Friday, April 1, 2011

Wherefore Art Thou, Nicky Baby?

The following column is reprinted from the March issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

While observing Charlie Sheen’s down-the-torpedoes meltdown, and listening to the various theories ascribed to his transcendentally deer-in-the-spotlights behavior, I can’t help but reflect upon the vast and often galvanizing storied history of Hollywood-styled bad behavior, engagements with law enforcement, and just plain public burn-outsthat some many Tinsletown players have undergone—always feeding the trough of public desire-from Fatty Arbuckle to Mel Gibson, from Errol Flynn to Robert Mitchum, from Joan Crawford to Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Equally intriguing to me are the on-screen contretemps often evident when one peers behind the lens of various box office bugaloos; when an actor or actress off-screen neuroses, real life back story, or overall bad acting somehow peeks out from the fa├žade of costumes and settings, plot line or role playing, shining a weird inner light on the big screen thespian’s inner life, as most obviously manifested in the off and on-camera antics of Marlon Brando, the crown prince of Hollywood looniness.

Case in point in one Nicolas Cage, our long time fave-rave Nicky Baby, our own contempo harbinger of big screen noxiousness, who has easily surpassed a near legion of contenders that include (to name a select few) Val Kilmer, Nick Nolte, Sean Young, Vincent Gallo, Crispin Glover, and once kingpin Mickey Rourke. Nicky Baby is once again delivering the damaged goods, back front and way left of center with Drive Angry, a wacky throwback that might even be seen as a high-spirited homage to 70’s drive-in movies if it weren’t so virulently dreadful.

True, Nicky Baby has largely shed himself of real life baggage (obsessive comic book collecting, Brat Pack partying, big league tax problems, a marriage to Lisa Presley), yet he is seemingly hell-bent on forging one of the most implosive and corrosive career paths of anyone regularly working in today’s movies with their name above the title. Face it, if a movie features Nic Cage you can be assured that it will be filled to the brim with a creaky plot framework, misspent and unfulfilled ambitions, and (best of all) full scale glazed-ham acting. To his everlasting credit Nicky Baby seems to sign on these projects with an undeniable (and possibly fevered) work ethic, and then emitted with a ravenous on-screen style that resembles nothing more than an ember-eyed fox circling the open gate of a well- populated chicken coop. Nicky Baby always commits. The question becomes how low can he go?

Let us not forget that, once upon a time, Nicky Baby was considered a committed and highly quirky player, displaying a consistentversatility and continually demonstrating a robust sense of adventure. Nicky Baby ‘s early and middle work was characterized by cool projects and memorable impartment—Rumble Fish,Birdy, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Face/Off, Bringing Out the Dead, all capped off by the wonderful double turn in Adaptation in 2002. Since then, what hath Nicky Baby wrought? National Treasure, The Wicker Man, GhostRider, Bangkok Dangerous, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Season of the Witch, and of course the captivatingly gonzo The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans a non-sequel/sequel with a title as off-putting as Cage’s mesmerizingly off-kilter performance.

One of the essential elements of a Nic Cage performance is the choice of hair. To Nicky Baby, it always seems to begin with the hair, and in Drive Angry it’s blond and spindly, the better to accent his character’s grim (and angry) countenance. Nicky Baby is one John Milton (yet another nod to the movie’s subversively high intentions), and he’s a (angry) granddad in hot pursuit of his grandchild, who has been kidnapped by a satanic cult, led by a punkabilly ringleader named Jonah King (Billy Burke). Nicky Baby is soon joined by that drive-in staple, a comely young waitress (Amber Heard), who sports two eye-raising attributes, denim short-shorts and a cherry 1969 Dodge Charger, and they are in turn pursued by cooler-than-thou professional known as “the Accountant” (William Fichtner), a guy seemingly invulnerable to every sort of weapon of mass or minor destruction with the exception of an antique gun that Nicky Baby stows alongside his changes of underwear and comb collection.

Drive Angry boasts one of the greatest scenes in recent Nicky Baby history, wherein he puffs up a cigar while swallowing dollops of whiskey and picking off a pack of cultists armed with gardening tools while having sex. Trust me, that’s a cinematic conception that needs no such frothy underlining like special effects or effective acting.

I’d personally like to see Nicky Baby reunited with his equally downward spiraling uncle, Mad Francis Ford Coppola, to add to the legacy that they have already begun, collaborating before on Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, and greatest of all, Peggy Sue Got Married. With their potent mix of deteoriating taste, talent and all out chutzpah, they may indeed be capable of carving out a spot in the annals of directorial-acting partnerships, joing such luminaries as John ford and John Wayne, Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock, or Marty Scorsese and Robert DeNiro.

For now we simply have Nicky Baby in all his glorious and unabashed badness, keeping it unreal in Drive Angry, a movie so overtly dumb, so inscrutably wacky, so blithely idiotic that it’s virtually bad cinema nirvana. In 3-D, no less.

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