Why Does It Exist?

Cold Feet (1989)

In Reviews on April 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm

No cats were harmed in the making of this film. That kitten, on the other hand...

Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘hipster’ was not conjured out of the ether by a cabal of denim-clad Williamsburg kids in 2003. First coined in the 1940s to describe jazz fans, the word ‘hipster’ has gone through various permutations over the years that have somehow always meant ‘people who like things that I don’t’. In the scant few reviews I’ve read of Robert Dornhelm’s Cold Feet (and even in a Tom Waits biography), the term ‘hipster comedy’ is used over and over. I’m not entirely sure that I understand the connection (especially considering that the term hipster is now an all-encompassing term that has replaced ‘those damn kids’), but I do know that Cold Feet is part of an extremely annoying late-80’s movement of bizarre, ‘quirky’ comedies that relied almost entirely on their wacky casts and stacked soundtracks to get seen. Since I’ve never seen this phenomenon discussed anywhere, I’ll take the opportunity to christen the movement 80’s Hipster Comedy (or hipcom for short – like romcom, but more annoying and unoriginal).

Although the original 80’s hipster filmmaker is most likely Jim Jarmusch, his films don’t really fit the mold of the prototypical hipcom since they feature deliberate pacing and a genuine sense of humour. What most defines this genre, to me, is the almost complete absence of pace and sense of humour. These films pair the worst of the loopy late 60’s hippie aesthetic (think stuff like Candy and The Magic Christian) with snarky punk rock verve to create loud, abrasive and disturbingly unfunny comedies. They usually star or involve combinations of John Cusack, Alex Cox, Zander Schloss, members of the bands X and the Beastie Boys or former Monkee Michael Nesmith. Other canonical films of the genre include Tapeheads, Twister (the one with Harry Dean Stanton and Crispin Glover), Roadside Prophets, David Byrne’s True Stories and some offshoots like Neil Young’s Human Highway and Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell (one of my favourite films of all time, coincidentally). What I find most maddening about this genre is not how unfunny they are, but rather how they pander to everything that I like and still end up being terrible and unfunny.

In this scene, Waits shows his appreciation for my slightly creepy fandom.

One way Cold Feet shamelessly panders to my baser instincts is by casting the great Tom Waits in one of the lead roles. I have an unnatural obsession with Tom Waits that pushes me to extremes such as scouring the earth for every record he has ever released (and paying too much money to dubious eBay sellers for ultra-rare Austrian compilations – for example), embarrassing myself by performing karaoke versions of the Eagles’ cover of ‘Ol’ 55’ in packed bars and plopping down five dollars for a DVD copy of the forgotten Waits vehicle Cold Feet. The last part is the one aspect of my Waits fandom that I regret the most. (I must also note that Cold Feet is the first movie that I have re-watched for the purposes of Why Does It Exist?, which you’ll see later one proves to be a pretty masochistic move.)

Cold Feet is a manic country-bumpkin comedy in the vein of Raising Arizona that stars Keith Carradine, Sally Kirkland and Waits as a trio of crooks who plan the score of a lifetime. After acquiring a cache of stolen emeralds, they hire veterinarian Vincent Schiavelli to insert them inside a prize stallion. This will allow them to sneak the stolen emeralds back into the good ol’ USA after which they’ll split the loot and live like kings. The plan is that Maureen (Kirkland) is to cross the border first, pick up their RV and meet Monte (Carradine) and Kenny (Waits) on the other side.

To give you an idea of the tone of the film, let me describe the scene in which we meet our three antiheroes. In a shit veterinary facility in Mexico, our three goons wait as Schiavelli performs surgery on the horse (a ‘mighty good horse’, as Carradine says over and over). When he’s done, Waits immediately shoots him. The noise of the gun makes the horse freak right the fuck out and he begins to trash around, leading everyone into a fiddle-music frenzy that’s played for laughs despite the fact that there’s really nothing that funny about it. The horse breaks shit, the characters yell ‘GET THAT HORSE!’ and leftover bits of score from The Dukes of Hazzard drowns out everything else. Ten minutes in, Robert Dornhelm’s cardinal rule is firmly in place: when in doubt, turn everything into a hoedown.

What Kenny and Maureen don’t know is that Monte has taken it upon himself to leave them out of the equation, opting instead to make off with the loot and join his good-natured rancher brother (Bill Pullman) and his wife (Kathleen York). He promptly bails on them, sending the increasingly psychopathic Kenny and the loudmouthed Maureen into an apoplectic rage. The screenplay is co-written by two genuinely excellent novelists, Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane, neither of whom deal in the loud, abrasive style of the movie. This is blindingly obvious in the scene where Waits and Kirkland discover that Carradine has taken the horse. I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing it.

Waits says, ‘Monte took the horse!’

‘What do you mean?’ says Kirkland.

‘I MEAN MONTE! MUST! DIE!’ screams Waits, theatrically biting his knuckles like I’ve only ever seen in cartoons and films from the 1930’s.

‘I… agree with you. Monte is dead! I believe he must pass away in a rather cruel fashion… and, might I add, he has BROKEN MY HEART!’

Not pictured: Tom Waits literally chewing the wall.

What could read on paper as overly lyrical Southern dialogue plays off on-screen like a dinner theater production of the goddamned Looney Tunes. McGuane and Harrison seem to have written a deliberate crime comedy in the style of, say, Elmore Leonard; what director Robert Dornhelm seems to have seen in it is an outsized 30’s-styled comedy and done no modifications to fit that whatsoever. The above scene could have had the deliberately stylized dialogue of O Brother Where Art Thou; instead, it sounds like it was learned phonetically. The dialogue comes off as terrible, the performances are incredibly mannered and the comedy scenes almost never follow a setup-punchline formula, opting instead for generalized hysteria.

Robert Dornhelm is a prolific German-born director who had done films of some repute (including Grace Kelly’s last film) but, tellingly, had never made a feature-length comedy and hasn’t since. I’d be hard-pressed to find a more egregious example of why a funny script doesn’t cut it when you have an unfunny filmmaker. Dornhelm simply doesn’t seem to understand where the beats are in the script and, try as he might, you can’t just make your own beats with a peppy score and heightened line deliveries. You have to be fully committed to make a silly, blasting-on-all-cylinders comedy like the one Dornhelm seems to be aiming for. If you get lazy, you get Cold Feet.

There’s a lot of laziness to go around in Cold Feet but you can’t accuse any of the actors of phoning it in. Carradine works well as the straight man but the real pleasure here is Waits. He’s not terribly convincing as an actor, which is why he usually plays a variation on the lounge lizard crying in his beer, but here he pulls out all the stops. For the majority of the film’s running time, Waits is the film’s male lead as Carradine’s character takes a backseat and does he ever take advantage of it.  His limbs flail every which way, his gravelly voice cracks and wheezes, he shaves perpetually, does situps hanging out the van’s side window and chews the scenery with a reckless abandon usually reserved for dark-period Dennis Hopper and the entirety of Wings Hauser’s career.

This is about as much emoting as Torn does in this.

Kirkland doesn’t fare nearly as well; a Hollywood veteran and Oscar nominee, Kirkland certainly looks the part of the brassy femme fatale but is saddled with an impossible role that requires her to be simultaneously a cunning maneater, incurable ditz, career criminal and wannabe housewife all at once. Pass that through Dornhelm’s unstoppable filter of noise and fury and you’ve got a role nobody could pull off. Perhaps the most offensive bit of casting, however, is Rip Torn as the sheriff. Here you have a movie where everyone acts like a cartoon, screaming their heads off and only intermittently approximating human behaviour, right? And you have an actor who, at his best, embodies all of those characteristics perfectly, right? SO WHY THE FUCK IS RIP TORN THE MOST SUBDUED CHARACTER IN THIS MOVIE?

For a road movie, not a whole hell of a lot happens throughout Cold Feet. Maureen and Kenny argue and bicker constantly; sometimes this happens inside the car, sometimes outside. Maureen gets attacked by a militia of children in an attempt to find Monte’s daughter. In the film’s best scene, they stop by a deep-South bar run by an uncredited Jeff Bridges (!) who gets medieval on their ass when Waits drives away his usual clientele by calling them ‘homosexu-als’. They’re consistently a step behind Monte until they eventually find his brother’s ranch and force themselves back into his life, slowly inching towards a conclusion unbefitting the tone-deaf cartoon that preceded it.

As a movie fan, there’s not much of value to be found in Cold Feet. It’s unfunny, predictable and feels impossible long despite barely clocking in at 90 minutes. There’s such a gigantic disconnect between what you see on-screen and what you are aware is happening that the entire movie is a hell of a slog to get through. As a fan of Tom Waits, however, the film holds a (very small) place in my heart for showcasing a performance like no other. If there’s any film on Why Does It Exist?  thus far that I’d recommend even half-heartedly, it’s this one. At least it had some potential at some point. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So why does it exist?

Judging by the haphazard way this seems to have come into existence, I don’t think there was too much contact between Dornhelm and the people bankrolling the film. One meeting with the director outlining his plan to envelop the entire movie in extremely joyous bluegrass music and give ‘LOUDER!’ as his only direction to his actors would’ve scrapped the whole thing. The old adage for giant fiascos is that it ‘wasn’t released, it escaped’. This one seems to have been so far under anyone’s radar that it didn’t even escape, it just walked right out the front door sight unseen.

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  1. Admittedly I’m not a ninja expert, but this doesn’t sound like the work of the ninja. They tend to kill plpoee quickly and silently, without sticking around to add bizarre details to the crime scene. You rarely see a group of ninjas standing around going, Yeah, that’s good now smear some lipstick on his face, put a carrot up his ass, and make it look like he was drawing a picture of a cow.

  2. It’s one of those movies where you’ll only appreciate it if you’re a huge fan of someone it…Hence, fans Of Tom Waits ( which I am). I found him to be hilarious in the film and very peculiar. His acting wasn’t the worst, nor was it best, but Watever he did in the movie, he seemed to have pulled it off. There are some known actors such as Bill Pullman, Jeff Bridges, Rip Torn, and a nice looking stallion. Bottom line is that Tom Waits is great, and as a fan, this is one of those movies that you just have to put up with; sadly you have to put up with it for about 90 min. Good Luck..,

  3. In his memoir “Off to the Side” Jim Harrison refuses even to mention the name of this movie.

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