Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Hot Rock

Robert Redford is one of those iconic actors that I have, for whatever reason, never spent much time watching.  It's not a conscious omission, I just haven't happened to see his work; in fact, combing through his IMDb profile, I realized that I have only seen three of his movies that have been made in the last thirty years.  I mention this because The Hot Rock is not one of Redford's most famous films, and wouldn't typically be the movie someone watches to acquaint themselves with a Hollywood icon.  So, why The Hot Rock?  Well, I had access to it, it had Robert Redford in his prime, the director had recently made Bullitt, the screenplay was written by William Goldman (one of my favorite authors), and it was a heist movie.  Even though the film is not famous today, that sounded like a pretty good combination of things I like.

Career criminal Dortmunder (Robert Redford), literally minutes after he completes his most recent prison stay, is approached by his brother-in-law, Andy (George Segal), for a heist job.  It seems that the Brooklyn museum has a very valuable diamond that was once a cherished artifact for an unnamed African nation.  A representative of that nation, Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), wants to have the diamond returned to his people, but diplomacy hasn't worked, so he's interested in funding a heist.  Dortmunder is the master planner and Andy picks locks, but that's not enough.  They recruit a driver, Murch (Ron Leibman), and an explosives expert, Greenberg (Paul Sand), to round out the team.  There is just one small problem.  These guys are idiots.  What sets The Hot Rock apart from other heist movies is that the theft is successful, but also botched.  The plan is solid, and they execute it well, but there is a mishap that forces the group to fend for themselves.  This leads to more robbery attempts, which also work, but are also bungled.  To give you an idea of how goofy things get, the final robbery attempt includes hypnotic suggestion and the phrase "Afghanistan banana stand."
"People will remember this movie for what phrase?!?

How's the acting?  It's a little odd, to be honest.  Robert Redford does a solid job in the lead role, but he appears to be unaware that he is starring in a comedy.  He isn't acting as a straight man, he isn't playing anything for laughs...he's just doing a good dramatic role and occasionally getting frustrated at the incompetence of his coworkers.  It's an odd fit for a film that leans toward slapstick comedy.  George Segal is much more at home in his role, which plays to his strengths; he gets to whine, make comedic asides, and overplay some Jewish stereotypes.  I'm not a big Segal fan (I consider him a B-level Elliott Gould, who I also don't particularly like) and this didn't change my mind, but he wasn't too obnoxious here.  Neither Paul Sand nor Ron Leibman did anything too memorable, but I thought Moses Gunn was fine as the exasperated financier of the group.  Zero Mostel plays an important role in the final third of the film, although it isn't groundbreaking; he plays a dishonest lawyer with tricks up his sleeve.  While I won't say that Mostel was very funny or acted particularly well, I will admit that his tendency for overacting was more subdued here than in other films.

Peter Yates did a good job directing portions of this movie, but seemed less sure of his talents in other parts.  I thought the heists were all shot and edited well, and would have fit in a serious crime movie with no problem.  My problem comes from the comedic moments.  I don't think Yates has much of a comedic touch or a sense of timing.  Perhaps he was counting on William Goldman's script to provide the humor, but he shouldn't have.  This isn't a witty script; it needed help from the direction and editing.  Sure, the action sequences looked good, but the fact that the goofier moments didn't pack more comedic punch and Redford's apparent disconnect from the rest of the film detract from Yates' successes in the film.  And the whole hypnosis thing was out of left field.
There are only two screenshots from this movie online, and this was one of them.  Huh.

I was not expecting The Hot Rock to be a goofy crime caper.  That's fine.  I don't require movies to conform to my expectations...but this one probably should have.  The acting from Redford, the pretty cool heist sequences, and the general tone of the movie would have lent themselves better to a less slapstick film.  I think Great Britain agreed with me; the title of the movie was changed to a kookier one for the UK theatrical release:
While I may have preferred the movie more if it had been more serious (or at least less silly), it's still a decent watch.  I wouldn't say that it is anything special, and I completely understand how it has become a lesser-known work for all those involved, but it's a lightweight and inoffensive popcorn flick.


  1. i dont think william goldman even mentioned this in either of his biographies. strange.

  2. Ha. To be fair, he only wrote the screenplay. His best work (in my opinion) comes from when he adapts his books. Still, that's a funny and telling comment on this film's legacy.

  3. i've read some of his trashy fiction and it really is trashy. strange how he's such a good screenwriter and his books on screenwriting are incredibly readable but his genre fiction would be so bad.