Feb 15th: “The January Man” (1989)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
I almost wanted to throw this one out. The main reason was that it seemed too unacceptable a choice. It rubbed the critics up the wrong way, and everything they said about it was right. But then, I realised something upon rewatching it.
That was the point of this movie. It’s doing what it’s meant to do. It leads because it bleeds. It’s chaos before the calm. Characters aren’t usually meant to change the dynamic of a movie, but in this film, that’s exactly what happened. One character in particular acts as an antidote. We need her to appear so that the film can both calm down, focus, and resume it’s correct course to what we hope is a positive conclusion. It’s a film that at first sounds like a toddler with a brand new drum kit. By the time that movie ends, we realise that this metaphorical kid was a prodigy all along.
When it comes to harsh criticism, nothing has been thrown to the wolves as much as the movie, The January Man. It’s a film that was coined “one of the worst movies of all time.” by Chicago-Sun Times critic Roger Ebert who also wrote:
“The January Man is worth study as a film that fails to find its tone. It’s all over the map. It wants to be zany but violent, satirical but slapstick, romantic but cynical. It wants some of its actors to rant and rave like amateur tragedians, and others to reach for subtle nuances. And it wants all of these things to happen at the same time.”
Rita Kempley of the Washington Post also hated this movie, citing that it was “a damp sock of a movie.”
Naturally, by having this film listed amongst twenty-seven other underrated movies, I am here to FIGHT in the corner by saying, these critics have got it all WRONG. It helps if you take a step back and realise that this is by far the most unconventional first hour to a crime thriller you will ever set your eyes on, and it’s all by design. I assure you.
The film concerns a string of murders — not too dissimilar to those in Jack’s Back, where, despite it being the cornerstone of the plot, is only there as a catalyst of the stories characters. Nick Starkey (played with unwavering honesty by Kevin Kline) used to be in the police force, but circumstances surrounding a scandal, as well as bad blood between him and his brother Frank (played cautiously by Harvey Keitel.) After a string of murders hits the city, Nick is reinstated, but with one condition. That he is allowed to have dinner with Frank’s wife, Christine (played with stripped sincerity by Susan Sarandon). As unusual as that might seem, it all comes clear when we realise that some of the bad blood that runs between the brother’s stems from Frank stealing Christine away from Nick. Frustratingly, not a lot is made about the feud, nor does it seem all that important… to us, the audience. Everybody seems to be at odds with one another. Nobody in the first half of this movie is content, and we, as gazers, are pulled into that feeling of frustration.
This is not the film we thought we signed up for. Well join the club, these characters would yell. At its core, this film is about rhythm, or more specifically, the lack of. The first half is discord, where as the second half, the film tunes in and finds its melody.
Nick lives with a roommate, who we know simply as Ed. Ed is an anarchist who doesn’t want to fit into the social structure of society. He’s an artist who works with the female form in various modes and materials. He’s content with his perversion, but we as an audience might find him the most recognisable and relatable character in the movie so far.
That is until Nick finally meets with Bernadette Flynn (the woman at the beginning of the movie, who was a close friend to January 1st victim, who was strangled to death in her apartment.) He sees her first at her friend’s funeral, and then followers her, until he then convinces her to, first a coffee and then casual sex. Now that Nick is suddenly grounded, the work begins to catch the killer.
Everything that happened in the first half of the movie becomes a blur. Bernadette (played with openness and surrender by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) makes us realise that everything we endured in the first half was all lead up to meeting her. Without her in the film, both Nick and the audience feels lost.
Critics who cited that this film was a mess, and that it didn’t know what it wanted to be simply weren’t willing to accept the responsibility we had as an audience. For a film to provoke a response in such a negative way means that it’s working. We had to earn our place ready for the second half of this movie. The first half was a film that was misbehaving. It was a first half that was confused and didn’t know what it wanted to be…
Just like Nick.
The film became grounded the moment we set eyes on Bernadette, and suddenly everything became clear. Suddenly we’re grounded, and so is Nick.
Nick’s objectives align and we are suddenly in a different movie from there on in. The second half of this movie is an experience of pure joy and devilish fun as we watch likeable characters attempt to solve a mystery and catch the killer.
This isn’t a movie that should be taken seriously. It’s an exploration of the relationship between us/the audience, and the make believe world of the characters that are sent to test us, up on the silver screen. It’s a relationship that hits you — with excessive personality traits and emotional difficulties sown in.
But it’s all worth it, once we trust in the process.
Director Pat O’Conner is not by any means a prolific director. Judging by his choices, he doesn’t just accept anything that comes his way. Then he wouldn’t need to, as he is also the husband of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, which gives an indication of what she means to The January Man in terms of what happens when she is present on screen.
The writing credits of John Patrick Stanley include January Man, and close to that is Moonstruck (to which he won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay) and Joe Versus the Volcano, which he also directed. These three movies contain, or should I say, let loose very eccentric characters that are more symbols of character types that we recognise in society. Also, he writes scenes that are theatrical, larger than life, and mood shifting, which is most likely due to his long career as a successful, and award winning playwright.
Everything that we saw in the first 45 minutes of January Man (scenes without Mastrantonio) are extremely theatrical in nature. Characters are flippant, and loud, as if projecting their awareness of an audience. Indeed, their manners change as we intrude on their spaces. Both Rod Steiger and Danny Aiello are explosive as senior police authorities. More so than we’re used to. They demand our attention, and then immediately after… all is quiet. We have Susan
Some films are made to test you. The January Man is no exception. You could be enraged at the first half of the movie, walk away, and allow the murderer to go on. You would be denying Nick is encounter with Bernadette, and robbing everybody of a chance to seek change, for the better. Or you can wait it out, and allow Nick and Bernadette to set the story on course. You will want to be with them, with espresso in hand.
Written by: Stephen Radford