside down. In another scene (actually, the same scene), she tries to drink a group of Russians under the table. Although she's soon smashed as hell, she thinks she's completely sober, and manages to play that just right - she's either a great unheralded physical comedian or Rick Rosenthal is a great comedy director.

One of the first thing she does in Paris is march into the hotel room that Rebecca Ryan famously lives in, to meet up with Tom Conti, who is the son of the author of the Ryan series. It's a perfectly written screwball scene, with Conti thinking she is the new secretary and Williams thinking he is her sidekick Dmitri. She begins by rifling through some papers on the desk.

Williams: What is this? (like, what are they doing on my desk?)
Conti: Just some papers to be filed. (for you to file)
Williams: No letters? (letters for me?)
Conti: No, just filing. (I don't need you to take dictation)

Two people having two different conversations using the same words.

By the way, I've always liked Tom Conti, although I don't think I've seen him in much (Reuben, Reuben is the only one I can think of). Here, he is kind of a Dustin Hoffman type - more charming than handsome, self-possessed, confident and totally thrown by the crazy lady he meets, as a screwball guy should be.

I think I've established that this is a screwball that would have worked in the 30s or 40s. But note - Williams goes on a Paris fashion jag (charging it all to Conti, of course) and comes up with the most 80s ensembles that don't include neon or leg warmers I've ever seen. I hope they were supposed to signify Williams' essentially tacky housewife taste, because they were the most aswful collection of shapeless, sexless, shawly schmattas I've ever seen.

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