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Robert Wise (#110 of 2)

Summer of ‘90: Men at Work: Grasping at the Last Strands of ‘80s Nostalgia

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Summer of ’90: Men at Work: Grasping at the Last Strands of ’80s Nostalgia

Triumph Releasing Corporation

Summer of ’90: Men at Work: Grasping at the Last Strands of ’80s Nostalgia

Men at Work is patient zero for the plague of Charlie Sheen movies that infected the 1990s. One tends to forget that Sheen had steady work in that decade, turning out cocky fare like The Chase and Terminal Velocity. And while Men at Work isn’t the first film to use the actor in his then-typical role of a wiseass hot-shot lothario, the casual laziness that would infect his ’90s output has its origins in writer-director Emilio Estevez’s crime comedy. As Carl Taylor, Sheen can’t be bothered to do anything but exist on screen as he wades through his brother’s mercilessly overstuffed plot.

Estevez’s second feature is a major step down from his 1986 debut, Wisdom. For that film, Estevez was flanked by a massively talented crew: It was edited by Michael Kahn, scored by Danny Elfman, and produced by legendary Oscar-winning director Robert Wise, whom Estevez sought out for advice and guidance. Despite all that firepower, Wisdom is shocking in its ineptitude, a crime thriller saddled with far too many useless details and tangents. The more problematic Men at Work suffers from the same screenplay overcompensations, to the point where one wishes Estevez sought out Wise’s contemporary, Billy Wilder, for advice instead. Wilder would have burned the script for Men at Work.

5 For The Day: Robert Wise

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5 For The Day: Robert Wise
5 For The Day: Robert Wise

Robert Wise’s oeuvre is a study in extreme contrasts, a retelling of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impressed upon the history of the cinema. For every classic he crafted in the many genres he worked, there is an equally hideous companion piece that almost negates it. One could argue that this idea of good and evil was crafted only upon reflection of the director’s full output, but Wise gave us an example of this aspect early in his 60-year career. As an editor at RKO, Wise spliced together a masterpiece called Citizen Kane, then turned his scissors and his viewfinder against its director’s next picture, The Magnificent Ambersons. While Wise cannot take all the blame for Ambersons’ butchering, and the picture that resulted isn’t bad, this early dichotomy was eerily prescient of Wise’s ultimate place in the annals of American film.

Wise’s Robert Louis Stevenson-worthy transformations continued throughout his career. He crafted one of the scariest exercises in the horror subgenre of ghost stories, and one of the worst. He used both capoeira and ballet to depict racial tension. He created a landmark exercise in science fiction, and he rebooted a sci-fi TV franchise that, thirty years later, was again rebooted. He contributed to the end of the all-star disaster pictures of the ’70s and, with Julie Andrews, he helped destroy the movie musical trend of the ’60s despite getting two Oscars for directing them. He worked on Orson Welles’ directorial debut, and on a certain Brat Packer-turned-director’s first movie. Wise also had a knack for picking a good, scandalous or controversial story, but no distinct style in depicting it. Such a rich study in contrasts is prime material for a 5 for The Day.

Like Howard Hawks and Alan Parker, Wise worked in almost every genre, though he skews closer to Parker than Hawks in terms of success ratio. Whether that is good or bad, and which films belong in which category, I leave to your discussion. I will state that when Wise was good, he was very, very good. And when he was bad, as the nursery rhyme goes, he was horrid. Herewith, five noteworthy Robert Wise films. I tried to pick a film from each genre, but history forces my hand on one entry: Predictably I must start with: