Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Director Essentials: Adam Rifkin

by Patrick Bromley
The essential films of one of the weirdest, wildest filmmakers working today.

Adam Rifkin is such a fascinating filmmaker. He's a director whose name probably isn't recognized by a large percentage of the mainstream, who wouldn't know what to expect from "an Adam Rifkin film" unless you said "the guy who wrote Mousehunt and Underdog." But if those same people expecting Mousehunt were to sit down and watch almost any movie directed by Rifkin, they would get much more than they bargained for. Whether it's an "Adam Rifkin movie" or one directed by Rifkin's alter-ego Rif Coogan, one never knows what to expect from his work. With 30 years of feature directing behind him, it's incredible that Rifkin is still as prolific as ever, working both inside and outside the studio system, finding innovative ways to tell stories on a low budget so that he can make films as uncompromising as many of the titles that make up his filmography. He's a filmmaker who can't not create, and that's what I love about him so much.
1. Never on Tuesday (1989)
Rifkin's first feature (made when he was just 22 years old) is a screwball comedy in which two young men, jockish Eddie (Peter Berg) and nerdy Matt (Andrew Lauer), get stranded in the desert with the beautiful Tuesday (Claudia Christian) after a car accident. Both try to make their move, but wouldn't you know it she's a lesbian and isn't having any of it. There's a part of me that suspects Rifkin started with the title here and worked backwards; the humor and sexual attitudes are often pretty juvenile, which I would chalk up to Rifkin being 22 but juvenility is a common theme that runs across most of his work -- which I mean in the best possible way. Ultimately, the movie is a sweet story about a fast friendship, aided in no small part by the grounded performance of Claudia Christian at the center. There are a number of elements that mark it as an Adam Rifkin film, from the presence of many cast members he would go on to work with again to the streak of horny immaturity that runs through it. By the film's bittersweet finale, though, it's clear that Rifkin has more on his mind than adolescent sex fantasies. This is a movie about people who have grown and changed in a short amount of time. A number of stars appear in brief cameo roles, including Gilbert Gottfried, Emilio Estevez, Cary Elwes, Judd Nelson, Charlie Sheen, and maybe the weirdest Nicolas Cage cameo ever committed to film. 

2. The Dark Backward (1991)
Rifkin's fourth feature (following Tale of Two Sisters in 1989 and the 1990 Rif Coogan joint The Invisible Maniac) practically defines cult movie. Judd Nelson plays a would-be stand-up comic who begins finding success when a third arm grows out of his back; the late Bill Paxton plays the opportunistic friend goading him along. I can sometimes be resistant to movies that are this deliberately offbeat and eccentric -- movies that set out to be cult movies -- but Rifkin's oddball vision is impossible to deny. He doesn't present us with a weird premise, but fills out an entire world of weirdness: a garbage dump as urban hellscape populated by big, gross caricatures of human beings. I love that this feels like the quintessential Rifkin movie when it's so uncomprimisingly non-commercial, totally at odds with his later Hollywood screenwriting work. Somehow there's still no Blu-ray of the movie.

3. Psycho Cop Returns (1993)
An in-name-only sequel to 1989's Psycho Cop, the Rif Coogan joint Psycho Cop Returns casts Bob Vance (Vance Refrigeration) as the titular psycho cop terrorizing and murdering a bunch of awful bros (including future Oscar winner Nick Vallelonga, writer of Green Book) having a bachelor party after hours at the office. It was a tough call between putting this or Invisible Maniac on the list, as both demonstrate Rifkin-as-Coogan's skill at creating exploitation full of sex and violence as well as his general horniness as a filmmaker. You can't go wrong with either movie, both of which are available from Vinegar Syndrome.

4. The Chase (1994)
This is probably Adam Rifkin's slickest studio film as a director (as a writer, that honor belongs to Mousehunt or Small Soldiers). He's working with big movie stars like Charlie Sheen and Kristy Swanson at a major studio (20th Century Fox). He got a wide theatrical release and a marketing push. This comedy should probably have been his breakthrough movie; however, like so many other Rifkin movies, it was destined to find a cult audience on VHS and cable instead of making him a household name. I've loved it ever since seeing it twice opening weekend and continue to love it to this day.

5. Detroit Rock City (1999)
Working with his biggest budget to date ($16 million), Adam Rifkin's love letter to KISS is a raucous, rowdy throwback to '70s and movies like Rock 'n Roll High School. Four high school boys obsessed with KISS in 1978 do everything they can to see them in concert at Cobo Hall; much bathroom humor and puking ensues. Rifkin employs the same anarchic spirit that informs so much of his work, dialing it up to 11 to capture not just the late '70s sex, drugs, rock n' roll vibe, but also to pay tribute to the kinds of movies Allan Arkush used to make. KISS were actively involved in the film (Gene Simmons is a producer and Shannon Tweed has a supporting role), which culminates in a live performance by the band. Some of the lead turns -- like those by James DeBello and Edward Furlong -- are a little shouty and one-note, but the supporting cast is terrific and there's enough sweetness mixed in among all the partying to make this more than just a crass celebration of debauchery. Not that the former Rif Coogan finds anything wrong with crassness or debauchery.

6. Night at the Golden Eagle (2001)
One of the most interesting things about Adam Rifkin is that he's completely uninterested in making the same movie again and again. This heavy drama about two criminals about to go straight is maybe the last thing one would expect Rifkin to make, which is precisely why it's no surprise he made it. Before leaving the Golden Eagle hotel to travel to Vegas and give up their lifestyle, two older men (Donnie Montemarano and Vinny Argiro) get wrapped up in a bunch of shady shit that threatens their rehabilitation. This is admittedly not my preferred speed of Rifkin, but it absolutely belongs on this list for how it departs from the rest of his filmography. Just when you think you know who he is as a director, Rifkin surprises you with a totally different story he wants to tell.

7. Look (2007)
An experiment that shouldn't work but totally does, Look is composed entirely of security camera footage. It glimpses into the lives of several characters, from a department store worker who sleeps with all his employees to a teacher contemplating an affair with a student to a pair of slacker convenience store workers on a late shift. As would gradually become the case, Rifkin is more interested in the darkest parts of humanity here -- the parts that are shown when people are sure no one is watching, reminding us that someone always is. Rifkin later adapted the film into a Showtime series that picks up where the movie leaves off, incorporating some of the same characters but mostly focusing on new storylines. 

8. Giuseppe Makes a Movie (2014)
Having struck up a friendship with actor Giuseppe Andrews after Detroit Rock City, Rifkin set out to chronicle the making of Andrews' 10th micro-budget feature, 2007's Garbanzo Gas. The documentary follows Andrews as he shoots his movie on consumer grade home video over the course of 36 hours with a cast of trailer park residents and non-professional actors living on the fringes of society. It's a love letter not just to Andrews, who's as goofy and passionate and likable as ever, but to the kind of punk rock cinema that has informed so much of Rifkin's work throughout his career. His sort of outsider art has never been this outside, but so much of it leans that way.

As part of his continuing experimentation with the form of cinematic narrative storytelling, Shooting the Warwicks is the inverse of Rifkin's Look, which was developed as a film before being adapted into a Showtime TV series. Warwicks, meanwhile, began life as a series (called Reality Show) and was then edited down into one 93-minute film. It's a darker-than-dark satire of reality television in which an upper middle class family is filmed around the clock without their knowledge; when they don't make good television, the director (Rifkin) steps in to make things more...interesting. The stuff about reality TV is nothing that hasn't been said before, but Warwicks is also targeting the American family, demonstrating that even the most perfect and stable nuclear unit is just a few nudges away from total ruin. The last few years more or less demonstrate that.

10. Director's Cut (2017)
Topping himself as a cinematic anarchist, Rifkin collaborated with comedian and magician Penn Jillette for this totally insane dark comedy about a Rupert Pupkin-esque creep (Jillette, who also wrote the screenplay) who becomes infatuated with actress Missi Pyle (here playing herself, great as always), so he kidnaps her and creates a new cut of her most recent film (a slick, generic Se7en-inspired thriller) in which he plays the lead. The movie Director's Cut isn't just this new "sweded" version, though; it's actually the commentary track for the new movie, meaning Jillette narrates the whole thing in character. It's, like, three or four levels deep in meta, but it all works. Adam Rifkin is one of the great cinematic anarchists working today, and Director's Cut is such a blast because he's laying waste to entire form of feature filmmaking. What a unique, audacious movie.

11. The Last Movie Star (2018)
Rifkin's most recent film and star Burt Reynolds' last, The Last Movie Star (formerly Dog Years, the title under which it played some festivals) once again demonstrates Rifkin's versatility as a storyteller. Reynolds plays a thinly-veiled version of himself, an aging star who is invited to a film festival in Nashville and is uses the opportunity to revisit parts of his life. It's a melancholy road trip dramedy that also doubles as a love letter to Reynolds -- it was written for the star -- and his career, going so far as to work footage of the present-day star into clips of his classic films (if that sounds cheesy, it isn't). I'm not sure there could have been a better send-off for Burt, who passed away a year after the movie was released (though it's not his final performance). I love that Rifkin came back from nearly a decade of dark, chaotic, and experimental work to make his sweetest, his gentlest, his most commercial movie in years.

I'm waiting patiently to see what's next.

1 comment:

  1. I never actually put it together that the same guy directed all of these. That's a filmography he can be proud of