Story by Larry Cohen
The rules of the WGA can be rather arbitrary when assigning credit for a film that was worked on by multiple writers. This can lead to a writer who contributed heavily to what wound up on screen not receiving any credit on the finished product. More often, a writer who did work that never made it into the finished film will find themselves bewildered by receiving a screen credit. I have no idea if this was the case with Scandalous, an insignificant early ‘80s comedy that features a story credit for Larry Cohen, but judging by the film I just watched, I’d be surprised if any of Cohen’s work found its way into the final cut.
Frank Swedlin (Robert Hays) is an investigative reporter stuck doing human interest stories for the news conglomerate owned by Simon (M. Emmet Walsh), who just happens to be his father-in-law. Trapped in an unhappy marriage to Francine (Conover Kennard), his job threatened by Simon, and stuck in London when he wants to be covering “real” stories in New York, Frank is pretty miserable. When he witnesses Fiona (Pamela Stephenson), a beautiful woman on his flight, apparently buying industrial secrets from a man in a creepy, fake Asian disguise, he pounces on the potential story.
It turns out that Fiona is a con artist in cahoots with Willie (a slumming John Gielgud), to make it appear that Frank is having an affair so they can blackmail him. But Fiona and Willie have underestimated Frank because he is able to see right through their plans and he has his own plan to expose them for the con artists they are on his weekly news show.
At this point in the plot, I was reasonably entertained. I enjoyed how the filmmakers had set up the dueling con games that Fiona and Frank were playing on each other and I assumed this would be the plot of the entire film. But this plot was abruptly wrapped up at the end of the first act and the film quickly changed gears with Frank discovering Francine murdered in their home and all signs pointing to him as the murderer.
Turning the film into a “wrongly accused man seeks to clear his name” flick reeks of desperation and an attempt to play it safe. Not only does the story come with plenty of clichéd baggage, but the plot doesn’t fit with the screwball tone that director Rob Cohen insists on using. I’ll admit, I was pretty surprised when Frank discovered Francine’s body, but this surprise was immediately replaced by a certain horror about the way Frank is supposed to go from vigorously defending himself against police accusations to trading stale one-liners with Fiona.
This confusion of tones only causes the flaws in the script and direction to become more evident. While it was a clever move to cast Hays as the smarter-than-he seems Frank (at that point, Hays was best known for stoically spewing silly dialogue from the Airplane movies–come to think of it, those are still the only movies he’s known for), after the sudden plot shifts, Cohen sells out the character of Frank and forces Hays to act like the world’s biggest cartoon idiot. Hays makes gulping noises, contorts his face, and acts as spastic as Jim Carrey on crystal meth. It’s a bizarre performance from a man who probably knew better than what he was being asked to do.
The supporting cast fares no better. Stephenson hardly has the comic chops to pull off all the personas Fiona adopts in service of her cons. Walsh seems to be acting in a completely different film where he’s still as menacing as his character from Blood Simple. Even Gielgud is unable to avoid the embarrassment, spending much of the film in one disguise after another (in one memorably awful scene, he’s dressed up as a punk rocker at a Bow Wow Wow concert–seriously).
Francine’s murder investigation becomes more convoluted than it needs to be with the introduction of a ridiculous Scotland Yard investigator (Jim Dale) and a resolution that barely makes sense. Trapped in all this nonsense is a halfhearted attempt at cynical satire with Frank’s former friends in the media convicting him in the public arena while his producer does her best to steal his on-air job. Despite its busy plot, the story is never interesting enough to hold attention even while it strains credibility and the satire is as toothless as a one-hundred-year-old sugar addict.
Normally I look at these films through the context of Cohen’s contributions. There’s no point with Scandalous. It’s a mess of a film no matter who was behind the script or the camera. Even worse, it’s not an entertaining mess, just a desperate attempt at screwball comedy that misses every target it aims at. Avoid it at all costs.
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