The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans

Werner Herzog gets off on making you wonder if he's finally lost it.  The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans  (punctuate it how you will, it hardly seems to matter,) directed by Herzog from a screenplay by former cop-show scribe William M. Finkelstein, is as inscrutable and superfluous as its deliriously stupid title suggests, and equally grating.  Towing the line between sublime subversion and paycheck-cashing , the film exists as a bizarre, ill-advised lark on the part of Herzog, but one nonetheless rife with critical armor chinks.  The film is, in its way, as much a blatant provocation as Von Trier's Antichrist.  Herzog’s reputation has buoyed him this time, but wrongly so; Bad Lieutenant is trifling and puffy, and it deflates at every turn at the hands of its own dopey bravado.

The original Bad Lieutenant, an excellent if somewhat self-serious cult noir starring Harvey Keitel and directed by Abel Ferrara, does not figure one way or another in Herzog’s film.  What Werner lays on us is (as it has rightly and loudly been touted in the press) not a remake or a reimagining of the original film, except perhaps in the hoping eyes of its producers.  It is a film with a stupid name that follows with a stupid plot, of Cage’s bad lieutenant working his beat in the Big Easy and juggling his hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes, who is a surprisingly great bright spot, very reminiscent of Erin Brockovich-era Julia Roberts) and his drug addictions, crack cocaine being principal among them.  Right here we can gauge a big part of your tolerance for this dalliance. If you're OK with the idea of Herzog making a wacky, totally-tripped-out-man cop movie with Nicolas Cage pinballing around the screen like a Vaseline-coated superball, then you'll probably love it and not think twice about why.  For me, however, it's like getting talked into sprinting through the funhouse when you'd rather be chilling with a few rounds of ski-ball.

Nicolas Cage remains a problem for which there is no solution.  As has been noted, this is a performance he has been building up to for decades, and undoubtedly a new modern watershed in American screen-actor ridiculousness.  The question is: where does he go from here?  The comparisons to Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s long-time co-conspirator and also a noted basket case, only get you so far. (Although I would concede that both men often found work in spite of their limited abilities as actors.)

 The cavalcade of ridiculous merry-go-rounding that must have had to take place for this film to become what it became is astonishing.  First, Finkelstein writes his lame NY cop movie script and lobs it into the no-doubt waiting jaws of Hollywood.  It's formulaic and easy and, with his background writing for TV, it gets purchased in no time. Somehow it ends up in the lap of Edward R. Pressman, who owns the title rights to the original Bad Lieutenant, having produced Ferrara’s original.  Looking to snowball the uninterestingness of the script into even greater uninterestingness, he, in a flash of brilliance, decides to marry the two.  They start pitching it around to actors, and Nicolas Cage gets it.  They start pitching it to directors, and Werner Herzog (?) gets it (I would pay money to see the contents of his PO Box...)  Neither agrees to commit to the film until, apparently, they hear of each other’s involvement and get a hard-on for working with eachother.  Yet **STILL** what we have on our plate is a dumb-as-shit cop movie mindlessly pimping the title of a bonafide non-classic in a crystal clear attempt to hatch a franchise so ill-conceived it makes Steve Martin's Pink Panther remakes look like works of genius.  But Cage is never one to give pause when a producer waggles a check in front of his face.  And Herzog, obviously enamored with the luxury of basically picking his leading man, signs on as well with a toothy grin.

I must impart what I took away from having the good fortune of seeing this film in a preview screening, as introduced by its two producers, Gabe and Alan Polsky.  Even they seemed at a loss for what they had.  Well, their stupidly brazen devil-may-care shot in the dark has paid off, as critics have lined up in neat little rows to smooch at the feet of their beloved Herzog.  It's as if American critics are so glad to now have this master working in their native idioms that they are inclined to lick up anything Herzog might deposit, as long as he can summon up another of his patented irreverent apologies, fellating his own film in the press like a tarted-up Red Light District madame, as if he somehow needs to.

It's almost as if Herzog has grown tired of serving up slices of his patented ecstatic truth pie.  Fair enough.  Fair enough too that we may be disposed to like or dislike it as we see fit.  He's following his whims, and that's why we love him, right?  Well.. Yeah.. But I reserve the right not to like the direction he may be pointed in at any given time.  Certainly it is true that all sacred cow directors have dusty skeletons in their cinematic closets, and that no director worth anything in the grand scheme of cinema has ever batted a thousand.  But I think it is the duty of those who might cherish his work to inform him when he has possibly lost his way.

As long as it's all hypothesizing anyway, let us attempt to wade into the mind of the 70 year old Herzog.  Burden of Dreams comes quickly to mind, Les Blank’s documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo.  I have surmised before that were Fitzcarraldo to have been made as originally intended with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, Herzog's career might have taken a sharp turn right then and there.  Burden of Dreams is, in a way, a document of Herzog's shot at the big time being pulled out from under his feet (although this is not the primary focus of Blank's film.)  So, in a way, Herzog has been fishing for a wider audience since nearly the very start.  He now has it.  And yet, there is still that compulsion in him, as can be seen from some of his very earliest filmic experiments all the way to recent films like Encounters at the End of the World, to document some kind of ecstatic truth.  Bad Lieutenant is nothing if not an ecstatic lie; the tacky turns of the American cop movie subverted with a casual flip of the wrist.

I find myself interested in Herzog's already completed follow-up picture, produced by David Lynch, called My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.  My gut tells me that it will be played more for keeps, contrasting and emphasizing the comedy of Bad Lieutenant. The question will be, even in the absence of the wackiness: does it work?  Don't we ask the same of journeymen or even hack directors working in these genres?  Don't we expect certain things, a certain standard of quality?   If Herzog's goal is to subvert the American cop film genre, I guess my question would be, why?  It's as simple a target as the broad side of a barn.

 At the very least, Herzog has given us a film to be argued about, although, at the moment, no one seems up to the task.  In his director’s statement, he all but begs for our scorn, preemptively scolding: "I challenge the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one.  Go for it, losers."  Umm.. I'm sorry.. What??  Werner, you have made some of the greatest movies of all time. Why bother with this skanky posturing if you yourself weren't in some way concerned about the film's reception?  Would YOU watch your Bad Lieutenant?  Are you so enamored with Cage's recklessness?

In his great films (of which there are so many,) Herzog does not have time for the sloppy scenes this film and its screenplay saddle him with.  When things are superfluous in a Herzog film, they are generally mood-invoking or at least beautiful, not formulaic and lazy, like many of the beyond-standard cop drama moments in Bad Lieutenant.  And, at the absolute end of the day, though we might enjoy ourselves with this one to a point, how much can we really allow ourselves to like it?  I’ve seen the film three times now, and I have found myself laughing at it at various points each time.  But I am certainly not going to force its tired ideas and sloppy executions on myself on principal alone (and believe me, if any director could inspire me to drink their Kool-Aid, no questions asked, it's Herzog.)  It's funny and it's somewhat memorable, but unfortunately it’s just not that good.

Maybe Herzog is genuinely up to something I'm just not picking up on.  But I've got even money that he's just playing with his food. It's Herzog 2.0, expatriate German maverick turned American, well.. “maverick,” bringing home the bacon on thirty year old stories that still get printed ad infinitum.  Bad Lieutenant is just a new craziness for us all to marvel at, so go ahead and marvel.  It's his American Even Dwarfs Started Small, I guess.  But, lest we forget, he followed up that film with Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and that is why we know his name, and his films. 

Here's hoping that Herzog has got a few American masterpieces in him to go along with his German ones. So far, I haven't seen one.  And I've been looking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I happen to think Dwarfs IS a masterpiece, so maybe I should see this.