“Framing John DeLorean,” the new hybrid documentary of the business life on the “Back to the Future” car creator, is a strange movie. Part traditional doc, complete with talking heads, archival photographs and even some FBI sting footage, it is also part docu-drama, featuring recreations with actor Alec Baldwin as DeLorean. Weirder still, Baldwin, all busy eyebrows and grey hair, offers up backstage observations on playing DeLorean. The carman was a bold character and portraying him on screen requires taking chances; most surprising of all is that it all works rather seamlessly.
It’s an interesting, ambiguously meta take on a man who was a bit of a hybrid himself. Part genius, part criminal, he was a person whose vision for reinvention extended from the futuristic car he designed to enhancing his own chin with plastic surgery to present the image he had of himself to the world, face first.
Directors and co-writers Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce provide the necessary background; how, at General Motors he spearheaded the creation of the GTO, Firebird, and Grand Prix, how he was a devoted father and how, as CEO of the DeLorean Motor Company, he revolutionized the car industry with his stainless steel sports cars and gave a massive shot in the arm to Northern Ireland’s economy during the Troubles. They also detail the sordid side, the FBI videotaped sting and arrest for trafficking cocaine, Phil Donahue’s public excoriation of the man and his business practices, a divorce and marriage to a much younger woman and bankruptcy.
The resulting portrait is layered look at an unknowable man. Archival footage reveals a person with plenty of bluster and hubris, someone whose grandiose ideas required extraordinary measures to come to fruition. Baldwin, under an inch of exaggerated prosthetic make-up, tries to contextualize DeLorean’s thought processes by applying an actor’s process to his subject’s thinking, but it is conjecture, not fact. Interesting conjecture, but conjecture all the same and not exactly the stuff of true documentary. More compelling are DeLorean’s daughter Kathryn and son Zach who lend open and honest analysis of their father. Zach even colorfully describes his father’s life as a Hollywood movie. “It’s got cocaine,” he says. “It’s got ‘bleeping’ hot chicks. It’s got sports cars, ‘bleeping’ Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The war on drugs. You got FBI agents and you got ‘bleeping’ hardcore drug dealers.”
“Framing John DeLorean” is a compellingly told story of a complex man, an Icarus, that asks but never answers the question at the core of DeLorean’s myth: Was he a cutthroat criminal or innovative genius or both? Instead it provides fodder for further exploration on the man and his methods.
Movies are like time machines. No, they don’t physically transport viewers to another time and place but, like dreams and memories, they can take the audience back to ancient Rome or forward in time to a planet populated by giant blue people. I guess that’s why stories about time travel have been so popular on the big screen.
This weekend John Cusack stars in the latest time travel tale, the self-explanatory Hot Tub Time Machine. For Cusack, the idea of getting stuck in the 1980s doesn’t require a time machine. A star for thirty years, he says all he has to do is turn on the TV to be taken back: “Every time I flip through the cable, I have flashbacks.”
In the movie, Cusack and his buddies head back to the ’80s, a decade that one of the more famous time travel movies used as a starting point.
Everyone remembers the time-travelling DeLorean from Back to the Future — chosen because its sleek futuristic look resembled a spaceship — but it wasn’t until the third draft of the script that the filmmakers decided on the famous gull-winged car. Originally the time travel device was a laser, but that concept was rejected because it wasn’t exciting enough. Then, director Robert Zemeckis considered housing the machine in a refrigerator, but nixed the idea over concerns that the movie could inspire kids to crawl into iceboxes and get trapped.
In the original script for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in which the titular characters bring historical figures back from history to help them with a school project, the time machine was a 1969 Chevy Van; afraid of inadvertently plagiarizing Back to the Future, the filmmakers went with a phone booth instead.
Probably the most famous time-shifting story is H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. In the 1960 movie version, director George Pal fashioned the look of the time machine on a sled (a idea borrowed years later for the hardware in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Timecop), so, he said, it could slide into the future. Paying tribute to the story’s author, he affixed a plaque on the time machine that reads “Manufactured by H. George Wells.”
In 1971, when MGM sold off a warehouse of old props (including Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers), the sled time machine was purchased by a collector who used it as part of a yearly Halloween display at his Burbank, Calif., home.
You could be excused if you experience déjà vu while watching 17 Again. The story, about a depressed 37 year-old man (Matthew Perry) who magically reverts to his 17 year old self (Zac Efron), mixes and matches bits of Back to the Future, Big, Vice Versa and even It’s a Wonderful Life to come up with a plot that is as unimaginative as it is derivative. Luckily it has a secret weapon, and I don’t mean Efron’s abs, which are on display throughout. No, I mean Thomas Lennon, an actor you’ve likely never heard of unless you stayed up late and watched Reno 911 on cable television.
When the movie begins it is 1989 and Mike O’Donnell (Efron) is at the top of his game. He rules the basketball court, has a line on a university scholarship and goes out with Scarlett, the prettiest girl in school. He’s 17 and has the world by the tail. Everything changes when Scarlett gets pregnant and he chooses to give up everything to be with her. Twenty years later Mike (now played by Perry) is a pudgy, unhappy mid-level executive, alienated from his kids, on the verge of a divorce from Scarlett and about to be passed over for yet another promotion. Kicked out of the house he’s rooming with his best friend, the impossibly rich, but impossibly nerdy Ned (Thomas Lennon). “Of course I want to live in the past,” he tells a mysterious janitor / angel at his former school, “it was better there.” Fate gives Mike a second chance at happiness when he is astonishingly transformed back to the age of 17 (back to Efron). Will his trip back in time give him some perspective on life, or will he simply try to relive his best years?
17 Again is High School Musical star Efron’s first move from juvenile roles to young adult parts on his way to an adult career. He’s been quoted as saying that this role was a stretch for him because he had to play a 37 year old, but while he’s an agreeable screen presence in that shiny toothed teen idol way but doesn’t show any more range here than he did in the HSMs. He carries most of the movie and he’s the guy 99% of the audience is going to pay to see but the movie would be much less enjoyable without the unhinged comic presence of Thomas Lennon.
As Ned, former high school nerd—“a good day was when I didn’t get my head dunked in the toilet”—turned soft ware millionaire nerd. He’s the ultimate fanboy with a house full of light sabers, LOTR shields, comics wrapped in acid free plastic sleeves and a bed shaped like a space ship. He’s an outrageous character and Lennon doesn’t shy away from any opportunity to get a laugh, but his larger-than-life portrayal gives the movie some much need steam and cuts through the more predictable aspects of the story.
Chandler Bing… er… Matthew Perry is essentially playing his familiar character from Friends in what is really little more than an extended cameo. His appearances bookend the film and he disappears completely for more than an hour of the film’s 102 minute running time.
17 Again is an amiable movie that tries hard to please everyone, from the teens who have followed Efron from his HSM days—there’s even a short dance number or two—to the couples that may be drawn by the love story, but apart from Lennon’s gags and, for some, Efron’s abs, it was more enjoyable the first few times around when it was called Back to the Future. Or Vice Versa. Or It’s a Wonderful Life.