Schumacher: Middlebrow, Unpretentious and Commercial Filmmaker

“I’m not an intellectual, I’m not an artist, I’m a pop culture sponge,” Joel Schumacher said in a 1990 interview.  And indeed, this surprisingly modest and personal credo pretty much summs up the most crucial–and enjoyable–elements of the best movies he has directed over the last two decades.

Unpretentious, middle-brow, political without being partisan–and commercial in the best sense of the term–Schumacher’s films are unabashedly and unapologetically made for mass entertainment.  Occasionally betraying his origins in fashion design, Schumacher’s movies are stylishly appointed and at times too slick, but they are not mindless or frivolous.

He has always demonstrated a keen eye for timely, socially relevant issues that contain broad audience appeal: youth angst (St. Elmos’s Fire), the sacredness of life and fear of death (Flatliners and the AIDS parable Dying Young), urban alienation and moral disintegration (Falling Down), a faulty legal system and the public’s ambiguity toward lawyers (The Client), racism, vigilante and the possibility of black and white co-existence (A Time to Kill).

Schumacher’s 16-year-directorial career can roughly be divided into three chapters.  The first phase, in the early l980s, includes his feature debut, The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), starring Lily Tomlin, as well as                .  In the mid to late 1980s, he made a trilogy of youth movies, St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Lost Boys (l985) and Flatliners (1990), that became known for their glamorous casts and the label brat pack.  The turning point in his career is Falling Down (1993), arguably his most interesting and ambitious movie to date, which also catapulted him to Hollywood’s A-List directors.

Schumacher turned John Grisham’s The Client (1994) into a solid box-office success and confirmed his status as an A-List director with his next two assignments, Batman Forever (1995) and A Time to Kill (1996), which some critics consider the best screen adaptation of a Grisham novel.  His upcoming Batman and Robin, the fourth installment in the Batman franchise, and starring George Clooney, Uma Thurman, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Alicia Silverstone will probably reaffirm his clout in Hollywood.

Movies were a life-saver for young Joel in the 1950s, when he was growing up in a depressed Queens neighborhood; only one family in his slum tenement had a TV set.  It would seem normal that a child so obsessed with movies would go to film school and begin his career as a production manager, then asssistant director before directing.  But Schumacher didn’t go the normal route.

With the notable exception of Vincente Minnelli, Schumacher may be the only major director to have come from costume design. His foray into Hollywood began as a window dresser for Bendel’s department store and others, then costume designer for Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Interiors, Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love.  Realizing that he was getting farther and farther from his dream, he forsook the fashion world, became a self-taught screenwriter (Sparkle, Car Wash, The Wiz) and then, after a long arduous joruney, a director.

In each of his movies, there are some disturbing scenes that are deliberately meant to make the viewers uncomfortable–force them to reflect on their own anxieties. “What I try to do in making movies,” Schumacher said, “is to open up a window and show you a world; what you take away from it is yours.”  The window Schumacher has opened may not be very wide, but it still porvides a view of some of American society’s deepest anxieties and most prevalent ills.

In Flatliners, Schumacher offered younger viewers a visual and visceral experience of death–or near death–an experience not shown in many movies before.  The movie doesn’t pretend to know what happens after death, but it conveyed the arrogance–and the price paid–by five medical students who clearly violated societal expectations and professional ethos.

But perhaps the movie that exemplifies the Schumacher touch is Falling Down, which starred Michael Douglas (in his best performance to date) as a middle-class professional who goes on the rampage in L.A..  Released barely a year after the 1992 L.A. riots, this film about urban disintegration and personal alientaion addressed a whole menu of problems confronted by ordinary people: racism, sexism, class barriers, inflation, homophobia, and on a more routine basis, traffic jams, bosses, phone boots, muggers–and even inedible cheeseburgers.

The pilgrim of a crewcut, white-bread Everyman who, fired from his job at a defense plant on a hot summer’s day, abandons his car on the freeway and sets off for Venice Beach to bring his little daughter a birthday present.  Divesting himself of his middle-class etiquette, he turns into a furious avenger.  Falling Down is a darkly comic version of The Terminator–with social concience and sans special effects.

In reviewing Falling Down, N.Y. Times’ Vincent Canby also put his finger on what’s distinctive about Schumacher’s style: “The film exemplifies a quintessentially American kind of pop movie making that, with skill and wit, sends up stereotypical attitudes while also exploiting them with insidious effect.”

Proficient at at casting–and placating the egos of his prickly stars, Schumacher once noted that: “The real job of a director is to hire very talented people and remind them how talented they are.”  But casting in present-day Hollywood is not as easy task as it used to be during the Golden age, when each studio has its stable of movie stars and contract players.

Now-a-days, people assume that the glorious ensemble casts of he had to fight for each of these actors, who were not established then, even Julia Roberts.   More than any other filmmaker, he’s reponsible for the media-created label “the brat pack.”

Schumacher had an agreement with writer Grisham that they both had to approve the leading players for A Time to Kill, but for a whole year, they could not agree on anyone.  Finally, the director flew Matthew McCaunaughey from Texas, where he was shooting , for a screen test.  He was so eager to prove he was right and at the same time determined to make McCaunaughey ar star, that he favored his handsome thesp at the expense of the other actors–and the story.

Film schools may be valuable, but Schumacher’s career shows that there is no efficient program like on-the-job training, working on the set.  He is an old-fashioned director who would perfectly fit–and benefit–from the studio system, if it existed.  Committed to improving his skills with each assignment, Schumacher is known for bringing movies in on time and under budget. “It took me a long time to become a director,” he recently said, “now I want to become good at it.”  A lot of filmmakers have said it before, but when Joel Schumacher says it, you believe him.

Manipulative and impersonal as The Client is as a thriller, its villain was a character most viewers could relate too: Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones), a ambitiously U.S. Attorney from New Orleans.  Foltrigg is pursuing the mob killers (who stalk and terrorize a child witness), but he is presented as an opportunistic, power-hungry politician, eager to be elected governor.  The combination of charm, intimidation and manipulation that Foltrigg used reminded viewers of their worst encounters with lawyers, even when they are on their side.

There are quite many scenes of discomfort in A Time to Kill that puts the audience in the shoes of a father (played by Samuel Jackson), whose daughter was raped. Marred by a number of plot improbabilities and simplistic speeches about race relations, A Time to Kill still dealt with the timely issue of a white lawyer defending a black man who had killed some rednecks in retaliation against raping his daughter.

A shorter version of this piece was published in Variety, in 1997.