Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Formula

"The Formula" (John G. Avildsen, 1980) Fairly lousy movie, done in the clunky Avildsen style, of a police detective (George C. Scott) following a series of murders that involves the MacGuffin of a synthetic substitute for petroleum. Avildsen is the perfect director for thudding cartoons like the "Rocky" series and "The Karate Kid." But when having to provide any subtlety or style, as he attempted to do with "Slow Dancing in the Big City," it's a miserable failure. And one has to say that he didn't add anything to the thriller or detective genres (or even the "paranoid thrillers" established in the 70's) with "The Formula."

There is one joy, however, and that is to see the meeting of two of the better actors of the American stage square off, and really, it's probably the only reason the film got made (except for a tenuous tie-in to the then-dissolving energy crisis). They have one scene together of any consequence. Both men are a bit over-weight—
Marlon Brando playing the fattest of oil-cats—and the two meet for a semi-perfunctory sizing up of each other.* One anticipates sparks flying between two titans.

And they don't. It's a genial little walk in the sun and the two banter back and forth—
Scott's Lt. Barney Caine probing gently and Brando's Adam Steiffel waxing folksy and feigning detachment. But it's fun to watch. Brando's off in his "method" world—if he seems distracted it's because an assistant is feeding his lines through a hearing aid, and Scott observes the performance with an odd amusement, completely out of character.** What you're seeing is a fellow thespian (and fellow Oscar refuser) do his thing and barely suppressing his amusement...and bemusement.

It happens sometimes in movies, when very talented people with nothing to prove collide in a scene. As when
Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave play old friends in "Evening," or Al Pacino just sits back and revels in Jack Lemmon's shop-talking in "Glengarry Glen Ross." It doesn't help a bad movie. It can't help "Evening" or "The Formula." But it's one of those magical moments when artifice is usurped by genuineness and the joy of creation is reflected off the screen to the audience.

* Come to think of it, Brando's character would have been more effective if he were an insular baron.

** Apparently, the rueful shakes of Scott's head during the scene are his reaction to Brando doing a completely different "read" of his lines than previous takes.

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