The January Man is a wacky slapstick comedy about
No, I'm not kidding.
It features quite charming characterizations from the
three principals (Kevin Kline, Alan Rickman and Mary Elizabeth
Mastrontonio), but also has some wild overacting from some of the bit
players. Rod Steiger is embarrassing - this is the same guy who did The
Pawnbroker? Danny Aiello matches him for sheer over-the-top silliness.
Wait until you see the scene with Steiger and Aiello shouting at each
other at the top of their lungs in a tiny room. Steiger apparently
caught Aiello by surprise on the first take with a completely unexpected
outburst of blatant scenery-chewing, and the director decided to leave
Danny's dumbfounded reaction in the final cut. Harvey Keitel looked
embarrassed to be in that scene, in the film, and especially to be
talking to Rod Steiger. Keitel was not over the top at all. Quite to the
contrary, he was under the bottom, and apparently thought he was really
supposed to be behaving like a police commissioner! He played his part
completely straight, and seemed to be in a completely different film.
The fundamental plot is the usual super-criminal
stuff. In bad movies, bad guys always act out their multiple murders
with painstakingly complex patterns, ala the Riddler and The Joker on
Batman. This calls for a completely different kind of detective from the
ones who solve real murders. To solve movie serial murders, we need guys
who understand a Fibonacci series. Kline, the hippie genius, realized
that the apartments of each murder, when highlighted on identically
scaled photographs of the buildings, form musical notes on a treble
clef, thus forming a song which is a clue. The buildings themselves,
when marked on an aerial photograph of New York, form the Constellation
If anybody had asked me about this in the development
stage, I would have told him the following:
First - if you're going to do slapstick, don't mix it
with mutilated women. As it is now, the film is often in quite bad
taste. The detectives do plenty of Jerry Lewis shtick while looking at,
talking about, or standing by, badly mutilated bodies.
Turn the serial killer into a serial bank robber who uses
complex numerical patterns or computer code in the process of ripping
off greedy rich fucks, and have the greedy rich fucks pressure their
buddy, the mayor, to stop the cyberterror. Then
you can joke about it all you like, and nobody will care. Furthermore,
the mathematical patterns might make sense in such a scenario. The
criminal might need a certain pattern in order to make the code work,
for example, if he is exploiting dated security loopholes in some
software. In such a case, Kline could have figured out the next date
when the exploit would work, and the exact code necessary on that day,
blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda.
Second - make the villain match the crimes. If the
crime has obviously been committed by a mathematical genius with a
special eye for patterns, let's make the guy capable of such a thought
process, and maybe spend some time with him. Everyone knows a Bond
film is only as good as its villain.
Third - either make all the authority figures
realistic (ala Keitel), or broadly comical (Aiello and Steiger). Think
about this question as well - why does the script require all three of
them in the first place?
Fourth - don't hire Rod Steiger to be the mayor. I'd
suggest Tom Wilkinson, or somebody who really behaves like a mayor.
Hell, use the real Giuliani - he's a real mayor, and he can't act any
worse than Rod Steiger did in this film. If you re-write the Captain
role and make him speak real dialogue, then Danny Aiello would be
perfectly OK in the role, but as it is, he is a weak spot in the movie.
(I don't blame Danny. He didn't write this stuff, and nobody could have
done anything with the part as it was written.)
Fifth - hey, I love Susan Sarandon, but write her part
out of this film completely. It's completely irrelevant and
Sixth - watch The Zero Effect for a model of how to
handle the exact same premise, with humor and mystery combined in a tale
of a modern day Sherlock Holmes and his Watson.
As I was watching January Man, thinking that I had
never seen it before, and thinking that parts of it really were sorta
cute in a way, I was struck with how familiar it all seemed. And then it
dawned on me.
I saw it in German when I lived in Austria, and I
thought it completely stunk.
That kind of brought the film into high relief for
analytical purposes. In English, it is watchable because Kline, Rickman,
and Mastrontonio are charming, and have a clever way to deliver their
lines. In a German-language broadcast, those actors are replaced by
dubbers. Oh, sure, their bodies and faces are still there, but someone
else delivered their lines. If you stop and think about it, without
those three and their verbal gifts, this is not much of a film.