The late filmmaker was never boring, and his overkill puts contemporary modesty to shame.

By Darren Franich
June 22, 2020 at 06:12 PM EDT
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Heavenly choirs, aggressive clouds, copper-colored sunlight at magic hour, rows of statues jittering in time-lapse. The effect is not subtle — the stone faces seem to be crying, running, and dancing — but Joel Schumacher never punished anyone with subtlety. The singing voices soar over the title, Flatliners, and more words etched into the side of a museum, SCIENTIA, MADONNA, RELIGIO. You don’t need to read Latin to sense big themes afoot, and then a helicopter shot cruises down over Lake Michigan until we’re staring Kiefer Sutherland right in the face. Everything about him is too big: His clothes, his hair, his attitude. “Today’s a good day to die,” he says. There’s no one around, but it’s 1990, and a guy like that in a movie like this assumes the whole world is listening.

It’s a marvelous, ludicrous opening to a marvelous, ludicrous film. The brash camerawork, the cathedralic excess, a smirking nihilism that was either a joke or the entire Generation X philosophy — and that’s all before a gang of egomaniacal med students start killing each other to prove their science is bigger than your science. Flatliners isn’t the most famous or infamous movie Schumacher directed in his decades-spanning career, but it lays bare everything the filmmaker brought to Hollywood before his death Monday at age 80. The cast is sexy and snarly: Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Julia Roberts, Sutherland. (The latter two started dating; everybody looks turned on by everybody.) The plot throws everything in the stew, cocky speeches and preachy redemptions, “atheism” as a character trait, a killer ghostboy with a hockey stick. All the heroes would be villains today, and all of Schumacher’s cinematic indulgence looks better now that movies are too nervous to look ridiculous.

His filmography sparkles with newly-discovered stardom. He defined the Brat Pack with 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire, captured Matthew McConaughey at his sweatiest for 1996’s A Time to Kill, and pretty much invented Colin Farrell in 2000’s Tigerland and 2002’s Phone Booth. Those are all very different movies, useful today as anthropology for the trends they were following: Rob Lowe’s earring, Farrell’s Bizkit goatee, the notion of a handsome white lawyer as an unqualified racial savior. You wouldn’t describe Schumacher as a personal filmmaker, but his era let him explore far and wide — vampire horror in The Lost Boys, drag dramedy in Flawless, cultures clashing in the movie where Anthony Hopkins learns about rap — and his opulence went beyond his first career as a costume designer. He was an equal-opportunity sensualist who loved fresh faces and big sets. Sometimes the actors were tapestry, true, but sometimes the tapestry could really act.

Schumacher was openly gay and extremely successful when those two descriptors together were pioneering. There’s a temptation to read his over-the-top style as an extension of high camp into the mainstream. Certainly, that explains the ongoing reclamation project around 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin. The latter was a derided flop on arrival, such a Waterloo that George Clooney has to joke about it at least once a week for the rest of his fabulous life. Its failure required generations of aesthetic social distancing, so later Batmans have been rigidly straight, body armor notably nipple-free, bad guys top-heavy with deep thoughts on society.

By comparison, Schumacher’s Bat-films look way more madcap than they actually are, and a lot funnier than was maybe intentional. The ecstatic fakeness looks authentic after decades of forced realism and strident self-awareness, and all the joke puns in something like The LEGO Batman Movie can’t match the sheer bliss of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze declaring “ICE TO SEE YOU!” But Schumacher could be sincere, or genuinely shocking. St. Elmo’s Fire has a real sweetness even if all the guys are zeroes. Somehow, that same sensibility would exit the ‘90s with the memorably gross 8MM, a bleak death-porn thriller electrified by a pre-Gladiator Joaquin Phoenix.

Somewhere in the middle, you find Falling Down, a hysterically indefensible movie about an angry white man on a long, violent walk across the many nations of post-Rodney King Los Angeles. It’s a political mess and a visual feast, with another opening scene for the ages. Michael Douglas sits in traffic, not just gridlock but the absolute Platonic un-Ideal of SoCal gridlock. He’s flat-topped in glasses, wearing the kind of short-sleeved-button-up-tie ensemble guys stopped wearing when we stopped sending men to the moon. Everything around him is somehow malicious: his broken air conditioner, the fly that won’t leave him alone, the guy a couple cars away on a brick-sized cellphone, the American flag hanging off the loudmouth school bus. Horns, always horns. The camera moves fast up to Douglas’ face — and then, in a matching image that can only be parody, moves just as fast up to the teeth of a nearby Garfield plush toy.

You have to laugh just a little — I think about that scene every time I’m in traffic — and Schumacher was a great interview who seemed to have a sense of humor about everything. His moment passed after the ‘90s, but he worked steadily in reduced circumstances. There was the discovery of Farrell, and then 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera gave us Emmy Rossum (thank you!) and Gerard Butler (thank you?). He worked with great cinematographers, beautiful performers, and eventually Jerry Bruckheimer, so even his failures had a special gloss. A box office disappointment like 2007’s The Number 23 could have a cult afterlife, and by the way, make $35 million more in actual theaters than any film Netflix will ever release. Today the movies' excess, like the release strategy, trends digital. Schumacher was a flesh-and-blood sensationalist. We need that instinct now, or Hollywood will flatline.

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