After Hours is all style and no substance, a film that could easily be titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events” or perhaps just “Mean Streets.”  Martin Scorsese referred to the film as being an exercise in style.  So, instead of trying to make sense of the story, is it better to sit back and marvel at the style?  After Hours gives an opportunity to ponder this type of question.

The Players:

  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Writer: Joseph Minion
  • Cast:  Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Verna Bloom, Tommy Chong, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, John Heard, Cheech Marin, Catherine O’Hara, Dick Miller, Will Patton

Notes:

Paul Hackett (Dunne) is a word processor living alone in New York.  One night he meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) and decides to call her when he gets home, pretending to be interested in paperweights, which Marcy mentioned her roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) sells.  To his surprise, Marcy invites Paul to come over that same night.  On his cab ride to see Marcy, Paul’s money flies out the window, setting the stage for one misadventure after another.  Paul meets numerous strangers, and falls repeatedly into cons and misunderstandings.  But is Paul the victim of a major scheme or is does he merely have the world’s worst luck?  Paul’s sole motivation is to make it home safely.

After Hours is an example of a film where the journey matters more than the destination.  Along the way, we meet several interesting characters played by recognizable actors; Catherine O’hara, Cheech and Chong, Teri Garr, and John Heard.  The situations are ridiculous but that’s part of the fun.  However, Paul’s journey is mostly interesting due to the crafty touch of Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus.  With great tracking shots, composition and varying frame rates, Scorsese provides a visual style that enhance Paul’s ongoing state of paranoia.  Ballhaus is masterful here, using high speed film stock capable of capturing the dark streets of New York with nothing more than available light.  The streets are rendered with such a presence of their own that Ballhaus’s cinematography can be regarded as an additional part of the cast.

Despite the improbability of so many unfortunate situations occurring to one person in one night, After Hours doesn’t  fall short as a result of such disbelief.  The anticipation  of ongoing misfortunes is one of the elements that helps keep this film afloat. Paul’s journey would seem more worthwhile if it meant something, and by the time the morning comes you might find yourself feeling a bit conned yourself.  There is no redemption, no lesson learned, no reflection of any sort.  Bad things happen, and that’s about it.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

In your 1985 review, you mention having felt emotionally depleted and considered leaving the theaters two-thirds into the film.  I also felt exhausted and at one point contemplated whether I cared about the outcome or not.  Mainly, I kept watching because I enjoyed the style and wanted to know whether Paul’s mishaps were all part of a giant con, such as those in House of Games and The Game.  While I agree that many of characters are quirky, they are mostly unrelatable.  You spend part of your review discussing whether audiences might view the film’s events as a fantasy or as exaggerations of reality.  But even with such considerations in mind, it is hard to ignore the sense of emptiness felt at the end.  For you, the fact that this film flies in the face of common sense is what hooked you.   I can agree with that, but to regard this as a great film is another thing altogether.  It may be Kafkaesque, and Scorsese is having fun with a story about a horrible night taking place in a city where he most likes to tell stories.  Or, as your 2009 review mentions, After Hours could also be a reflection of Scorcese’s frustration after the plug was pulled on The Last Temptation of Christ.  Either way, there is brilliance in his technical abilities.  That much is clear.  As for brilliance in the story, I’m not so sure.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like After Hours?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Ugetsu

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Martin Scorsese’s After Hours this week, he now has 291 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.