In a brand new project, I am going to be looking at the complete cinematic, feature-length filmography of a director in the run up or after a newly-released piece of work.
In the first Filmography project, in the wake of his new film Greta to be released in April 2019, I’m looking at celebrated Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan…
Neil Jordan never quite made a film like We’re No Angels again and you can understand why by the end of his misfiring gangster comedy. In any other circumstances, We’re No Angels could, maybe even should, have been a classic Hollywood comedy that marked Jordan out as a household directorial name.
This was not to be. An even more significant critical and commercial failure than High Spirits, worsened by the fact a great deal more money was involved in the production, Jordan quickly seemed to become aware that the road to Hollywood was not paved in smash hits. We’re No Angels had a script by celebrated playwright David Mamet, high profile A-list stars in Robert de Niro, Sean Penn and Demi Moore, and the biggest budget ever handed down to a production made in British Columbia. Expansive sets were constructed to bring the mid-1930’s prison and small town locations to life. Paramount believed they had the alchemy of a huge hit on their hands.
The opposite was true. We’re No Angels could end up being Neil Jordan’s most forgettable picture and a sign of why he and conventional Hollywood were never going to be a perfect match.
There is a sense throughout We’re No Angels that Neil Jordan knows something about this project just isn’t right for him, despite ticking off numerous aspects we have seen him display interest in throughout his previous films, however varied in tone and texture – guilty religion, forbidden sexual attraction, flawed grifters with hearts of gold etc… and Jordan even admitted at the time some level of innate lack of self-assurance about the project itself:
I’m from an Irish Catholic background, and the whole country is full of statues that move an afflicted people who get cured by miracles. So much of this is close to my heart, and I had to do it. All this is very pleasant to me. But I have this nagging guilt feeling, like James Joyce, that I should be writing, penniless and austere.
Though Jordan may be at home with levels of the subject matter, this nagging sense that the scale and scope of We’re No Angels is too big for a man who started shooting low-budget tales in his native Ireland about revenge-seeking gunslingers. Had We’re No Angels been made some three decades later, Jordan could well have ended up among the list of talented up and coming filmmakers chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood machine. Even in 1989, he would be forced to go away and lick his wounds after this one.
Part of the reason you sense We’re No Angels fails to hang together is down to the fact Jordan’s auteur hand is less directly clear on this picture. Even on the amiably flawed High Spirits, which attempted to nudge its way into the lexicon of high-concept Hollywood blockbuster comedies, and a film Jordan famously disliked the final cut of, you can feel his hand guiding the production. That is less apparent on We’re No Angels, on which he was drafted after pals De Niro & Penn—both bad boys on the Hollywood circuit by this point, making the title even more ironic—decided they wanted to work together and through producer Art Linson brought in Mamet, who had written for De Niro on Brian De Palma’s celebrated gangster biopic The Untouchables, in an attempt to create some cinematic magic.
Linson perhaps believed he could be the Merlin of this group. He produced The Untouchables, not to mention Bill Murray’s Christmas hit Scrooged, and some years before that Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Linson, still a working producer in film and TV, knew not only how to put together a big budget comedy but understood his gangsters – his next project after We’re No Angels would be Warren Beatty’s adaptation of Dick Tracy in 1990. We’re No Angels is a concoction of all of these elements – a Depression-era period setting, amiable crooks as main characters in Ned and Jim, and a concept straight out of a knockabout comic premise – two prisoners pretending to be priests in a small upstate New York town while the heat dies down so they can escape. A simple, high-concept Hollywood comedy you can boil down to a descriptive line, of the kind movie studios loved in the days of simpler conceptual ideas with big star names attached. These were still the days the talent could get people to the pictures, and De Niro & Penn were talent enough.
On the basis of this, the result is all the more baffling. Jordan’s direction is lofty and breezy enough, making use of his enormous locations (the town set alone cost $2.5 million with a few Canadian dollar conversation rate bonuses thrown in) well, but Mamet’s script never seems to get off the page. Penn in particular doesn’t have any idea what to do with Mamet’s dry witted material, with Jim often coming across like a boring Father Dougal Maguire from Father Ted to De Niro’s bumbling but calculated Ned. There is a sense the film wants to be Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello *and* De Niro & Penn (both known as hard men who play hard parts, though De Niro has softened this in recent years), and Jordan can’t quite get them there. As a director he has discussed how he felt relieved to not have budgetary issues hacking away at his material, but at the same time he missed the process of creating something from scratch.
You can tell with We’re No Angels. It entirely feels like the kind of picture made by committee, which it essentially was. It was designed as a star vehicle for two actors at the top of their game, certainly De Niro who is coming off an incredible run of pictures – Midnight Run, The Untouchables, The Mission, Brazil, Once Upon a Time in America, the list goes on. Penn had perhaps a more infamous 80’s given his tempestuous marriage to Madonna (and subsequent divorce), but he too most recently had filmed the acclaimed Colors. We’re talking about a bankable duo who Paramount would have been unconcerned about throwing a significant budget toward, produced by an impresario with proven hits at his back, written by a celebrated wordsmith and helmed by an acclaimed young director breaking into the studio system. Perhaps in this case there were just too many cooks playing to a gallery that just were not interested in tasting the goods.
We’re No Angels came out at the very end of the 1980s, Christmas of that year, seen presumably as a romp families would enjoy in perhaps the same vein as Scrooged a year earlier. When you look at the list of the most successful pictures of that year, it is perhaps a sign of decades to come; major franchises which have lingered into the modern day reign supreme (Indiana Jones, Batman, Back to the Future), but there is an even spread between powerful drama (Dead Poets Society) and knockabout comedy (Look Who’s Talking). There was space for We’re No Angels to end the year tapping into the same audience appreciation for both action (Lethal Weapon 2, featuring a buddy duo, is also on the list) and comedy, yet it bombed. Just to throw salt on the wound, in March of the following year Eric Idle & Robbie Coltrane struck far more of a memorable chord with Nuns on the Run. You probably remember that in the back of your mind. You’ve probably never even *seen* We’re No Angels.
It certainly sent Neil Jordan fleeing the Hollywood blockbuster machine. His next film, The Miracle, would be a defiantly low budget drama without anywhere close to the stardom applied here (it is also maddeningly hard to get hold of these days) and would in 1992 deliver one of his most powerful and culturally-lingering pictures in The Crying Game. Jordan responded to the critical and box office mauling of this film by going right back to his Irish roots and while he will return to Hollywood, in the future it feels far more on his terms.
We’re No Angels, incidentally, was partly a remake of a 1955 picture of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart & Peter Ustinov escaped prisoners hiding in the home of a merchant. Maybe remake is too specific – it certainly inspired Mamet in part. That too has been partially lost to cinematic history and speaks to an age We’re No Angels attempts, and fails, to get back in touch with – the golden age of stars, broad comedic ideas, period locations and enough acting charisma to carry the whole thing through.
Neil Jordan can’t work wonders here and it’s hard to imagine another We’re No Angels in a resume where much of the best work is yet to come.
Next up in the analysis of Neil Jordan’s filmography… 1992’s The Crying Game.
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