Desert Island Films: The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) + Tequila Sunrise (1988)

November 4, 2015 | By

A desert island film is a movie that you’d want to watch over and over again if one happens to be stranded on an island for an undetermined time but is still able to watch movies through some ported over TV set and player, or an electrical gizmo rigged by Gilligan’s Island’s Professor.


Within this highly subjective tally, I’d have to roll in one or two Hitchcock films – Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958) – but it would be automatic that I’d tote along Steve Kloves superb The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and maybe Robert Towne’s Tequila Sunrise (1988), because one is perfect, and the other is near-perfect, both benefiting from outstanding casting, writing, direction, music, location, but mostly characters that I want to revisit sparingly, to ensure the delight is still fresh, savored in small measured amounts.

Kloves was 29 when he made is debut as a writer-director, and Baker, new in a swell special edition Blu from Twilight Time, is perfect because the characters are so exceptionally written and rendered by a trio of actors arguably emerging into their prime.

Real brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges play the eponymous Seattle-based pianists whose 31 years of playing in hotels needs a revamp, and Michelle Pfeiffer is Suzie Diamond, the new gal hired to goose a tired repertoire and performance style and give the Baker Boys brand new energy on the local scene.

TequilaSunrise_BRIn Tequila Sunrise (Warner Home Video), it’s Pfeiffer again as Jo Ann Valenari, a restauranteur who becomes enmeshed in the stressed friendship between two former school buddies now at polar realms of the law – a drug dealer (Mel Gibson) and a crusading and somewhat corrupt lieutenant (Kurt Russell, in one of his finest roles).

There are some amusing connections to these seemingly disparate productions by bonafide auteurs whose careers consist mostly as screenwriters rather than directors.

The love of classic Hollywood movies is evident in the sharp banter between characters, but so is the unusual affection for film noir, which does resonate from the gorgeous cinematography in Tequila (shot by the late great Conrad Hall) and Baker (Michael Ballhaus).

Towne wanted a sleek noir look transposed and updated for 1988 California, whereas Kloves went for the moody, misty, smoke-drenched lighting design that has non-noir characters wandering through nourish locations or ‘hot spots’ that often allude to their states of conflict, or as potential thorns. Suzie Diamond may dress eighties loud in her early scenes, but she first emerges from a smoky doorway like a femme fatale, and remains a tough independent soul right to the end, taking no crap from neither Jack or Frank Baker.

Dave Grusin penned the scores which are jazz-styled, but he had more dramatic meat to play with in Baker, given the male leads are pianists, with Jack being the silent, suffering creative force desperately needing to break free from a mundane life.

The finales of Baker and Tequila are very distinct – what happens to the central romance in one remains unresolved – but in both films Pfeiffer plays smart, savvy, take-no-crap women, with Baker‘s Suzie Diamond being the more reactive and self-sufficient.

Even with Tequila’s flaws, it’s still a remarkable noir update, and like Baker, it’s the kind of movie no big studio would consider making today. They’re too heavy on dialogue and character, too reliant on slowly progressing arcs that takes time to allow each film’s trio of characters to settle into the minds of audiences before things are stirred up – and even then, upsets unfold at a measured pace.

In his commentary track, Kloves remarks how the cutting in Baker is too slow for contemporary audiences, but I somewhat disagree. For the masses, perhaps, but he forgets one simple trick that always works for a skilled writer-director: if the characters and performances are good, you don’t notice the edits or lack of cuts.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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