Paramount // 1982 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Evans (Retired) // November 18th, 2005
Two In The Morning. Two Before Lunch. Two After Dinner. Two Before Bed. Every Day.
Jill Clayburgh (Oscar-nominated for the seminal film An Unmarried Woman) acts her fanny off in this failed quest for an Academy Award as a driven career woman addicted to sedatives. An interesting cast, all of whom would graduate to better projects, helps alleviate some of the tedium in this melodramatic message movie.
Ambitious documentary filmmaker Barbara Gordon (Clayburgh) finds her life spinning out of control when a dependency on Valium threatens to destroy her. A hopeless neurotic, she hides pills in the cellophane wrapping on her cigarettes and stashes them in her jewelry box. She cuts the corners off plastic sandwich bags to hide a dose or two, and keeps an emergency stash in a vial inside a box of tampons. Above all, in classical addict fashion, she denies the pill popping is even a problem.
Her attorney boyfriend Derek (Nicol Williamson, memorable as Merlin in Excalibur) offers little help, as his thirst for alcohol casts a shadow that obscures his judgment.
Gordon's life unravels when she decides to go cold-turkey, ultimately landing in a mental hospital. Along the way, we are told that Valium withdrawal is on par with quitting heroin. Who knew?
This semi-autobiographical tale by the real Barbara Gordon -- a TV producer who was hooked on tranquilizers -- reeks of sanctimonious preaching in the Nancy Reagan era of Just Say No. This was a time of cinematic hypocrisy when coked-out movie producers made silly anti-drug films. Much of the blame for the failure of I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can can be laid on a maudlin script that avoids subtlety in favor of sledgehammer rhetorical tactics. This is ironic and maybe just a little bit sad, as Clayburgh's playwright husband David Rabe (Casualties of War, The Firm) adapted the script specifically for Clayburgh from Gordon's memoirs.
This court is thankful that director Jack Hofsiss made only this lone feature, having spent the majority of his career directing for the theater. His other cinematic work has been limited to made-for-television films, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Jessica Lange. Given this pedigree, it's no surprise that the film before us plays like a stage production. Hofsiss deploys an A-list cast and decent production values on material that is essentially nothing more than a TV movie-of-the-week. The "addiction is bad" message is so obvious and overwrought as to become banal in spite of Clayburgh's impressive thespian chops. Still, even her nuanced and delicate moments are undone by ridiculous hambone acting as she flails on a beach, twitches spasmodically and, in several amazing scenes, flaps her arms like a histrionic chicken on its way to the chopping block.
The careful viewer watching this picture (or just reading the credits) will notice several actors and crew members who would go on to great things, among them two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest (The Birdcage), Daniel Stern (Very Bad Things and the first two Home Alone movies), and director of photography Jan de Bont, who would later shoot Die Hard and Basic Instinct, before graduating to the director's chair with Speed and Twister, as well as belly flops like Speed 2: Cruise Control and The Haunting. In hospital, Clayburgh meets Joe Pesci, a fellow mental patient who invites her to accompany him to Uranus, with the promise of a stop for cheeseburgers along the way. Look fast for Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple, The Usual Suspects). Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful) is in there, too, as the cantankerous cancer-patient subject of Barbara Gordon's documentary.
But this is Clayburgh's show all the way.
The transfer and the mono audio are acceptable. The disc is devoid of extras.
At times unintentionally hilarious, I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can presents the tragedy of addiction as screaming, bug-eyed madness, bordering on a parody of the very malaise it ostensibly sets out to condemn.
Guilty of trading on a talented actor's skill in the service of soap opera, the picture is possibly worth a rental or an outright purchase for masochists.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated R