Director Spotlight: Joel Schumacher
by Barry Wurst
February 23, 2007
Talking to film buffs about Joel Schumacher is kind of like talking to music fans about Michael Jackson - you want to gloss over the stigma attached to his name and focus on the substantial artistic achievements in his career. Inevitably, this is an uphill battle, as most film geeks still haven't forgiven Schumacher for a lousy movie he made ten years ago. You'd think they would've moved on by now, but this guy still gets a bad rap for one movie which, by the way, wasn't his worst. Here's a look at the highs and lows of an undeniably talented, even great, director.
February 23 - Joel Schumacher
Schumacher's first two films weren't promising. The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) was an ill-conceived Lily Tomlin vehicle, her first after the enormous success of 9 to 5. Aside from the impressively constructed sets (designed to make Tomlin look quite tiny) and the fact that Rick Baker plays a gorilla onscreen, there isn't much about the film that's memorable (unless you were a child when you saw it). Schumacher's second effort, the teen comedy D.C. Cab (1983), was a half-baked Mr. T farce that plays like Porky's with taxis. If that's your kind of thing, dive in! Two years later, the success of St. Elmo's Fire (1985) put Schumacher on the map. Hard to say what made the film a bigger hit - it's attractive cast or the fast-selling soundtrack album. The film itself is an exceptionally good, if dated, teen drama featuring stand-out performances by Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez. As a picture of life-after-college angst and indecision it's a poignant and well-made work.
The Lost Boys (1987) came two years later and, while a mid-sized box office hit, the cult following it spawned has given it the most durability out of all of Schumacher's films. Very stylish (some would say 80's MTV-slick), entertaining and crowd-pleasing, this vampire action movie isn't subtle but, man is it fun! It introduced the world to a great and (still) underrated actor by the name of Jason Patric and, aside from The Goonies, is one that still creates piles of letters of requests for a sequel at Warner Brothers.
The pleasant and well-received Cousins (1989) followed - it's worth seeing for a great turn by Isabella Rossellini but is otherwise forgettable. Schumacher added his stylish use of lighting, color and mood to good effect to Flatliners (1990), a hit horror film that featured another hot young cast (in this case, Kiefer Sutherland, returning from The Lost Boys, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt). The film doesn't hold up as well as most remember (the main plotline, of cheating death in order to experience the afterlife, is truly ridiculous) but is still efficiently scary. Schumacher teamed up again with Julia Roberts for Dying Young (1991), a much-hyped summer of '91 attraction that met a quick death at the box office. It's easy to see why. Campbell Scott's lead turn is first rate but the film is a drag in both senses of the word (sad and slow), with ample close-ups of the gorgeous Roberts being the best thing about her performance. Worth noting: despite the title, nobody dies.
Schumacher recovered with one of the most controversial films of 1993, Falling Down, a sort of 90's Death Wish, a film that was called pointless and irresponsible. In depicting an angry white man lashing out at the elements of society that keep getting in his way, Schumacher's film was met with angry editorials in addition to box office success. Though it lacks subtlety as much as Schumacher's previous hits, the film is more well rounded, funnier and better than most remember. Michael Douglas' lead performance is one of his best and most unique turns. The film, which purposely creates discussion and debate in addition to being stylish and compelling, is one of Schumacher's best. It's a tough film but it was one of the best of '93. Schumacher continued to churn out hits for Warner Brothers, following Falling Down with an adaptation of John Grisham's The Client (1994). This film featured a collection of great performances (Susan Sarandon, Brad Renfro in his film debut, Mary Louise Parker and Tommy Lee Jones, all top-notch) and was a first-rate take on Grisham's novel.
Warner Brothers turned one of their biggest franchises over to Schumacher with Batman Forever (1995), which was a radical change of pace to the mood set by Tim Burton's two previous films. Gone was the dark, downright scary imagery that made Batman Returns so controversial. Schumacher's film was vibrantly colorful, brazenly cartoonish and more overtly commercial than personal. It ended up being the top-grossing film of the summer of '95 (outdoing Die Hard With a Vengenace, Apollo 13, Waterworld, and Congo, among others) and was critically acclaimed, with a handful of critics saying it was "the best Batman yet!". Its a mixed bag for comic book fans and film fans. For everything that works (Jim Carrey and Chris O'Donnell are well-matched for their roles and Val Kilmer was an intriguing Bruce Wayne), the stuff that doesn't (Tommy Lee Jones' embarrassingly hammy turn, a why-am-I-here Nicole Kidman and the overt nod to the camp of the TV show) can be tough to watch at times.
Arguably Schumacher's best dramatic film, A Time to Kill (1996), came the following summer and launched the career of Matthew McConaughey, whose starring role in the film (his first) is sensational. Based on another Grisham novel, the film is flush with great performances (Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland and even Sandra Bullock shine) and a powerful story. A whiff of controversy plagued the film - some accused the film of glamorizing the KKK. If you see the film, you'll understand why this accusation is so ludicrous. Yes, we see how Sutherland's character is seduced into becoming a Klansman, but the film rightly portrays him and the company he keeps as racist villains.
From this point on, things get ugly. The pressure for a broader audience, demands from toy manufacturers and the desire to top Batman Forever at the box office lead to Batman & Robin (1997), easily the flimsiest of the series and a professional low for Schumacher. Comic book fans understandably balked, critics were mild in their praise and the film barely made its colossal budget back. If the previous Batman adventure was cartoonish, then this one was a mile beyond that, with in-your-face camp (complete with wacky sound effects), pun-heavy dialogue (Arnold Schwarzenegger's performance isn't bad, but his dialogue most certainly is), too many characters clamoring for screen time, and a plot that made little sense. The film was a major disappointment that caused Schumacher to back away from the spotlight.
He came back with 8MM (1999) two years later, an ugly, downright hypocritical exploration of the dark underworld of snuff porn. Even with serviceable performances by Nicolas Cage and Joaquin Phoenix, the movie becomes pure pulp exploitation, while pretending to stand on moral ground. Falling Down was ambiguous but still stood above the at-times despicable actions of it's protagonist (who, in case you forget, was crazy). 8MM had all the depth of Cruel Intentions and as much staying power at the box office. Next to no one saw Flawless (1999), a misconception of movie clichÃ©s if there ever was one. Portraying the growing friendship between a stroke victim (Robert DeNiro) and a drag queen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the film isn't badly acted, just uninspired and expendable.
Schumacher's comeback in the eyes of critics was with his low budget Vietnam film, Tigerland (2000). It avoided the crass slickness and pyrotechnics of his worst films and provided a fairly fresh take on its subject matter. It starred Colin Farrell in a standout debut performance with all the charisma that Schumacher found with Jason Patric and Matthew McConaughey in their breakthrough roles. While not a box office hit, it was a big step forward for Schumacher creatively.
Bad Company (2002) was a bad idea from the start. The title was originally Black Sheep, until someone remembered the Chris Farley vehicle of the same name, and re-named it Bad Company, forgetting that two previous films had that title and weren't very good, either. Pairing Chris Rock with Sir Anthony Hopkins ended up being as good an idea as putting Eddie Murphy and Robert DeNiro in the same movie. While not unwatchable, as dumb action comedies go, the film is forgettable at best, genuinely stupid at worst. The release was delayed due to 9/11 (the film has a terrorist subplot and a bomb-in-the-city climax), which is what most seem to remember about it.
Phone Booth followed in 2003 and was a mild hit for Schumacher ($46 million being a great return for a film that only cost ten million to make). Featuring a terrific lead turn by Colin Farrell (who really is the whole show here, acting most of the film by himself in a glass booth) and a nice vocal performance by Kiefer Sutherland, the script by Larry Cohen (a popular, unproduced screenplay that Jim Carrey and Will Smith once showed interest in) is pretty inventive and Schumacher's direction gives the film an energized hook. Farrell turned up for a cameo in Schumacher's Veronica Guerin (2003), a workable but inferior remake of When the Sky Falls (the 2000 drama that starred Joan Allen). Most missed it when it was in theaters, though it featured a typically great performance by Cate Blanchett and was a far more complex, mature film than most would expect from Schumacher.
Schumacher seemed to be an odd choice to tackle Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (2004), until one learns that Webber loved The Lost Boys and approached Schumacher himself years ago about making "Phantom" a movie. The long awaited, critically acclaimed film that merged is a solid, even mesmerizing musical that, while not perfect, is one of the better post-Chicago musicals of the past few years. Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson are terrific in break-out roles (after years of supporting parts), the film is splendid visually (Schumacher's eye is perfect for such an excessively gaudy atmosphere) and many scenes are touching, exciting and perfectly realized. The additions to Webber's musical (an Elephant Man-like subplot) and the strict loyalty to it (every single song from the stage musical is here, and that's at least three too many) hurts the film overall, but the film works and is gloriously entertaining.
We'll see how Schumacher's reunion with Jim Carrey goes with The Number 23 (opening this weekend). For now, lets keep in mind that the man who directed Batman & Robin also made The Lost Boys, A Time to Kill, Falling Down and The Phantom of the Opera. Schumacher's best work is ahead of him, but good and bad, his films show the boisterous talent of a real filmmaker.