Movies We Like
When I was ten years old I declared Foul Play to be the funniest movie ever made. Maybe now it’s not quite as amazing as I thought it was then, but it’s still pretty entertaining. After hitting gold with the scripts for Harold and Maude and Silver Streak, screenwriter Colin Higgins made his directorial debut with Foul Play. Like Silver Streak, Foul Play is a sorta romantic-comedy (slash) mystery-thriller hybrid. It both romanticizes the old style of Cary Grant and accepts the newer Saturday Night Live inspired raunch that has dominated American film comedies ever since. This was Goldie Hawn’s peak years, coming off of Shampoo and just before her signature performance as Private Benjamin. In her mid thirties, she was still playing the big eyed pixie to perfection and she matched Chevy Chase, in his first lead role (he had played some bit parts in The Groove Tube earlier). The film is definitely a time-capsule of disparaging styles, jumping between slapstick sex comedy and violent Hitchcock spoof, there is more would-be suspense than comedy, but when the comedy works I can see why ten-year-old me got so excited.
The plot is some kind of murder mystery that has something to do with an assassination attempt on the Pope or something. It really doesn’t matter. Goldie plays a beautiful San Francisco librarian, one of those unlikely lonely hearts who goes to see old movies by herself. Through a number of contrivances she ends up with a dead man as a date which puts her into a vast conspiracy including an albino hitman working for a corrupt Catholic church until bumbling cop Chevy Chase comes to her rescue. The two eventually put the case together (along with his trench-coated partner Brian Dennehy) and, of course, fall in love. And in-between their Charade-like pleasantries, there’s Burgess Meredith as her wacky karate-chopping neighbor, Dudley Moore as a sex crazed swinger, Billy Barty as a dwarf door-to-door salesman, a laughing snake, opera, car chases, murders, and an Oscar-nominated theme song by Barry Manilow. I may sum this up shallowly, as if I’m poo-pooing, but it’s actually with much affection.
Chase, fresh off being the break-out star on the first season of Saturday Night Live, shows he had movie star chops, his smug klutz persona blended perfectly here as a free-spirited detective who lives on a house boat and smokes pot. Though he would have hits with Caddyshack and be very memorable in both Fletch and National Lampoon’s Vacation he never really lived up to the romantic leading man potential he showed in Foul Play. Besides the aforementioned flicks, most of his films during his movie star years were lazy clunkers and he rarely shared the screen with an actress at the height of her talents and stardom as Hawn was in the late '70s. (Though the two did re-team a few years later in the Neil Simon penned Seems Like Old Times which just came off as overly Simony.) Frankly Chase is almost a supporting actor in Foul Play; it’s really a Hawn vehicle and a little less Chase goes a long way here.
While Higgins' prior Hitchcockian comedy Silver Streak ended with a big train chase and crash, here he goes with the more standard ridiculous San Francisco speeding car run that would make McQueen’s Bullitt blush, followed by an opera house shoot out that, surprisingly in retrospect, only earned the film a PG rating (and would probably garner a R today). It really is true, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. The film really does believe in its murder plotline (even if we don’t) and it sticks with it, sprinkling the comedy around it, as well as the romance. Today the jokes would be the top priority and the mystery would be slapped in there to help reach the ninety minute mark. Perhaps Foul Play would feel dated to today's newer audiences and it’s really just nostalgia for me, but damn it, I’ll still take Dudley Moore dancing around to disco music in funny boxer shorts to whatever the ten-year-olds think is funny today.