The Cohen Case Files: Perfect Strangers (1984)

Executive Produced (uncredited), Written, and Directed by Larry Cohen

While watching Perfect Strangers, Larry Cohen’s train wreck of a romantic thriller, I was reminded of a snippet of Roger Ebert’s review of Death to Smoochy, which I quoted in my Movie Defender piece on that misunderstood film:

Only enormously talented people could have made Death to Smoochy. Those with lesser gifts would have lacked the nerve to make a film so bad, so miscalculated, so lacking any connection with any possible audience. To make a film this awful, you have to have enormous ambition and confidence, and dream big dreams.

Mr. Ebert could have been talking about Perfect Strangers. It is not as though Cohen was trying anything as ambitious as Danny DeVito’s abrasive satire of children’s television programs, but he is an enormously talented filmmaker who completely misses the mark with his ambitious attempt to meld a thriller with a wrong-headed satire of feminist stereotypes. Where most films merely come out disjointed and dull when they don’t work, Cohen’s film is a tone-deaf mixture of genre clichés that is staggeringly awful in a way that makes it impossible to look away.

Johnny (Brad Rijn) is a mob hitman who is valued for his skill with a knife and the fact that he has never been arrested. Since Johnny has no record or fingerprints on file, his bosses are secure that as long as there are no witnesses to his murders, nothing can be traced to them. But Johnny gets sloppy with his latest murder and is seen by two-year-old Matthew (Matthew Stockley). Certain that Matthew would never be able to identify him, Johnny tries to go about his business.

But Johnny’s bosses aren’t so willing to take that risk. They feel that Johnny made a mistake by leaving Matthew alive and want him to clean up his own mess. Despite his protests, the plan is hatched for Johnny to ingratiate himself with Sally (Anne Carlisle), Matthew’s single mother. Once Sally is comfortable entrusting Johnny with Matthew’s safety, Johnny will kill Matthew in a way that is made to look like an accident.

While this plan sounds absurd at best, it is workable in the world of the film because Sally is the worst mother imaginable. Within minutes of meeting Johnny, she has him helping out by carrying Matthew as they meander around the streets of New York. She explains that she wants to teach Matthew to trust people until they prove to him they are untrustworthy. While this line of thinking seems to be a constant invitation for trouble—especially in scary early ‘80s New York City, Cohen tries to wave off Sally’s flawed reasoning by presenting her as a bohemian free spirit. But Sally seems less like a free spirit and more like an irresponsible child in an adult’s body. She barely seems capable of taking care of herself, let alone a small child whom she constantly leaves alone in a stroller, on a carousel, and in the care of the monosyllabic goon she just started dating.

A subplot finds Sally dealing with Fred (John Woehrle), her alternately angry and confused ex-husband. Fred wants to spend time with Matthew, but Sally was awarded full custody and refuses to let Fred be anywhere near the two of them. Since Fred is introduced snatching Matthew from his stroller—because Sally has once again left him alone—and running down the street with him, it’s initially understandable why she wants Fred out of their lives. There are also vague statements made about Fred possibly being violent toward Sally and Matthew in the past and a final revelation that he wanted Sally to get an abortion when he found out she was pregnant.

Poor Matthew. With parents like these, if he could form a coherent thought or sentence, he might ask to be put into foster care.

Cohen eventually pushes another bizarre subplot on to the film about a group of “feminists” who Sally hangs out with even though she doesn’t share their particular streak of militant hatred for all men.

Cohen has often weaved socially conscious messages and themes into his films, taking aim at racism in Bone, the twisting of religion into violence in God Told Me To, abuse of government power in The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, and the insidious corruption that comes with corporations gaining too much power in everything from It’s Alive to The Stuff. But his view of feminism as it gained steam in the early ‘80s feels like panicked hysteria. In the world of Perfect Strangers, feminists are single-minded women who want to bring about a gender war so they can wipe men from the face of the planet. Seriously.

Ann Magnuson has an early role as Malda, Sally’s best friend. Over the years, Magnuson has proven herself to be a talented performer, bringing a spark to many under-written roles. But even she is unable to salvage this exchange as Sally explains why she is refusing to cooperate with the police investigation into the murder:

Malda: But if you had seen it, would you tell?

Sally: You mean, would I testify?

Malda: Well, how do you know? Maybe somebody had a good reason to kill this guy? What if it was a woman, and this guy was screwing her around and she finally decided to put him on ice?

Sally: Look, it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. The guy was lured down an alley and had his throat slit.

Malda: But if it was a woman, and she had a good reason, like maybe the guy was beating her and the kids, or pumping her full of drugs, or making her turn tricks! Would you go pointing the finger at her?

Sally: Didn’t they acquit that woman who shot her husband because he was beating her? They let her walk right out of the court.

Malda: That was not in the state of New York.

Sally: Anyway, it wasn’t a woman.

Malda: How do you know? You saw him, didn’t you? Didn’t you?

Sally: Well, I felt him. I heard the footsteps.

Malda: Sally, you’re not dealing with the issue here. I mean, let’s just suppose it was a woman! A sister!

Sally: Why does everything have to be a political issue with you?

Malda: Because when the time comes, a lot of guys are going to have to get what’s coming to them!

Sally: So that’s what World War III is gonna be? The girls against the guys?

Malda: We’re not girls! Okay! We’re women! You think our only weapon is to withhold sex, don’t you? They don’t realize that the kitchen they’ve locked us into, imprisoned us in, is full of weapons. Sharp, pointed weapons. No, they wouldn’t close their eyes at night, if they thought about what we’re capable of.

Sally: Well, I’m not capable of that.

Malda: Oh, no? What about with Fred? What if he came back again and tried to take Matthew away? The police wouldn’t stop him this time.

Sally: I wish you wouldn’t talk like that in front of Matthew. He understands everything you say.

Malda: Oh, he’s just a kid. He can’t understand me.

Sally: But all this talk of feminist homicide is really making me crazy! It’s dangerous!

Accentuating the tonal awkwardness is Carlisle’s stiff performance. Alternating between a misplaced patrician archness and an annoying whine, she turns Sally into a character that resembles an emotionally-detached android. Part of the problem is the way her character is written by Cohen to make a constant series of stupid mistakes. But Carlisle compounds the bad writing with a performance that lacks the maternal nature needed to play a mother or the sexuality needed to present her as desirable to Johnny.

Even more misplaced than the numerous subplots or Carlisle’s performance is the soft-focus cinematography by Paul Glickman. Looking like it was shot with several layers of gauze covering the lens, a goofy atmosphere is created that feels like a spoof of made-for-Lifetime-TV-movies. Every character walks around with a halo of light threatening to absorb them. One character appears in a white sweater and simply looks like a hazy ball of talking light because her face is completely whited out by the lighting.

I could probably list a hundred more tonally incoherent missteps—including a private detective who is played like an Andy Kaufman performance piece and an openly gay police officer who comes across like a fussy, effeminate, politically incorrect sketch character—but what would be the point? Cohen eventually wraps up the main plot of the film almost as an afterthought, but leaves the numerous subplots dangling—including leaving an innocent character held at gunpoint. Whether he simply ran out of time and money or recognized that the stories weren’t worth paying off does not really matter.

When a good movie is created, there is plenty of praise to spread around. The same goes for blame when a movie comes out as a turkey. From Cohen’s jaw-droppingly bad script and haphazard direction to Carlisle’s awkward performance to Glickman’s misguided photography, Perfect Strangers is proof that it takes several people making massive mistakes in tandem to create a bad movie for the ages.

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