Judge Chris Kulik is looking to get out the good china and do a little fine dining.
The comedy that treats you like a king…for a day.
Critically panned and a commercial failure upon its original release in 1982, Lookin' to Get Out! was one of the final films directed by the superb Hal Ashby. Along with Hugh Hudson's Revolution, this is another one of those supposed turkeys that has been re-released in line with the director's original vision. Still, does that make the film worth checking out a second time on DVD?
Facts of the Case
Alex Kovac (Jon Voight, Midnight Cowboy) is an addictive gambler. While he scores big one day, he manages to lose it all and more the next morning. Now he owes $10,000 in poker debts to Harry, a local underground thug. He tells his buddy/roommate Jerry Feldman (Burt Young, Rocky Balboa) the bad news. Now both targets, Alex decides the only solution is to try their luck in Vegas.
Alex manages to get both of them a suite at the MGM Grand by making Jerry pose as a friend of the owner. Their plans are thrown for a loop when they run into Alex's former flame Patti Warner (Ann-Margaret, Grumpy Old Men), who now happens to be dating the owner. Patti refuses to help them, and things get even worse when Harry shows up to mangle Alex and collect the money he owes.
Like many other critics, I'm a huge fan of Ashby's work. Just zip over to IMDb sometime and look at this guy's resume, which includes some of the best films of the 1970s. Let's see, to start you have the cult favorite Harold And Maude; the sublime The Last Detail (which remains my vote for the finest film of all time about the U.S. Navy); the immensely popular Warren Beatty vehicle Shampoo; the heart-wrenching romance Coming Home (which garnered Oscars for both Jon Voight and Jane Fonda); and, finally, the austerely beautiful drama Being There, which featured funnyman Peter Sellers contributing one of his last performances. Ashby, who died in 1988 due to pancreatic cancer, was a masterful director as well as editor, winning an Oscar for 1967's In the Heat of the Night.
In the 1980s, however, Ashby seemed to have lost his touch—both with reality and as a filmmaker. He made only three films, and all were greeted with disdain by critics and largely ignored by audiences. Lookin' to Get Out! was completed in 1980, but was taken out of Ashby's hands by distributor Lorimar. In turn, they screwed around with the final cut, removing 15 minutes of footage, and not releasing it until two years later. While he was approached to helm Tootsie, Ashby's dependence on marijuana and his bizarre behavior during Lookin' to Get Out doomed the opportunity. He was fired during productions of both The Slugger's Wife and 8 Million Ways to Die. Both were duds, despite having screenplays by Neil Simon and Oliver Stone, respectively. With his prolific career all but destroyed, Ashby died in December 1988, a truly sad ending to the life of a fine filmmaker. If you want to read more about Ashby, I highly recommend the biography Being Hal Ashby: Life Of A Hollywood Rebel, which was published in early 2009 by Nick Dawson.
Two years ago, Dawson alerted Jon Voight of an existing print of Lookin' to Get Out! being held at the USC archives. Voight was astonished and, after viewing the movie, identified it immediately as Ashby's long-lost cut. It's because of Voight that Lookin' to Get Out! is finally being released on DVD courtesy of Warner Bros, and Ashby fans will no doubt be excited. I was, too, until I watched it.
Is Lookin' to Get Out! the truly god-awful mess its reputation suggests? The answer is no. Is it a great movie? Again, no. Was it enjoyable? Sort of. Is it worth revisiting again by those who dismissed it before as garbage? Yes and no.
I was so tied with Lookin' to Get Out! that attacking it would be harsh, and praising it would be insane. The film was (and still is) promoted as a comedy, but there are surprisingly few laughs. The performances are adequate but all three leads are capable of far better. As for Ashby, he certainly edits the film well, but the story teeter-totters between being competent and lazy. For example, the opening scenes in New York and the closing moments in Vegas are terrific, but the second act has a lot of flaws and flimsy pacing. The foot chase around the Grand's kitchens and convention halls isn't played out for all its worth. The climactic showdown between Alex and his nemesis is ridiculous. For every virtue within Lookin' to Get Out!, there is something else mercilessly smacking it down.
Voight, who co-scripted with Al Schwartz, plays a loser and full-time sleaze. Yet, we still find his harebrained schemes interesting to watch. Plus, he looks like he's having fun, which, admittedly, put a few smiles on my face. For some ungodly reason, though, he felt the need to do nauseating Al Pacino impressions to punch up his character. Despite his enthusiasm, he's not really all that humorous.
Young's role as the nebbish sidekick is far more appealing. Best known for playing Paulie in the Rocky movies, I've always considered his best role as Rodney Dangerfield's limo driver in Back to School. Still, Young is very good here and makes up for his co-star's indulgences with an identifiable "why me?" attitude. There's a running gag involving Jerry's character that some may find tasteless, however. Every time a pretty girl walks up to them, Jerry asks if she's a hooker. Consequently, he seems to not give a damn about Alex's desperate situation, looking only to get laid.
Unfortunately, the sexy Ann-Margaret is given almost nothing to work with. She has little dialogue, and her only motivation seems to want to decide to not help Alex or pick up things where they left off. She may have come a long way since being the booty-shaking sexpot of Viva Las Vegas and Bye Bye Birdie. Still, I expected much more out of her, as all she ends up being is pure eye candy with weak conflicts and a one-dimensional personality.
Much of the supporting cast is unknown, but there are some surprises among them. Veteran Burt Remsen (Conspiracy Theory) is a real treat as an aging blackjack expert. The girl in the jeep in the beginning is none other than Voight's then-wife Marcheline Bertrand. And, yes, that is their daughter (billed as Angelina Jolie Voight) making her film debut as Ann-Margaret's onscreen daughter. Interestingly, this is the only movie to ever feature a real-life father, mother, and daughter.
In addition, this was also the first time a movie was filmed inside the MGM Grand. Production designer Robert Boyle (North By Northwest) does a fine job of re-creating one of the Grand's expansive rooms, here dubbed the Dr. Zhivago suite. I also loved the flashy, disco-like title design that bookends the film. The person responsible is unfortunately uncredited.
As for the DVD itself, it's palatable but lacks fireworks. For one thing, the cheesy cover art will probably turn off more buyers than Warner Bros. prefers. The new anamorphic print has a generous amount of grain and scratches, as noted by the disclaimer card before the film begins. Still, Haskell Wexler's cinematography has an appropriately dark, mucky look. Black levels are excellent overall, but the flesh tones seem to be affected by the lack of light and focus. Given the print source, however, I can't complain too much. Same goes for the mono track, which is tepid at best. Dialogue is easily heard most of the time, and Johnny Mandel's score comes through OK. The title song may be one of the worst I've heard in my life, however. Subtitles are provided in English and French, with additional closed captioning.w
Not counting the theatrical trailer, there is one significant extra: A 16-minute retrospective with the three leads and Schwarz. The latter begins by talking about the inspiration of the film and how he later joined Voight in writing the script. Voight is the main speaker here, but Young and Ann-Margaret both chime in several times. What's disappointing is the overall back-patting, with Ashby's controversial behavior and frequent fights with the studio over final cut never touched upon. Also included is an insert with a brief message from Voight repeating several things from the featurette. What really would have improved this DVD is a commentary by some or all of these participants. Or, a look back at Ashby's life and career with Dawson as a guest speaker would have been cool too. Such a wasted opportunity!
I'm a firm believer in giving a film a second chance. This is especially true when editing is the most vital element in the filmmaking process. It could literally make or break the project. In the case of Lookin' to Get Out, it's definitely worth a new look for Ashby enthusiasts. All others are encouraged to try to rent it to see if they would enjoy it.
The jury remains out.
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