Thursday, November 7, 2019

After Hours Is A Rapid-Fire Dark Comedy Gem

Typically, Martin Scorsese movies are known for their expansive nature. They follow gangsters for numerous years of their lives, they follow Jesus Christ all the way to a theoretical life hinging on him never getting crucified or they follow the lead character of Silence as he grapples with his personal religious calling over decades. This means After Hours is an intriguing anomaly in his filmography, it takes place over the course of a single night. This is a far leaner Scorsese motion picture all about cramming as much as possible into a small amount of time, which means both the protagonist and camera are constantly being whipped across the screen to some new sight that's bound to fascinate the audience.

After Hours is one of those movies whose plot hinges entirely on one thing going wrong after another. Such a plot befalls Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a guy working as a computer word processor who runs into a mysterious woman while reading a book at a diner. She gives him her phone number and later that night, he decides to throw caution into the wind and call her up. She invites him over to her place, which is where things begin to take a turn for the peculiar starting with Paul losing $20 to a gust of wind. Then there's the fact that the lady he's come to meet can't seem to sit still, she's consumed by something in her mind. If Paul thinks that's as strange as the nights gonna get, he's dead wrong.

From there, Paul ends up finding difficulties every step of the way, from his inability to get enough change for the newly increased fare to ride the subway to him getting pinned for a series of local robberies and him almost getting his hair shaved into a mohawk. Joseph Minion's script is a comedy of errors that never runs out of ways to make sure that Paul's mission to get back to his home is plagued with as many difficulties as possible. Interestingly, such difficulties typically manifest in members of usually marginalized populations getting to have the upper hand on Paul, a cis-gendered heterosexual white guy who usually gets the upper hand in typical society matters.

Ah, but there's nothing typical within After Hours, which means the typical societal power dynamics get flipped on their head. It's like the very presence of nighttime has flipped a switch and suddenly people American society looks down upon, members of punk groups, LGBTQA+ individuals, women, they all get to be the ones wielding power over the likes of Paul Hackett. The inversion of traditional power dynamics between Paul and the various women he encounters is especially interesting and has already been written about by far more thoughtful minds than myself. What I can contribute to the discourse is that it is interesting how After Hours depicts queer individuals that Paul encounters, specifically in how it avoids making them the butt of jokes or harmful stereotypes.

It's impossible to divorce New York City from the LGBTQA+ community and that's especially true of nightlife in NYC throughout the second-half of the 20th century. Scorsese and Minion, thankfully, realize, this and make sure LGBTQA+ individuals are scattered throughout the story with a variety of different personalities and are treated as human beings by Paul Hackett. It was as much of a welcome surprise to see no "Gay panic" jokes in a 1980s comedy as it is to find a rare diamond on a sandy beach. Best of all, eschewing such lazy routes of demeaning comedy means After Hours has plenty of space in its script to allow its LGBTQA+ characters to stand in as another example of a marginalized group having immense power over Paul Hackett in his topsy-turvy night. Such characters get to join in on the comedic mayhem rather than be excluded and/or dehumanized by it.

The comedy of After Hours leaves viewers with plenty to ponder in how its central premise inverts typical power structures in American society but it also leaves with you with numerous comedic moments you'll be cackling about days after you watch the movie. Griffin Dunne's lead performance alone is a riot, he perfectly captures a straight-laced personality that can make for a great foil to all the chaos happening around him. Meanwhile, the way Dunne portrays Hackett becoming more and more frazzled as the events of the night just keep going and going is subtly amusing, Hackett never fully loses his marbles (he's so immersed in the world of nine-to-five drudgery that one wonders if he's even capable of such outsized emotions anymore) but Dunne frequently plays his performance in a humorous manner suggesting that the character is just a few moments away from doing just that.

Griffin Dunne's lead performance is captured through some of Martin Scorsese's most energetic directing. An early scene of Hackett being driven around in a taxi that whirs around in a speed that would leave the Bat-mobile in a cloud of dust establishes the sort of zestful camerawork that can be found in plentiful quantities throughout After Hours. Rare is the scene in this motion picture that's truly calm or still and Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is a key ingredient for making this dynamic pacing as riveting as it is. There's such a masterful quality to the rapid-fire timing when one shot shifts to the next in After Hours, there's so much control how Schoonmaker edits together a night that's truly out of control.

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