Search and Destroy (1995): David Salle’s Debut

Sundance Film Festival, Jan 23, 1995–Visual artist David Salle’s eagerly-awaited premiere, Search and Destroy, aspires to be an inventive black comedy of the absurd with sharp social commentary, but instead is a disappointing film with few bright moments and many more tedious ones. Major talent behind the cameras and a dream cast of eccentric actors only partially overcome the trappings of a misconceived film that is poorly directed. October needs all the help it can get in marketing an overhyped pic that is likely to get mixed reviews and have a lukewarm-to-negative word of mouth.

Inevitable comparisons will be made with the far superior 1985 angst comedy, After Hours, directed by Martin Scorsese, who executive produced this one. There are similarities in the cast, with Griffin Dunne and Rosanna Arquette appearing in both films, and some thematic resemblances, as both focus on an ordinary guy exposed to a series of comic nightmares in an “alien” world. But that’s as far as it goes.

Here Dunne plays Martin Mirkhein, an ambitious Florida businessman, sought by the I.R.S. for tax evasions. When a government accountant (Scorsese) tells Martin that he owes $147,956, his excuse is rather simple, “taxes are outside my main focus.” With the I.R.S. pending threat to repossess his condominium, bankruptcy seems the only viable strategy, as Martin’s previous ventures as promoter of showbusiness projects have all been ill-fated.

Things at home are not much rosier. Hearing the tax “news” for the first time, Martin’s attractive wife, Lauren (Arquette), is fed up with his chronic lying and abominable conduct, demanding a separation.

Determined not to let his life fall apart, Martin miraculously stumbles on the philosophy of Dr. Luther Waxling (Dennis Hopper), a self-help guru, whose popular Cable TV show seems to be on the air whenever he turns on his tube. Waxling has written an all-American novel, Daniel Strong, with gruesome twists, which vividly exposes his message of hope through four rules of success, such as “strength needs no excuse,” or “the past is pointless.”

Embracing this philosophy wholeheartedly, Martin flies to Dallas, where Waxling’s show is on the road, to propose making a movie out of his best-seller. But his initial attempts to meet the guru are rebuffed by his assistant Roger (Ethan Hawke) and Marie (Illeana Douglas) his sexy receptionist. Undeterred, he talks Marie into a dinner date, only to realize that she is Waxling’s mistress–and a closeted writer, working on a script for a horror flick.

Martin finally meets Waxling, who’s initially intrigued, but when the latter learns that Martin has no money he kicks him out of the office. Martin and Marie then elope to New York to pursue his obsessive dream. From then on, pic is structured as a madcap fantasy, with horror and violence, that throws Martin in one catastrophic encounter after another, until he literally reaches the bottom.

Adapting to the screen Howard Korder’s stage play, scripter Almereyda, whose own film Nadja is in dramatic competition this year, divides the tale into two chapters, Search and Destroy, while drawing parallels between Martin’s adventures and those described in Daniel Strong. Cute title cards, like “Daniel Strong tests himself against the power of beauty,” that periodically punctuate the narrative, become wearisome after a while.

Pic’s ideas might have seemed more promising on page, though they are by no means novel. Biting satires of average guys who don’t know their place and who claim they want “to change people’s lives, make them feel something,” have been done before. The changing moral context also presents a problem: a sharp commentary about the greedy culture of the l980s is not that timely–or relevant–at present.

The script’s shortcomings would have been tolerated if pic were better directed, but first-time helmer Salle exhibits severe problems with both tone and rhythm, resulting in a film that seldom finds its right tempo or proper mood. Salle loses his grip over the material as the story gets darker and darker.

The humor is forced, preventing the film from realizing its intent as a madcap fantasy-adventure. The only element that indicates the radical changes of mood and wild twists and turns is Elmer Bernstein’s resourceful music.

The best–and most amusing–thing that keeps the film alive is the glorious acting by its stellar cast. Dunne is well-cast as the obnoxious businessman, and Hopper has some wonderful moments as the preaching guru. Illeana Douglas’ idiosyncratic charm as the slasher screenwriter proves that she can hold centerstage and smoothly move into bigger roles.

But the two shining performers who rise above the film’s mediocrity are Walken and Turturro. Walken is hilarious as the mysterious market analyst who asserts with a characteristic blank expression, “blessed the businessmen, they’re our angels.” A bit over the top, Turturro, wearing a black wig, also hits his mark, particularly in a negotiations scene with an Hispanic drug dealer.

Tech credits, most notably Bukowski and Spiller’s Big Apple lensing, are impressive, though final cut looks as if it had been tempered by various hands in post-production (especially the cutting) in an effort to make a more coherent and engaging film.

An opportunity to make a quirky, offbeat, quintessentially New York indie has clearly been missed, though Search and Destroy is not a total disaster as the nay-sayers are predicting.