The Morning After (1986) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
In this movie Jane Fonda plays a washed-up actress
whose career was killed by booze. She must have been an actress a
quarter of a century before the film's action, because it takes
place in 1986 and she is still driving her 1963 Mercedes. She is
still boozing it heavily now, so heavily in fact that she has a
severe problem with blackouts. We know, therefore, that she has been
hitting the sauce hard for some twenty-five years. Very hard. She
goes to bed drunk every night, and she starts drinking again every
morning. Let's assume she's about 49 years old now, Fonda's actual
age when she made the picture, and a reasonable assumption given the
age of her car.
And yet she looks marvelous. Her skin is excellent. There is no cellulite on her thighs, nor wattle beneath her chin. Her legs are muscular. There's no jiggle in her triceps. Her stomach is taut and toned. Her small breasts are firm and perky beyond any reasonable expectation for a fiftyish woman. She has a perfect all-over tan.
Man, being an alcoholic is sweet! I've really been going about things all wrong with this damned teetotaling and exercising. I gotta pick me up some booze and get in shape - and catch up on years of missed fun in the process!
Fonda wakes up one morning beside some anonymous stranger, as she obviously has done many times before, but this time is different. This guy has a knife in his chest. Conveniently enough, following one of the primary rules of movie reality, the TV is blaring a morning show in which the perky anchor is interviewing the very guy lying beside her, who seems to be an erotic photographer. She tries to shake the cobwebs out of her head and think.
First of all, she has correctly guessed that the TV show is not airing a live interview.
Having resolved that, she realizes that she is in big trouble. She is known to have alcoholic blackouts, and she once did some jail time for assault with a deadly weapon - a knife. The problem is not simply that the police won't believe in her innocence, but something much deeper than that. She doesn't even know whether she is innocent. She decides to clean up the apartment, remove any traces of her own presence, and leave.
Opening title sequence begins.
That is a pretty smart opening for a thriller. Catches ones attention. Gets one curious to know more.
She returns to the same address later in the day to finish off the clean-up, and something strange happens. As she works around a cat who obviously belongs there, she notices that the cat is suddenly missing. She hears a meow coming from inside a closed closet, and goes to open the door when she is thunderstruck by the awareness that cats can't open and close closet doors. Someone is in that closet. She gets the hell out.
You see what I mean about the effective "hook"? This was shaping up to be a really good thriller.
Unfortunately, the scriptwriter didn't have any more ideas. He had apparently envisioned an excellent set-up for a thriller, but never came up with a logical or interesting way to explain everything he had pictured.
There are several rookie mistakes, the main one being that the rule of economy of characters makes the fundamental solution too obvious. We don't know the details, but we know that the woman's estranged husband must be behind it all? Why. Because there are really only three characters in the movie. There is the actress. There is a hippie ex-cop that she ran into at the airport and cajoled into giving her a ride. There is the actress's husband. We know that the ex-cop could not be involved in any way, because she only ran into him after a half-dozen accidents and impromptu changes of plan which nobody could have anticipated. It was pure coincidence that she ended up in his car. Therefore, there are only two possibilities: the actress really did kill the guy in her bed, or the husband framed her for some reason or another. If the actress had really done it, this could have been a great movie, in the manner of Memento, but that isn't the way things work in big studio movies with big stars (Warner Brothers and Jane Fonda, respectively).
Therefore, after only about ten minutes of running time, we know that the only possible solution to the mystery must involve the husband in some way. It is only a matter of determining why and how he did it. Of course the main character is within the plot and not watching it like us, so she doesn't know that the husband is the only possible suspect, but it's no great thrill for us in the audience to wait for her to catch up with us.
Oh, dear. The words "no great thrill" are deadly when written in a review of a thriller.
By the way, do you remember when I said that there were only three possible solutions. I turned out to be wrong. There was a fourth possibility. The murder could have been done by someone who did not appear in the film and had nothing to do with the main plot at all. I know what you are thinking. "Oh, balderdash! No screenwriter could get away with that. What would be the point?" As it turns out, that really was the solution. The actual murder was committed by some woman from an upper crust family. Did you remember that the murder victim was an erotic photographer? Well, he had some pictures of the rich woman; she was tired of being blackmailed; end of story.
That still didn't exonerate the husband. After all, nobody ever said that the murder and the frame-up were done by the same person.
Get the picture?
Despite all that I have written, I rather enjoyed this movie. Although it never fulfilled its promise as a thriller, The Morning After turned out to be a good "mismatched buddy" flick, with the buddies in question turning eventually into lovers, as we hope they do. Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges did a great job as the actress and the hippie ex-cop, and the scriptwriter created great parts for them, filled with depth, rich with dimensions, interesting in tiny details. They relate in ways which seem real, and I found myself growing very comfortable in their company, and interested in their conversations. The screenwriter also gave Fonda some acerbically witty dialogue, and a very capable director (Sidney Lumet1) did what he could with the film's atmosphere, even milking a few suspenseful moments out of the non-mysterious mystery.
1 Sidney Lumet is not often mentioned in discussions of the great American directors, but he probably should be. He certainly has had a distinguished career. Here are his top films:
The top three are rated in the all-time Top 250 at IMDb.
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