3/17/09

Slap Shot

Year Released: 1977
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman, Strother Martin, Allan F. Nicholls

Devil in a Blue-Eyed Redress

When those too-blue eyes play the conman, who on earth wouldn't be hustled? Is it the eyes themselves, that he's just that goddamn handsome, or is there something deeper within his persona that demands our trust and perpetual forgiveness?

I don't deny that Paul Newman is a beautiful man, but I'll give him credit for the latter, too; the man has some kind of power to bring warmth to characters that might otherwise be the villain in a story. With Paulie's touch, gamblers, convicted criminals, fugitive criminals, confidence men and mendacity-ers play our silver-screen heroes. Ugly, brown-eyed men in the same roles would find no sympathy from us, but with Paul Newman, it seems like Burt Bacharach is singing Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head in every scene that he's in, and whether it's raining or not, happiness rains down on us.

In that famed scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when the two fugitives bask in their ironic pastoral joy to the song stylings of cinema's worst meteorologist, it is fitting that the Sundance Kid's girl rides on the-is-he?-is-he-not?-adulterous Butch's handlebars; like always, he is perversing goodness and making it look like the most natural and even fortuitous moment. Because when Paul Newman does it, it's okay with me.

You might disagree, but I think it's more than good looks, even Newmanic good looks. Roles can be built with beauty, but not careers. Superstar acting careers are built on - and this is one of those silly hypotheses that I have - that ability to unwittingly promote the idea that your character is always deeper than he is written. So when your character is a drunk pool shark abusing his girlfriend, you can still side with him when he's not only good-looking, but that depth behind those beautiful black-and-white-blue eyes hints that maybe, just maybe, there is some deep-rooted problem we're not seeing that might exonerate him. The "let's give him a chance" syndrome.

Okay, maybe it's more complicated than that, but Paul Newman has it. When he stands there, leaning against the wall, looking into the distance, it feels like there is much more going on in his past, present and future than SCENE and DIALOGUE. That's what makes him such a good conman. He's a good actor, but he's also good at acting as someone who is acting. Why? Because of the intangible, involuntary fourth-dimensionality that he brings to all roles, large, small and twice-removed. His gorgeous face is the mirrors, but the smoke is everything else.

And that brings us to 1977. He isn't in the twilight of his career, but he's visibly older and familiar to all audiences. Slap Shot is a strange movie for Paul Newman. He curses, plays Hockey, engages in slapstick comedy, but yet again, he plays a hustler. Yet again, he is directed by George Roy Hill. Maybe he is hustling small-town reporters and gullible teammates in a Hockey farce film, but it's still that same confident smile that we're always falling for. Paulie still plays that not-quite-so-nice character and he still pulls it off with charm. That's one reason why Slap Shot is such a good film; a superstar actor in a familiar role performs at the top of his game for a director who has made it work before.

I give a lot of Slap Shot's credit to Paul Newman. In essence, the film is non-sense. It is a nihilistic approach to a sports comedy. Most of the characters in the film lack all semblance of three-dimensionality, existing only as running gags or plot devices. Without Paulie, I would probably still like the movie, because it's my cup of nihilistic tea, but with Paulie, it's more than that; Paul Newman floats through the increasingly ridiculous film in his usual four-dimensions, bringing a gravitational depth and some worthwhile character development to otherwise empty successions of laughter. That, in my opinion, is as much a testimony to his life and career as any Academy tribute.


Slap Shot

  It's More Than Okay With Me.   7.5/10




I am not the only person to like this movie. In 1998, Maxim magazine named Slap Shot the "Best Guy Movie Of All Time." GQ rates it similarly and Dan Jenkins, possibly the greatest sports fictionist of the last fifty years, called Slap Shot the greatest sports film of the last fifty years. Even Paul Newman considered Reggie Dunlop one of his favorite roles, even if it did give his every day speech a profanity hangover. In other words, Slap Shot has been More Than okay with a lot of people (guys).

Respectfully, I would have to disagree with both the "Guy Movie" and "sports film" comments, mostly because (1), it didn't have Steve McQueen and (2), it didn't have Kevin Costner. However, I understand both sentiments. Slap Shot was a good film and while criticism waned a little at the time, criticism now has been much more kind and I believe it's deserving. For a fun sports comedy, Slap Shot excels. Prepare for a long Loved section and a short Loathed section.

In case you haven't seen it...

Reggie Dunlop increases fandom for his third-rate hockey team by generating media lies and adding more violence to a violent game. As the already absurd sport of hockey breaks down into further and further ridiculousness, personal lives fall apart until, collectively, team, town and protagonists reach Event Horizon, passing into happiness by their own brand of mill-town American buddhism.

Loved

  • To expound on the intentionally-lowercase buddhism comment: I love the ending of this film. Braden - the Chiefs' best player, sober-buzz-kill and tight wad of tension - seeing his ex-girlfriend in the stands, decides, amidst chaos, to let loose in the most exaggerated manner; he begins figure skating and stripping amidst a Hockey battle royale. The bottom falls out of a crescendo of Edward-Lear-esque nonsense and all form and structure of the sport of Hockey dissipates, leaving nothing in its place.


  • I think what makes this film such a great "Sports film" is that it tackles the absurdity of Sporting Life. From a fans' perspective, the emotional attachment to a team and the tendency to love violence. From the players' perspective, how careers and personal lives revolve entirely around a kid's game. As the Sporting Life breaks down in the film, these absurd truths about American sports become inflamed; violence becomes all that matters and relationships are destroyed. This is put in the audience's perspective when Reg Dunlop finally meets the owner of the Chiefs and finds out that all this, their whole lives, amount to some rich woman's tax write-off.


  • While, for the most part, Reg's hockey teammates didn't have me laughing, the Hanson brothers were hilarious. While they were no Bash Brothers, their mix of childish innocence, pure violence and malleable personalities added as much humor to the movie as their silly thin frames, long hair and eyeglasses.

Loathed

  • Most of the characters of the film are boiled down too far. The emotionally-struggling girlfriends are nothing more than alcoholism jokes. Most of the hockey teammates can be summed up in entirety by the terms: sex maniac, Self-Help fanatic, pretty-boy and funny foreigners. To a certain extent, this is intentional, but when we keep revisiting each of these gag characters over the course of the film, the jokes get old. (Okay, so we agree to disagree; I also think John Belushi in Animal House gets old.)



The Otto Preminger Award
for cinematic advancement:
Violence

The Three Stooges had their own brand of comedy: slapstick violence. All men born before 1950 think they're hilarious. My anachronistic brand of movie-madness would have to agree. Fast forward to 1970. The movie M*A*S*H took violent slapstick comedy and applied it to sports, with success. Seven years later, Slap Shot brought it to another level, earning its “R” rating with a vengeance, and reinventing the meaning of “slapstick violence” (ahem, see title).

The Slim Pickens Award
for memorable mustache:
Allan F. Nicholls as Johnny Upton

Frankly, I am surprised a hockey movie made in the seventies doesn't have more mustaches to choose from, but that doesn't take away from the glory of Allan's mustache. Johnny's handlebar/zapata 'stache and his cool, team-captain-earned comfort on the Chiefs' bench is reminiscent of Elliot Gould in M*A*S*H and you know how that draws my attention. When the “head” wife begins boasting about her husband, knowing that it isn't Paulie, I guessed immediately that she meant Johnny Upton. Why? Why, of course: a good mustache.

The Hawkeye Pierce Award
for contemporary commentary:
“fags, queers, dykes...”

I don't condone the use of such terms for comic effect. Neither did I find the numerous jokes in Slap Shot, of derogatory terms for homosexuality, very funny. However, for a film made in the seventies, I found the nature of these jokes interesting. While the terms themselves are profane, in the film, they were not used to disparage anyone. They were thrown about in relative, careless geniality. The homosexuals in the film, both ambiguously so and openly so, were jokes, of course, like the rest of the film, but nothing was shown in negative light. By 1977, this isn't such a stretch, but for a sports film?

If you liked this film...

You'll find Paul Newman revisiting the fourth-dimension in The Color of Money. It's not a comedy, but Paulie is hustling, sporting and earning our kind thoughts yet again.

I once watched an 83-year-old Eva Marie Saint gush over the absent Paul Newman on stage at an Otto Preminger tribute ceremony. The adorable cutie/ex-hottie sighed heavily into the microphone: “Those eyes,” she said and shook her little shoulders... I like to think that all of his co-stars and directors thought the same way of Paul Newman as the rest of us. I am a fan; you may have noticed. Every time I pick up a movie that he has starred in, I walk away further resolute that he was a one-of-a-kind talent. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting are very high up on my favorites-of-all-time list. George Roy Hill, the director of both of those movies and Slap Shot, must have thought as highly of Paul Newman as did Eva Marie Saint, albeit in a different way. I don't blame either of them.

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