Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Downhill Racer (1969)

Directed by Michael Ritchie. Michael Ritchie went on to direct one of my favorite movies, 1976's "The Bad News Bears," but long before that had a very weird directorial style -- sort of documentarian. Really unnecessarily documentarian. To the point of begging a documentary on his subject. He did a pair of movies with Robert Redford, "Downhill Racer" and in 1972 "The Candidate," the first about a pro skier and the latter about a guy who runs for Senator in California. He succeeded with this style in 1975's beauty pageant comic drama, "Smile." It's tempting to accuse him of needing Robert Altman to have made his masterpiece "Nashville" that same year to see how to do it in order to make "Smile" but obviously the two movies were made at the same time, so it wouldn't be fair.

The point is that "Downhill Racer" is not a tremendous success here. Depending on your mood, I'd say it takes a relaxed pace and is a quiet film, though there is a fine line between that and just being goddamn boring. True to the style, Redford is very good and playing this arrogant and self-centered character in an understated and realistic way -- never over the top or cinematically evil, but this means we don't get a hell of a lot to sink our teeth into. When absurdly hot ski groupie Camilla Sparv gets the best of him we get excited simply because something on the screen has happened; this is not the best situation to find yourself in as a film goer.

The best thing about the movie is Gene Hackman, but not because he's particularly good. He plays "Eugene Claire," the wonderfully Canadian named, tough-talking, "what-the-hell-were-you-doing-up-there?" manager. He has a lot of yelling tantrums. He gives pep talks. He's basically a movie cliche, and it's great! It's just what this dead fish of a movie needs.

This Michael Ritchie is weird because after "The Bad News Bears," a brilliant satire on the death of the American dream, it's as if he lost his mind. In '81 he was the uncredited director of "Student Bodies," really a fine, if characteristically understated (and now dated) satire of evolution of contemporary horror films. After that he started cranking out star-driven Hollywood dog shit: "Fletch" (1985), "Wildcats" (1986), "The Golden Child" (1986), even the TV movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" in (1993).

Hollywood is rough, man.

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