Wednesday 1 March 2023

Amos & Andrew (1993)

Director: E. Max Frye
Writer: E. Max Frye
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Lerner, Margaret Colin, Giancarlo Esposito, Bob Balaban, Brad Dourif and Dabney Coleman

Index: The First Thirty.

Yeah, this didn’t look promising! Knowingly going into a project with a title like this firmly suggests poor judgement and, while it plays a lot better than I expected that it would, it’s a wildly ill-advised film.

For those young enough to not see the issue, there was a massively popular radio show that ran from 1928 to 1960 called Amos ’n’ Andy. The characters were all black, but it was created, written and acted by two white men. Needless to say, it was protested before it ever made the jump to television in the fifties, which finally ended under NAACP pressure. At least the TV actors were black but the voices were still the white creators. While this was an important radio show, it isn’t remembered fondly.

So here’s a 1993 riff on Amos ’n’ Andy, where Amos is white and Andy is black and the whole film is a look at American race relations. Done as a comedy. OK then...

Nicolas Cage is Amos Odell, an idiotic white thief who starts the film in jail on a rich resort island in Massachusetts because he somehow mistook it for Canada. His first action is to get his handcuffs removed so he can make his one phone call. He orders takeout.

Samuel L. Jackson is Andrew Sterling, a rich black playwright—the best joke may be that he won a Pulitzer for Yo Brother, Where Art Thou—and he starts the film looking at the very same island over the side of a ferry. He’s just bought a holiday home on the island and he’s heading there for a first night in his new property.

Let’s just say that it doesn’t go remotely as well as he might have hoped. In fact, if you try to guess how badly it could go for an unknown black man on a rich white island, you’ll still come up short.

Well, that’s if you’re white. If you’re black, this is going to seem completely predictable. I would suggest that the only way to watch this is in a small multi-racial group of friends who can watch each other’s reactions in real time.

It starts as of course it starts with a call to the cops. The Gillmans, Phil and Judy, are out walking their dogs when they see the lights on next door, decide to say hi to neighbours and find instead some black man poking around in their house, so... and here’s where you need to start watching the faces of your multi-racial viewing party.

It doesn’t help that Brad Dourif is so good at being a dipshit cop.

Quick aside: Brad Dourif is so good at being anyone, I need to schedule his First Thirty at some point. Quick further aside: I’ll do Samuel L. Jackson’s before Dourif’s, as he’s the highest grossing actor ever (ignoring Stan Lee) and yet he was top billed in only two of his first thirty films: National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 with Emilio Estevez and this. Pulp Fiction was #32.

What Dourif does here is stupidly escalate a scenario that’s already stupidly escalated and he does it in quintessential style. He’s Officer Donnie Donaldson, the dumbest of the dumb cops who surround Sterling’s new house with no knowledge that he’s bought the place. He puts on blackface—camouflage!—then bumps into Sterling’s car, setting off the alarm. As Sterling tries to switch it off, Donaldson thinks his key fob is a gun and opens fire. After it all calms down, he bumps into the car again and shoots the damn thing to make it stop.

And then Police Chief Cecil Tolliver, who’s standing for County Commissioner, picks up a phone and calls the house, realises the mistake and panics. His bright idea to escape from this mess of his own making is to hire Amos Odell—remember him?—to break in, hold Sterling hostage, give himself up and then leave, with the promise of a ticket to Canada, budding PR nightmare no further concern.

And if you think that’s going to work, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

I have to admit that this is better than I had any right to expect it to be. That does not, and I repeat not, mean that it’s a good film. If the script took itself seriously and played this out as a drama, maybe Cage and Jackson could be a modern day match for Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in 1958’s The Defiant Ones, although that film had added depth in the fact that the two characters hated each other to begin with and that isn’t the case here. They’re just confused.

However, this script is very clearly comedy and probably deliberately so, to minimise the rampant potential for upsetting the audience in a very different time. That’s why this film, which is all about race, features precious few overt racists. The Chief does drop the N word, but even there he may be doing it for effect as a role he’s playing in the moment. He’s not the sort of racist we saw in films about race in the fifties and sixties. This is about quiet racism.

And it’s all about how white guys see black guys and how black guys see white guys and that’s a massively topical subject that needs a better movie than this to do it justice. And then not as a sitcom.

To be fair, Cage and Jackson do pretty well here. Cage is laid back and a little wild. Jackson is far more uptight. Both are sympathetic and both grow during the film. Amos, as dumb an example of white trash as he is, proves to be a better human being than the rich white folk. Andrew, as out of touch with his own race as he is, changes with the trying experiences he’s thrust into here.

And, for the most part, as good as Dourif is, and Coleman and Giancarlo Esposito as a black preacher who leads a protest march, we never stop watching Cage and Jackson. Everything of substance in the film comes out of the pair of them interacting and they’re both easily up to the challenge.

And while that seems like a given now, it’s fair to say that it probably wasn’t in 1993. This was film #20 for Cage and #25 for Jackson, but the former hadn’t yet found his niche and the latter hadn’t yet become a star. In many ways, they were skilful leading men stuck playing a pair of character roles because the movies had not yet acknowledged who they are.

But hey, I liked the deviant sex toy cabinet, the smitten pizza delivery girl and the hostage negotiator who can’t stop talking. I even liked the bloodhounds. But I’m not going to say that I liked the film. I’ll just say that it could have been a heck of a lot worse.

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