Saturday, January 15, 2011

Desperate Lives (1982)

Directed by Robert Michael Lewis. The good news is that this famous TV movie, if finally available on home video though the awesome Warner Archives. This flick is legendary because a 19-year old Helen Hunt, long before her nose had risen above her eyes, stars as Sandy Cameron, who gets high on angel dust and jumps through a second-floor window.

The problem in this town, of course, is obvious: marijuana. Another problem in this town is that only one adult cares about the kids: a guidance counselor named Eileen Phillips (Diana Scarwid). Everything in this town is a crazy, backward mess.

I'm reminded of a similar insanely melodramatic TV movie, "Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker," in which one girl almost gets killed hitchhiking but her dumb sister keeps going hitchhiking. In this movie, Helen Hunt throws herself out a window on the drugs but her numb nuts brother just keeps on going smoking the drugs until he and his slutty girlfriend drive off a cliff. The brother, by the way, is played by Doug McKeon, who you may remember from the sixth episode of the third season of "21 Jump Street."

Of course I watched "Desperate Lives" for the legendary Helen-Hunt-goes-flying-out-a-window moment. But there are many, many moments that are as good. For example, after her accident she has casts all over her body, like a cartoon character, and she runs down the street yelling at her brother who is hooked on the dope. That's worth seeing.

Another great one is the brief scene featuring Dr. Joyce Brothers, who during this time was in everything, but always played a know-it-all authority on everything. In this, not only does she not play herself, she plays one of the many apathetic adults. All she cares about the marching band uniforms.

But the most potentially underrated character is played by Art Hindle, Eileen's surly boyfriend, who is such a weird actor that he has a weird puss on in just about every scene he's in yet you can't tell what's he supposed to be annoyed with. Bad acting is one thing, confusing acting is a whole other animal. I have a theory that he is awesome actor who knew that if he was going to compete with everything in this movie he needed to do something baffling. He even went so far as to wear a red Members Only jacket in one scene.

Still, I recently read about a failed TV pilot featuring Art Hindle from 1979 called "The Power Man," in which he played a decorated Vietnam hero who, after being struck by lightning, finds he can shoot electric bolts from his fingers. I can't help but think that, as good as "Desperate Lives" already is, how much it could have been vastly improved if Art Hindle's character could have shot electric bolts from his fingers, with or without the aid of angel dust.

It could have given him the edge he needed over Diana Scarwid, who in the film's climactic monolog, sets fire to a pile of bongs in the high school gymnasium. I'm not making that up. Her speech is rewarded not only with a slow clap that turns into a standing ovations, but also with a still-frame ending shot of her smiling.

Poor Art Hindle never stood a chance.

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