Movie Cycles: Yuppism Is Out, Humanism Is In–Hollywood 1991-1992

It’s time to change! Get out of your luxurious office, buy a new casual wardrobe, go home to your family, and become a better human being. This is the message that a recent cycle of Hollywood movies, all released this summer, are preaching.

After several years of films about yuppie angst and yuppism as a lifestyle, the zeitgeist in the U.S., according to the film industry, is now different. Ron Underwood’s City Slickers, one of the summer’s blockbusters, Mike Nichols’ Regarding Henry, Randa Haines’ The Doctor, and Michael Caton-Jones’ Doc Hollywood, are different films, realizing their goals in varying degrees of effectiveness and success. But they are also based on similar narratives and convey similar lessons. Preachy and messagey, the latest comedy-drama films appear to be suffused with sentimentality of a new kind: Humanism.

Humanism is also the dominant value of Mel Brooks’s Life Stinks, a film that is a clear departure from his previous movie parodies. A kinder, gentler Brooks It sounds like a contradiction in terms. And if one goes back to the spring, one could include Albert Brooks’ social comedy, Defending Your Life, as another attempt at social and humanistic comedy. What is happening to our tough comedians Are they betraying their gritty humor and rowdy minds and becoming all heart and soft feelings

In all five films, the protagonists are white professional males, facing Life crises of one kind or another. And in three, the men are in their forties. Michael J. Fox, the star of Doc Hollywood, is a decade younger, and Mel Brooks is two decades older. The setting of the new movies is decidedly urban–at least initially–and we get nice views of New York City (City Slickers, Regarding Henry), San Francisco (The Doctor), Los Angeles (Life Syinks), and even Washington D.C. (Doc Hollywood).

At the center of these movies is a metamorphosis–the heroes undergo a long, bumptious journey (fighting nature and the elements in City Slickers) that changes their views of both their lives and their professions. They begin as hard-driving hotshots, arrogant workaholic, who find out, by facing mortality, fate or other circumstances, that there is more to life than upward mobility, monetary success, conspicuous consumption and other symbols of the American Dream. For some reason, they seem to be anxious to be enlightened by their life experiences, to make the most of accidents and disasters. This description does sound like the premise of most of what is seen on television-made dramas.

What distinguishes these films from TV Movies of the Week is not their thematics, but often their high quality of acting and their slick production values.

In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford is cast as Henry Turner, a high-powered corporate attorney, who suffers neurological damage after being shot in a holdup at a convenience store. Having lost most of his memory, Henry needs to rebuild his personality–and life–from scratch. Before getting shot, Henry is a caricature, perhaps because of the brevity of time the narrative devotes to his character. Ruthless and manipulative at work, he is an oppressive father and not exactly a sensitive husband at home.

The film’s veneer is so thin and obvious that all the audience can do is to nod with approval–and boredom–as Henry becomes a better person. Regarding Henry could have been a deeper, more genuine, exploration of what is important in life, instead of the superficial Hollywood gloss it is. It would have been more interesting if some dark sides of Henry’s previous personality would have reappeared, if he didn’t become such a perfect citizen, if he didn’t despise his career as a lawyer, if he didn’t hate his old clothes. Instead, each scene makes its heavy point, and the messages are explicitly stated. At the end, Henry says, “I want us to be a family for as long as I can.” As a populist fable, Regarding Henry’s appeal is based on a universal wish to step outside of ourselves and reassess what is important in our lives. The film’s premise is predictable, though unconvincing: Given the choice and endowed with more self-awareness, people will become better human beings.

The Doctor is another morality tale of a wealthy, accomplished man who reassesses his life and becomes a better person after facing death. Jack McKuee (William Hurt) is a successful but emotionally detached surgeon with an abrupt, businesslike manner with his patients. As the film starts, he proudly states his credo, “A surgeon’s job is to cut,” or “get in, fix it, get out.” But one day, Jack’s cough turns out to be caused by a tumor, and he is forced to take his own medicine. Among the indignities he endures are a double room instead of a private one, unsympathetic bureaucracy, doctors who make decisions without consulting him.

The turning point in Jack’s transformation is his meeting with June (Elizabeth Perkins), a young woman suffering from a brain tumor. She instructs him that death is an integral part of life and inspires him to change his priorities. She is possibly the first and only true friend he has ever had. He develops compassion as he discovers for himself what the meaning of being a patient. His melodramatic metamorphosis is complete, when he declares (not once but twice), “My tumor gives me certain freedom I’ve never allowed myself before.”

In Doc Hollywood, Michael J. Fox plays Ben Stone, a hotshot plastic-surgery specialist, who gets into his ’56 Porsche Speedster and heads for Beverly Hills. But he is detained in the small town of Grady, South Carolina, whose claim to notoriety is being the Squash Capital of the South. The town stands for the simpler and finer qualities in life. Stone’s acquired humanism is reflected in reading letters to illiterate patients and walking pet pigs. If you have any doubts about the outcome of the film’s big question, will Ben stay in the small town or go Hollywood (in more senses than one), wake up, you have not been to the movies in a long time.

In Life Stinks, a billionaire regains his common sense by spending time with the common folk, the poor and the homeless. Mel Brooks plays Goddard Bolt, a robber baron who, when the film opens, displays his ruthless business tactics. Told that one of his companies plans to cut down 6,000 acres of Brazilian rain forest, he merely says, “So” At the prospect of closing down a nursing home, he advises an aide to “do it late at night.”

In City Slickers, screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel shamelessly take three white males out of New York City and place them on the range, where through a series of adventures each learns a lesson of maturity and manhood (the instructor is the mythic Jack Palance). The film cashes in on jokes deriving from urban men’s fears and anxieties.

Soft-hearted and sentimental, these films congratualte themselves on their own humanism. But their messages are disingenuous. The black physical therapist (played by Bill Nunn) in Regarding Henry actually says that he is happy to have smashed his knees and thus lost a career as a football player so that he can now work as therapist and teach people how to walk.

In each film, there is a central sequence that shamelessly milks tears out of the audience. In City Slickers, Billy Crystal risks his life by jumping into a river to rescue a little calf. Each of these films feature cute animals. In Doc Hollywood, Ben gets as pet pig; in Regarding Henry, it is a dog. When Regarding Henry resorts to reaction shots of a cute dog, or Henry looking at flowers, you know that the movie is going for the obvious emotions. Billy Crystal literally fathers the calf, taking better care of the calf than of his children when they needed him. Jack’s family in The Doctor sees him so seldom that when his wife summons their son to greet his father, the kid picks up the telephone–even though his father stands in the living room. You can’t blame the kid: He is used to communicating with his dad on the telephone. To throw a bit of Freudian psychology into the reading of the new films, guilt and compensatory mechanism are at work in each one of them.

The cycle of humanistic films replaces a recent cycle, in the late l980s, which focused on babies. No more babies in mainstream American comedies, as could be seen in such films as Three Men and a Baby (and its exploitational sequel, Three Men and a Little Lady), Baby Boom, and Parenthood. It is no accident that Parenthood, a comedy about the trials and tribulations of a set of parents in an extended family, was written by the same team of writers, Ganz and Mandel, responsible for City Slickers.

There are children in the new films, but they tend to be teenagers. Indeed, Mikki Allen, as Henry’s twelve-year daughter, has many memorable moments in the only role that resonates with some emotional complexity. In a role reversal (a fantasy that many children share), she teaches her father how to tie his shoes, how to read, how to behave in a public library.

The messages of the new films are also impossible to achieve. They seem to be saying that in order to become an extraordinary professional one first has to be an extraordinary human being. But they don’t resolve–or deal–with the inherent tensions between self-serving careerism and commitment to larger and nobler causes. All of the films have pat and predictable plots, whose beginnings are much more effective than their endings. They all seem to succumb to the machinations of their sentimental plots rather than to the logic of their situations or characters.

Finally, there is an alarming note in the new movies: Women seem to be relegated if not to domesticity then to mainly supporting their families in times of crisis. They are professional women, but they are seldom seen at work. Their primary source of identification is still that of wives-mothers. As sympathetic but frustrated wives, the women play smaller, secondary roles. The excellent Annette Bening, playing Henry’s loving and dedicated wife, lends extraordinary warmth, radiance, and vulnerability to a role that is underwritten. The Doctor features another first-rate actress, Christine Lahti, whose task is so small it is unworthy of her big talent. In Doc Hollywood, Julie Warner plays an ambulance driver and would-be lawyer, but the text given to her as Fox’s love interest is outrageous. In a movie season in which women are using their guns (Thelma and Louise, Terminator 2), this kind of female roles is all the more peculiar.

With the possible exception of The Doctor, though well intentioned, the new films are superficial, simplistic, and full of timeworn clichs. Of the five films the one that hits right home, touching a deep chord in the collective experiences is The Doctor. It has a universal appeal–most adults have experienced (or will experience) being powerless patients, dehumanized by arrogant and cold doctors and impersonal bureaucracy (hospitals, insurance companies). This film is also more honest and better directed than Regarding Henry and the others.

These movies work best as fables, perfectly reflecting the mores of the l990s as an anti-greed, anti-corruption, anti-materialist value system–in ideology, if not in praxis. The back to basic (in Doc Hollywood and City Slickers, it is back to Nature) is the dominant motif. These middle-aged yuppies, once-proud careerists, seem to be remorsing their sins. Lacking cynicism, dark humor, and above all moral ambiguity, the new films make safe and easy choices. Their politically correct values are so blatant that they descend to a level of sentimentality that Frank Capra would have found embarrassing in the l940s.