Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Director Essentials: Joel Schumacher

by Patrick Bromley
So often, these directors lists focus on filmmakers we all like and respect. But it's just as interesting to look at the essential movies of a director who gets very little respect.

Joel Schumacher didn't enter the movie business as a director. He was a costume designer first, which explains why so many of his movies are more concerned with clothes and production design than they are with being...what's the word? Good.

If you want to understand who Joel Schumacher is as a filmmaker, here are the 10 movies to watch.

1. St. Elmo's Fire (1985) - This wasn't Schumacher's first movie. That would be The Incredible Shrinking Woman in 1981. But this is the one that first established what a "Joel Schumacher movie" is. A vapid, self-absorbed movie about vapid-self absorbed people, St. Elmo's Fire is concerned almost exclusively with surfaces: physical beauty, material possessions, you name it. Seen now, it's a fascinating document of the yuppie generation and the '80s, but the film's smugness is nearly unbearable. This is the movie that both cemented and destroyed the Brat Pack both on and off screen.

2. The Lost Boys (1987) - Schumacher's next big movie is his first and only real "horror" effort -- a vampire movie for the MTV generation that's all about sleeping all day, partying all night, looking good and never dying. It's all stuff that Schumacher holds dear. While the movie is a mixed bag -- for all the stuff that's goofy and fun about it, there is a smug Corey Haim performance at the center and a bunch of bad writing and nonsensical plotting. There are flashes of a much better movie buried in it somewhere, but Schumacher seems intent on bringing out some of the worst elements.
3. Flatliners (1990) - Despite the fact that it boasts a pretty ridiculous premise and too much style by half, Flatliners remains one of Schumacher's best movies. A solid cast (including Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts and Oliver Platt) and some good atmosphere sell the sillier aspects of the story, which finds a group of college students bringing themselves back from the dead to report on what they saw on the other side. The movie works because it was still made during the "B" period of Schumacher's career, when he was happy to make glossed-up genre movies and not necessarily "art." That period ends with Flatliners.

4. Dying Young (1991) - After grafting his signature style onto a couple of genre movies (whether it fit or not), Schumacher finally got to make a a film that reveals his big, sloppy heart. A big studio romance right out of the 1970s, Dying Young attempted to cash in on the post-Pretty Woman stardom of Julia Roberts. The results are too thin and sappy to hold up, but it represents a) Schumacher's attempt to make different kinds of movies and b) the fact that Schumacher can't get in touch with any genuine emotion, only MOVIE emotion. On the plus side, Schumacher was one of the first guys to try and make a movie star out of Campbell Scott. He was on to something there. It's amazing to think that Premiere predicted this would be the biggest moneymaker of the summer of 1991 -- a summer that also saw the release of Point Break, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

5. Falling Down (1993) - Schumacher's first attempt at doing something "gritty" proved to be a total mismatch of filmmaker and material. Michael Douglas is very good and the film has developed a passionate cult of defenders in the years since it was released, but it's a tonal and narrative mess that's rescued by a few good scenes. What should have been the anguished howl of post-Reagan America is instead reduced to the rantings of a guy who was crazy to begin with, and Schumacher can't tell the difference between material that should be commenting on ugliness and material that's just plain ugly. Personal side note: I wanted to see this movie so bad when I was young that I walked 14 miles to see it opening weekend. It was not worth it.
6. Batman Forever (1995) - Yes, Schumacher's second Batman movie, 1997's Batman and Robin, is more of a "Schumacher" movie in many ways -- namely, that it emphasizes costumes and production design, gaudy as they may be, over all else. But Batman Forever is the more interesting of the two because it shows Schumacher trying really hard to make a "good" summer blockbuster instead of just following a studio edict to sell more toys. Tacky as it may be (Wah! Bat-nipples!), there's a lot to like in Batman Forever: Val Kilmer is pretty good in the title role, Chris O'Donnell brings a lot as Robin and many of the shots look like they were taken right out of a pre-Frank Miller issue of the comic. People love to hate this movie, but Schumacher definitely made a big-budget comic book movie that belongs as much to him as the first Batman belongs to Tim Burton. In a world in which people can claim that MY Superman is the one that kills people and MY Batman is the one who repeatedly calls it quits, isn't there room for this interpretation, too?

7. A Time to Kill (1996) - Schumacher used his Batman Forever success to get another of his "classy" movies made and his second John Grisham adaptation (after The Client two years earlier). Like most of the director's "serious" efforts, this one is informed entirely by other movies -- Schumacher is nothing more than a mimic, and not a particularly good one at that. Here we have the Southern courtrooms and white knight (literally) politics of To Kill a Mockingbird combined with the histrionics and sweatiness of just about any Tennessee Williams adaptation. Schumacher assembles another good cast -- he knows how to get actors -- but either wastes them or calls upon their worst tendencies. Like he once did with Campbell Scott and would eventually do (more than once) with Colin Farrell, Schumacher does his damndest to make a leading man out of Matthew McConaughey. He was ahead of the curve on that one.
8. 8MM (1999) - Another of Schumacher's "dark" movies (see also: Falling Down and The Number 23) is perhaps his most egregious because it's very, very obvious that he has no connection to the material. He is chasing the trend established by David Fincher with Seven -- the gritty, dark, nihilistic crime drama. In his defense, Schumacher is at least working from a script by Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, but that just highlights his "words-but-not-the-music" approach to the material. Another top-notch cast (Nicolas Cage overacts, but there's also Joaquin Phoenix, Catherine Keener and James Gandolfini) is wasted on melodramatic sleaze. Here's a movie that wants to look at the dark side of human nature made by a guy who is incapable of actually being dark. It's a fake.

9. Tigerland (2000)  - After two decades' worth of movies that were basically written off by the critical community, Schumacher got perhaps the best reviews of his career with this smaller character piece about two soldiers stationed in Vietnam. It should have made Colin Farrell -- making his leading man debut -- a movie star, but not enough people saw it. Still, it's a solid character piece and a different approach to a well-worn genre. Definitely one of Schumacher's best films, and proof that he should maybe have gone "smaller" more often.
10. Phone Booth (2002) - When Tigerland didn't make Colin Farrell a movie star, Schumacher cast him again in this gimmicky, high concept thriller that repeats a number of elements of Tigerland (character piece, smaller scope, Colin Farrell) to lesser success. It was in development for a long time (at one point, Jim Carrey was attached to star at the height of his popularity), and Schumacher probably wasn't the right pick to make Larry Cohen's script. Farrell works a little too hard as a dickhead forced to stay in a phone booth or risk being shot by the sniper keeping him there. It's not really Schumacher's fault that this one doesn't work; he does little with the material, but the material isn't quite there to begin with. Luckily, Schumacher and Carrey would finally get the chance to work together in 2007's The Number 23. Maybe Phone Booth isn't so bad after all.

More Director Essentials:
1. Michael Bay
2. Woody Allen
3. Ron Howard
4. Sidney Lumet
5. Paul Verhoeven
6. Steven Soderbergh
7. Tim Burton
8. Joe Dante
9. Robert Zemeckis
10. Michael Cimino
11. Wes Craven
12. Spike Lee
13. John Landis   
14. Brian De Palma 
15. Steven Spielberg
16. Tony Scott
17. Sam Raimi 
18. Richard Donner
19. John Carpenter


  1. I keep wanting to think that, of all Schumacher's movies, Phonebooth is not terrible. I saw it on TV once, and I feel like I remember thinking "that wasn't the worst." But that was years ago, and there's a strong chance I'm just not remembering properly. In addition to not being a Joel Schumacher fan, I'm also not a Colin Farrell fan, so I don't remember what I would have liked about it.

  2. I have to admit I've seen almost none of these, but judging by your commentary that doesn't seem to be much of a loss. I did enjoy reading your analysis as always though, Patrick, and it was the perfect way to come down from a job-related all-nighter running on sugar, a cup of coffee and a pocket full of dreams.

    And I agree with you about McConaughey, as well. Seeing him totally dominate the proceedings in "Killer Joe" really made me wish he hadn't spent so many years pulling the wool over our eyes with popcorn actioners and romantic comedies just so he could give us the dramatic movie sucker-punch of the lifetime right to the jaw.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. of a* lifetime. All work and no sleep makes John prone to facepalm-inducing typos.

  3. Schumacher is an interesting director, he definitely has it in him to make good films (Tigerland, parts of Falling Down and The Lost Boys) but he can't seem to make it all gel most of the time. Maybe he is kind of like Michael Bay the less he adds his own style into the film the better off the movie comes, such as the reason I actually like The Rock a lot since it has the least amount of Bay in it. That feels like a mean thing to say to a director "Okay Joel for this movie we want you just to shoot the script as is and not add on any personal touches thanks that would be great:)"

    Joel kind of reminds me of Peter Weir a bit, he's done a lot of different types of films and if you took the credit off the movie and asked me if the same guy directed Batman and Robin and Tigerland I would say no. That being said Peter Weir is the stronger director by far.

  4. I always meant to catch up with The Number 23 but never did. Does it have any redeeming qualities? The thought of Jim Carrey bringing his weird wiry energy to horror movie sounds alternately interesting and horrifying (not necessarily in the way the movie is aiming for). Anybody seen it? Is it worth checking out?

    1. I did see The Number 23 for the first time a few months ago, and unfortunately it doesn't look good I'm afraid. The premise was simply interesting regarding the numerology about that number, but the execution is squandered thanks to some bad acting, an incoherent story and a plot twist that you will see from the distance. In fact, this movie is Joel Schumacher's worst-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with an 8% rating. That is like four or five points higher than Batman and Robin!

    2. The Number 23 is garbage. I'd avoid it.

  5. I'm gonna go out on a thin limb here...but it's fine that the limb is thin, since I'm quite sure I'm the only one it's going to need to hold. I'm with you about the central problem of FALLING DOWN; Michael Douglas's already-established insanity puts the kibosh on any authentic political resonance the film might have possessed. But there is a film that I think shows the breakdown of the American male at the hands of a system that he feels has betrayed him, and does so brilliantly and with more thoughtfulness than anyone really gave it credit for. In fact, it's a movie that was pretty widely hated, when it wasn't being dismissed as just another thriller. That film: Tony Scott's THE FAN, from 1996. If you think it's just a thriller, look at the opening credits. The elegiac tone of the images, the feel of DeNiro's narration. This is a film about a good man who was betrayed by everything his country and lifestyle taught him to believe in: the values of hard work, the sanctity of the home, the worth of fatherhood and family. In the end, all that he has left is his faith in baseball, the national pastime. And when that fails him, too, he SNAPS. It's honestly quite powerful. Too bad that people missed that amidst some of Tony Scott's directorial affectations.

    1. INTERESTING. I have never heard The Fan defended in such a way. I honestly haven't seen the movie since 1996, and I didn't like it much at the time mostly because it wasn't True Romance (this makes sense in my head). The little bit you said about it has me wanting to revisit it, so MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, Matt.

    2. The Fan is a film that is hard to rewatch. I think the first two acts are solid, but the last twenty don't like stick the landing.

      That being said, it truly is a sad portrait of a man who looks back on his life and realizes that the memories he has of little league are the only good things that ever happened to him.

    3. To be fair, I haven't seen the film since its original release. My impression of it was obviously a strong one, but it might not hold up at all. May have to see it again myself.

  6. Hey F-Heads, here's another personal side note: Patrick had a poster of FLATLINERS on his bedroom wall all through high school (don't ask me how I know). Ya burnt, Patrick!

    1. Doug wets the bed! TWO CAN PLAY!!

    2. Yeah, but it's with PEE. Ha. FACED.

    3. Leave you two alone for a second...take this outside, young people!

      Val Kilmer does make Batman Forever tolerable. However, anytime I want to think of Chris O'Donnell being a positive part of the film, I remember that laundry scene....

    4. Or maybe he's such a good actor he makes doing laundry look fun?

  7. It's o.k. Patrick I want to say I had a Flatliners poster too, but it might have been my friend.

    But I wanted to mention that I will alwyas remember seeing Falling Down, because when we went to see it. My two best friends rode in the back seat while I drove and my girlfriend at the time was riding shot gun, and my friends annoyed her so bad she jumped out of the car while I was doing about 35. She managed to keep her balance and kept running across the parking lot. My friends and I watched the movie while she waited for her friend to come pick her up. I felt kind of bad because it was her idea to go to the movie, to show my friends she was cool.
    But her loosing her shit really made that movie more memorable than what it was.

  8. Joel Schumacher's general problem as a filmmaker is that he oftens tries too hard to comes off as hip and cool, and for some reason he's off point where he's either a few years behind regards to trends or he's trying too hard to be edgy(especially with alot of his post Batman & Robin films) or topical. At the end of the day Schumacher justs comes across as somebody who's really one step behind or out of touch with what his audience really wants.

    1. Well said, though I would argue that with Lost Boys he was actually in the right place at the right time.

    2. Yeah as they it was his best film probably because it was vampires.

      In regards to Lost boys and his Batman films when it comes to humor he kinda goes overboard in making it a slapstick fest like he's trying too hard to be kiddie. Batman & Robin seem to be his idea of a kid's film.

      His other problem is that he takes studio requests or genres too literally.

  9. A lot of his films tend to deal with subjects that are difficult or taking subject matters at face value.

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  11. Even through his films are somewhat watchable I don't think they'll be remembered.

  12. The Lost Boys is the greatest movie ever made and will live on forever. When the human race has died out and earth is a barren wasteland, only Michael, Sam and the Frog Brothers will remain.

  13. Sadly no one gives him any credit for his films, none of them look like the work of the same guy.