Monday, May 23, 2011

Lookin' To Get Out: Laughing Their Way to the Top

Lookin’ To Get Out (1982)

Directed By: Hal Ashby
Written By: Jon Voight and Al Schwartz
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Young, Ann-Margret, Bert Remsen, and Richard Bradford
Director of Photography: Haskell Wexler, Editing Team: Walton Dornisch, Eva Gardon, Janice Hampton, Robert C. Jones, and Waynbe Wahrman, Production Designer: Robert Boyle, Original Music: Johnny Mandel and Miles Goodman
Rated: R for language and some nudity

Lookin’ to Get Out has a plot that the film might want to get to at some point, but it keeps getting interrupted by laughter. This 1980s Hal Ashby comedy follows two gamblers who run to Vegas to score some cash to pay off a debt, but the film’s stars, Jon Voight and Burt Young, spend the entire film laughing throughout. In an early scene, the two are confronted by gambling sharks that threaten to kill them. Mr. Young though cannot keep a straight face, and starts laughing his way through the scene, like the whole plot is one big joke. What are these guys laughing about anyways? Who knows, and who cares Mr. Ashby seems to imply. We’re having too much fun to care.

Lookin’ To Get Out is not considered one of Mr. Ashby’s great films, which include Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, and Shampoo, but a new print of a director’s cut that premiered in New York (the cut is also on a barebones DVD) asks us the reassess this forgotten film. And in many ways, Lookin’ to Get Out is a perfect example of the New Hollywood gone amuck, and a metaphor for its downfall. The film is young, hip, and full of people who see the sky as the limits, so much that they never realize they are about to be taken down.

Mr. Voight, who co-wrote the screenplay with Al Schwartz, stars as Alex, an addictive gambler who lives with best friend Jerry (Mr. Young). When the two realize they need $10,000 by the time the sun sets, they rush off to Vegas for crazy night on the town. They lie their way into an elephant-sized suite, hire a once all-star gambler to make their money, and meet up with some old friends, both welcome and unwelcome.
But narrative, like so many works of the New Hollywood, seems almost second to tone and theme, and the life of luxury without consequences seems to be at the center of the film. Put into context with such famous New Wave flops like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate, Mr. Ashby seems to be making a meta-commentary on the ambition of such men who refuse to see their current trouble (the film of course had its own problems, going $10 million over budget). And yet they trek on in order to make that great score and elucidate the bad guys. Some plot elements do feel unnecessary, such as a former prostitute played by Ann-Margaret, who has more than just a history with Alex. Ms. Margaret bats her eyes, but the situations the script throws her into are awkward and unplanned, rushed without feeling organic (the script was being constantly rewritten).

Still, the on-site location shooting and simply the zaniness of the script, including a long chase sequence through the MGM Grand, make Lookin’ To Get Out a very fun film. Mr. Voight and Mr. Young have excellent chemistry together, and seeing their friendship evolve and develop is one of the true pleasures of the film. Plus, the final showdown, a con that breaks into complete chaos at a high-stakes poker table, is both absurd and ridiculous, but one can’t help but smile. Why are these guys laughing the entire way through? They can’t see what’s ahead of them; the trouble they’ve been in (as well as the con pulled on them). It’s the end of an era of filmmaking in Mr. Ashby’s mind. Why make it a funeral when it can be a grand show?

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