Saturday, January 7, 2012

What the Hell Happened to John Landis?

Seriously, what happened to this guy?  John Landis directed some truly fun stuff as the disco era died, but the last movie of his I can remember seeing an advertisement for was 1998's Blues Brothers 2000.  This is the guy who directed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places --- how did he go from making blockbuster comedies to directing Franklin & Bash episodes?

Honestly, I don't know.  That won't stop me from sharing my poorly researched opinion, though.  Let's consider Landis' career in stages.  The first stage covers his rapid rise.  Early on, Landis' primary talent as a director was to let the performers do their thing.  Kentucky Fried Movie was comprised of sketches that Jim Abrams and the Zucker brothers had helped hone in frequent live shows and Animal House lives and dies on the non-verbal acting of John Belushi.  However, with An American Werewolf in London, Landis took a risk and actually told a story.  The movie would have been pretty good on its own, but he coupled it with some truly fantastic special effects that still look great today.  As far as box office numbers go, his worst-performing movie of this period grossed more than triple its budget.  A star is born, right?
He apparently likes to point in pictures.

Maybe, but stars can burn out, too.  1983 would begin the second period of Landis' career.  I don't have an exact timeline for what he did when, exactly, but Landis directed Trading Places and portions of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982, with both seeing a release in the summer of 1983.  That is when John made the then-unusual choice for a feature film director to make a music video; of course, it was not just any music video, but Michael Jackson's Thriller.  The video is still regarded as the best of all time, and both movies were significant successes.  There was just one small problem.  While filming his bits for Twilight Zone, Landis and his film crew cut some legal corners at exactly the wrong time.  An accident happened on set, and three people (two child actors and Vic Morrow) died when a helicopter being used for a scene crashed.  Sometimes people look at Landis' career and assume that there was a sharp decline after this, but it wasn't like that.  Landis spent some time in court over the next six or seven years as part of legal and civil suits, but he was ultimately found not guilty of manslaughter (he did have to settle in the civil suits).
See what I mean?

After that, he was still making mostly successful movies, but the victories were smaller.  Into the Night didn't do well critically or financially.  Spies Like Us re-teamed Landis with Dan Aykroyd and was a modest hit, but this is right around the time Aykroyd and Chevy Chase stopped being consistently funny.  Three Amigos! was even less successful, despite having Chevy Chase (again) and Steve Martin, and a script co-written by Martin and Lorne Michaels.  Landis also took the time to co-write Clue, which turned out to be a significant financial disappointment.  Yes, Eddie Murphy did hire Landis to direct Coming to America, which was a huge hit, but there was a lot of press about how the star and director frequently clashed.  After that, Landis made a series of bad movies.  Oscar, Innocent Blood, The Stupids and Blues Brothers 2000 were all big flops.  Sure, Landis cashed a check for Beverly Hills Cop III and the film made money, but it was so poorly received that it killed the franchise.  After that series of flops, Landis entered the third stage of his career as a television director.  Sure, he made the little-seen Burke and Hare, but everything else has been in the anonymity of the small-screen.
Seriously, this gets annoying.

So, what happened?  I don't believe that the Twilight Zone tragedy killed his career, but it is pretty clear that is started a downward slide for him.  Honestly, though, I think he had already dug himself into a hole.  In interviews, Landis likes to cast himself as a bit of a rebel, telling stories that pit him against the hostility of the actors, writers, producers, or whoever; his stories ultimately end with him overcoming those obstacles to make some of the best movies ever.  That may be true, but I get the feeling that Landis is just kind of a prick.  He's probably a blast to be acquainted with, but his print and video interviews show a man with no small amount of bitter sarcasm and a substantial amount of pride.  Depending on who you ask, Landis is a control freak (as Eddie Murphy more or less claimed in 1990) or an egomaniac (as Harold Ramis hinted in 1998), or the only sane person amongst insane Hollywood types (as Landis has occasionally explained).
Like his film career, Landis' photo gags stopped being funny in 1983

The truth is probably somewhere in-between.  Landis had a lot of success right out of the gate, and that allowed him to be a cocky SOB for his first few years in the business.  Not only was he making hits, he was making stars!  When the tragedy happened, Landis' personality probably didn't help him win over film executives who would have to insure his pictures.  When you combine that with his increasing reliance on Saturday Night Live alumni who were becoming decreasingly funny, you get some disappointing returns.  Without the box-office clout to back up his ego and pay his insurance, I imagine it got hard for Landis to find respectable work, which explains the utter crap he put out in the 1990s.
I saw Oscar in the theater.  On my birthday.  Screw YOU.

Here's the thing, though: John Landis is still capable of making a great movie.  He just needs to know his strengths.  I could see Landis making another cool horror movie, but I doubt he'd be able to get the budget to pull off the cool effects that were the stars of his best efforts.  And it's not like he has the storytelling ability to handle a drama or anything subtle.  It's more likely, that he would work well with a young group of sketch comedians (here's a suggestion, if he needs one); that way, he could focus on inspiring a fun shoot, capturing comic gold when it happens, and editing it to make even the less funny moments shine.  That is, of course, assuming that he didn't try to shove the talent around because he made a music video with Slash and Macaulay Culkin.

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  1. I thought this was a really great summation of Landis' career. I think I might have to agree with some of his detractors, as regards his personality.

    I recently watched Machete Maidens Unleashed, an entertaining documentary on Filipino exploitation; and Landis' comments on the movement were so condescending that he annoyed me more than anything.

    That being said, few directors have had a better run than the one he had up to the early eighties.

  2. Love the take on Landis. I have always wondered what happened to the creator of two of my all-time favorite comedies (Blues Brothers & Blues Brothers 2000) and you provided some great insight. Lookin' good, Brian! (Obviously "Blues Brothers 2000 is code for Trading Places - possibly my #1 comedy)

  3. @Dave: early Landis is still pretty great, no doubt about it. I love Trading Places and The Blues Brothers, and American Werewolf is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. I didn't think to listen to any director commentary from him for this piece...I think that was for the best.

    @NB: Feelin' good, Pato!