After watching Duane Hopwood, Judge Brendan Babish needs a drink.
When the odds are against you, your best bet is a second chance…
Like most Friends cast members, David Schwimmer is attempting to make the move up to feature films. While his female co-stars have all enjoyed moderate critical success in a series of independent films (The Good Girl, November, and Happy Endings), the guys have yet to produce anything of consequence. Will Duance Hopwood end the streak?
Facts of the Case
Duane Hopwood (David Schwimmer, The Pallbearer) used to be a happy man. He had a loyal wife, two young, healthy daughters, and a steady job as a pit boss in Atlantic City's Caesar's Palace. Then, before he knew what happened, he was divorced, drunk, and swerving all across the road with a sleeping daughter in the backseat. Now Duane's ex-wife is seeking to terminate his visitation rights, his job is in jeopardy and everyone's telling him he's got a serious drinking problem. But what do they know?
Let me start by saying, pre-Friends, I thought David Schwimmer was a fine actor. I can still remember his heartbreaking performance as the doomed "4B" in the first season of NYPD Blue. His subplot, involving a frazzled New York City apartment dweller, was one of the best subplots of that show's first year. I don't know if it was this performance that led to his being selected for Friends, but I believe Schwimmer used "4B" as the template to fashion that befuddled paleontologist we all know so well.
It is hardly unusual for a television actor to fail to break free from the mold of his or her small screen doppelganger. In fact, it is extremely rare for any actor who achieves superstardom on television to ever break free from his or her humble roots. Schwimmer dug the hole especially deep for himself by crafting a character with such twitchy and ineffectual affectations. If he is to have any chance for a healthy post-Friends movie career, he needs to take on overtly masculine roles, such as coal miners, fighter pilots, or NASCAR drivers. Perhaps a mustache would help. In Duane Hopwood, Schwimmer plays Duane, a casino pit boss and an alcoholic, which is a good start. However, Schwimmer unwisely infuses Duane with several of the same verbal ticks and ineffectual cues that were obviously Ross's stock in trade.
Schwimmer's performance is an apt metaphor for the film as a whole. Instead of pushing himself as an actor, he fell back into his comfort zone. Likewise, Duane Hopwood portrays painful life issues that, if presented in a frank manner, would make for difficult viewing. Instead, whenever the movie gets too heavy, writer/director Matt Mulhern introduces a cheesy, uplifting montage or an inexplicable one-night stand, to ease the tension. This is especially frustrating because it is the movie's bleaker moments that provide the film's only emotional depth. Unfortunately, from early on one can't shake the nagging feeling that the director is manipulating us, pulling the strings just so, ensuring that, though Duane's not doing so good now, everything's going to be alright. This not only makes the film's reconciliations seem contrived, but also diffuses any interest we may have in Duane's plight.
The movie also suffers badly in the inevitable comparisons to Mike Figgis's similarly-themed Leaving Las Vegas. While Duane Hopwood is not so much a bad film as just underwhelming, it is still inferior to Leaving Las Vegas in nearly every respect. While Vegas uses the most glittering city in the world as its backdrop, Hopwood is filmed among the moldering ruins of Atlantic City. Whereas Nicholas Cage's performance as Ben was the most harrowing portrayal of alcoholism in modern times, too often Schwimmer's Duane brought to mind Homer Simpson's struggle with beer addiction in the episode "Duffless." Then there are the women: In Leaving Las Vegas Elizabeth Shue gave what is easily the best performance of her career as Sera, an abused hooker who accepts Ben's alcoholism without protest. In Duane Hopwood, Janeane Garofalo (Reality Bites) plays Linda, the nagging wife.
While Garofalo does all she can with this thankless role, the marital strife between Duane and Linda is never intense enough to be engaging. Even when Duane waves a baseball in front of Linda and her new boyfriend, Mulhern quickly resolves the tension with a couple hugs, a montage and some overwrought indie music. While Duane Hopwood is a fairly engaging movie, it ultimately plays like an unnecessary, made-for-television remake of the far more uncompromising Leaving Las Vegas.
HBO has done this film little favor by releasing the film in an underwhelming DVD package. While the grainy picture and muted soundtrack may be appropriate for the drab Atlantic City environs, it still makes for disappointing viewing. The DVD also includes commentary with Schwimmer and Mulhern. Early in the commentary Schwimmer admits that both are "commentary virgins." This becomes all too evident during the long pauses, which are often broken by comments such as: "So…maybe we should say something about this scene."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You know, the strange thing is, despite this film's mediocrity it may actually be the best film starring a male cast member of Friends. Do these guys not have agents or something?
Unfortunately, Duane Hopwood is neither good enough to be truly engaging nor bad enough to be enjoyed ironically. My guess is that in only a few years this film will entirely disappear from the national consciousness. Rather than Duane Hopwood it will simply be known as The Movie Where the Guy From Friends Played an Alcoholic.
Guilty of treading in the wake of a far superior movie. The shadow of Leaving Las Vegas looms large, and it totally eclipses this film.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with David Schwimmer and Director Matt Mulhern
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