In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “It tries to tell a real story with a real message. It just never quite gets there.”
“Someone’s pissing on my hydrangeas!”
The more movies I watch from more eras, the more convinced I am the absolute best decade for cinema was the 70s. There’s amazing prestige movie making like The Godfather, amazing street level grit like The French Connection, Woody Allen hitting his stride with intellectual comedies like Annie Hall. And movies like Star Wars and Jaws setting the gold standard for the blockbuster genre they invented. Which makes it fascinating to me that the worst decade for film making came immediately after. Obviously there were great movies made in the 80s, but there’s also a thick streak of cheap gloss, money worshipping excess to so many of movies made then that tarnishes the lot. Even when movies try to use that excess against itself to deliver a positive message, it still comes off as kind of gross. Which is the downfall of every good intention in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
Jerry (Nick Nolte) is a vagrant in Los Angeles. When a well meaning yuppie woman in a park inadvertently steals his dog while he sleeps, Jerry wanders the streets looking for the missing pooch. Eventually, he ends up in Beverly Hills, looking at the glistening pool in the back yard of an expansive mansion. Deciding to end it all, Jerry jumps in with no intention of ever coming up for air. His suicidal plunge is witnessed by the mansion’s owner, Dave (Richard Dreyfuss), who dives in and saves the day.
Struggling to come to terms with the life of luxury, Dave started with nothing and built a fortune by manufacturing coat hangers. While he enjoys his wealth, it’s obvious that his blue collar beginnings nag at him. A nagging that he attempts to quash by taking Jerry in, buying him new clothes and letting him share in Dave’s charmed life, much to the displeasure of his wife, Barbara (Bette Midler). While Jerry isn’t necessarily ungrateful, the material gifts and perks never generate the kind of gratitude Dave expects. But Dave begins to get his satisfaction in other ways, as he embraces Jerry’s less traditional sources of happiness.
With its opening titles in a combination of neon pink and electric blue, set to a synth heavy (what sounds to me to be a) remix of Once in Lifetime by Talking Heads, Down and Out in Beverly Hills starts out like it should be called The 80s: The Movie. But it quickly defies that and tries to tell a real story with a real message. It just never quite gets there.
I was about half way through before I realised why things seemed a little off. Down and Out in Beverly Hills doesn’t have an obvious protagonist or antagonist. Dave is kind of condescending in the way he tries to alleviate his white, rich man guilt by forcing “happiness” on Jerry, but he also seems like he genuinely wants to help. Barbara is against Jerry moving into her house, but her reservations are totally rational and understandable. Jerry is weirdly confident and in control, while also letting himself just sort of get swept along with the movie.
The dynamics also change at weird times that don’t really help build any conflict or aid believable character development. Dave feels sorry for Jerry, Dave feels admiration for Jerry, Dave feels jealousy for Jerry, Dave feels resentment for Jerry. On paper, that sounds like a pretty logical arc for the character of Dave to follow. The only problem is, Down and Out Beverly Hills hits these beats at odd times, often without any believable motivation, and never in a way that feels earned.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills isn’t a bad movie. And I believe it was genuinely trying to say something interesting and not entirely clichéd about what it means to be happy and satisfied as people. Unfortunately, in the end, it’s an interesting idea with nowhere to go.