(director/writer: Martin Scorsese; screenwriter: Joseph Minion; cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus; editor: Thelma Schoonmaker; music: Howard Shore; cast: Griffin Dunne (Paul Hackett), Rosanna Arquette (Marcy), Verna Bloom (June), Tommy Chong (Pepe), Cheech Marin (Neil), Linda Fiorentino (Kiki), Teri Garr (Julie), John Heard (Tom the bartender), Catherine O’Hara (Gail), Larry Block (Taxi Driver), Richard Miller (Diner Waiter); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert F. Colesberry/Amy Robinson/Griffin Dunne; Warner Brothers; 1985)

“Scorsese’s directing is at its best.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An inventively strange black comedy that is set in NYC’s Soho. It signals a brilliant return by director-writer Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”/”The King of Comedy”) to making the energetic small scale films that earned him a reputation as a great filmmaker. The tight script is co-written by Joseph Minion.

The film follows the travails of a quiet, yuppie computer word-processor, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), who after work is serenely sitting in a coffee shop reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer when he meets the sexy but ditsy Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). She shares the same passion for the author as Paul and gives him her phone number where she’s staying with her Soho sculptress friend Kiki (Linda Fiorentino). Paul comes downtown from his Upper East Side apartment on the pretext of buying a paperweight from the sculptress, but on the high-speed taxi ride en route loses his fare money out the window. This becomes an omen for the kind of nightmarish night that awaits him, where his only aim will be to get back home like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”

In the artist’s loft Kiki greets Paul dressed only in her bra and underwear, and tells him Marcy ventured out to the drugstore. Kiki gets him to give her a massage and then falls asleep. When Marcy returns they retreat to her bedroom, where he expects an easy lay. But she frightens the sexually aroused Paul with a story of how she got violently raped in that very room by her boyfriend, and he is further turned off when she later tells him kinky stories about her estranged husband and how he relates everything in life to “The Wizard of Oz.” Seeing that he can’t make a connection with the bohemian Marcy or her weird artist friend, Paul leaves the loft unannounced. But he doesn’t have enough loose change for subway fare home because there was just a fare increase, and is stranded in the darkened deserted rainy streets.

A friendly bartender (John Heard) is willing to give Paul the subway fare but needs him to do a favor first, to go back to his neighborhood apartment to turn on the burglar alarm and get a key for the bar cash register. There has been a series of burglaries in the neighborhood this night, with the culprits (Cheech Marin & Tommy Chong) driving around in a van. Paul leaves his house key as security, but is delayed on his mission when he runs into Kiki and is made to return to the loft and apologize to Marcy for running out on her. What follows is series of haunting events for Paul such as Marcy’s suicide, mistaken for a burglar and chased by an angry mob from the community. Stuck after hours in a world the word-processor can’t understand, he feels like a visitor from another planet who has lost control of his life and is prevented by the freaks he encounters from returning to the safe place he’s familiar with. In his confused state of mind, Paul continues to make bad decisions. He foolishly gets involved with the unhappy beehive-wearing bar waitress (Teri Garr) who misunderstands his situation, and he has to run away from her attempts to be romantic. Paul just wanting to make a phone call for help has to flee again to the eerie streets after another unsuccessful encounter with an emasculating blonde (Catherine O’Hara), the driver of a Mr. Softee truck. He finally ends up in the strange apartment of a lonely middle-aged sculptress (Verna Bloom) who accidentally, with the help of plaster of Paris, helps him evade the pursuing community vigilantes in a uniquely artistic way.

It’s a lively and original screwball comedy that captures the topsy-turvy downtown bohemian nightlife scene (especially the punk rock Café Berlin on Mohawk Night) and brings out the uptowner’s repressed anger at his dull and unsatisfactory life. Though it veers towards being a misogynist story it seems more interested in drawing out the comedy inside the offbeat characters pictured and telling their bizarre tales about how life has astonished them in unexpected ways. The performances are pitch perfect in their comic reactions, the script is witty and Scorsese’s directing is at its best.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”