It’s been nearly two decades since there’s been a new motion picture written or directed by George Armitage, a name that would appear foreign to many moviegoers born after the turn of the millennium, and for some relatively good reasons. He kicked off his illustrious career with Roger Corman in the ’60s, helmed a few B-movies in the ’70s, wrote a bunch of screenplays that never went anywhere in the ’80s, got hot again in the ’90s, and then fell into obscurity again after 2004’s The Big Bounce bombed. This (as it currently stands) final picture, an easy-going adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s second novel, was wrestled out of his hands by millionaire producer Steve Bing during the editing process, who was pressured by Warner Brothers to cut out the film’s rampant onscreen full-frontal nudity — one can only imagine how liberally Owen Wilson’s beautiful cock is flaunted in the #ArmitageCut — and crass language in order to secure a PG-13 rating; it flopped hard, and Armitage claims he’s been “sulking” ever since.
So his moment, as it were, has come and gone, and perhaps he understands that to some degree; what’s probably more precisely the case is that he’s learned by this point that his idiosyncratic stylings have never and will never do well at the box office — his only hit was 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank, and even that was modest at best. Never was this more apparent than with the underperforming achievement that is Miami Blues, which was gifted to Armitage by producer Jonathan Demme and had its release delayed to coincide with star Alec Baldwin’s building popularity from The Hunt for Red October. The ploy didn’t help one iota, but frankly, at this stage, who even cares? Unless you’re Janet Maslin, nobody with halfway decent taste actually worries about these sorts of useless factoids, and viewers should instead content themselves with the film’s sheer, brilliant lunacy.
Like Armitage’s other cinematic work, Miami Blues articulates a quirky and lucid vision of what making it in America looks like at the end of the 20th century — albeit here more in the vein of Grand Theft Auto than Horatio Alger. Opening with a kind of heavenly descent — set to a fitting needle-drop of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” which will also later close things out in cyclical fashion — the camera fixes on Miami Blues’ criminal-cum-fallen angel: Frederick J. Frenger, Jr. Over the course of the film’s runtime, Frenger will assume the aliases of Herman Gotlieb, Sgt. Hoke Moseley, and “Trouble” — which is the name he offers to a Hare Krishna at the airport, who he then proceeds to kill by breaking his finger, all within the first five minutes — commit an untold number of crimes, and rock some rather stylish fits, all across Florida’s most populated city, post-Mariel boatlift. He hooks up and settles with a prostitute, Susie Waggoner, who herself goes by another name (“Pepper”) and has her own ambitions that involve managing a popular fast-food chain, getting hitched, and starting a family. Junior openly scoffs at these aspirations and calls them “stupid” to her face, failing to see the pleasure in working towards a better life when he could just as easily steal it from someone else.
You see, Junior’s an opportunist, but one with no end goal beyond doing whatever he wants, when he wants; he takes and takes and takes (including, but not limited to, an unremarkable coin collection which ultimately results in his downfall), but it’s seemingly never enough. At one point, he likens himself to Robin Hood, except he skips over the whole “give to the poor” part. He’s the type of person who, nowadays, would make a healthy six-figure salary on Wall Street and unironically consider himself an “alpha” or “apex predator,” ferociously encapsulated by a fresh-faced Baldwin’s intense, livewire performance that easily slides from sympathetic to sociopathic, often within the same scene — a tenacity which is only underscored by the blissful naïveté Jennifer Jason Leigh supplies to Susie. She’s the film’s real source of pathos, emotionally grounding some of its more hysterical moments, including a deranged scene where Junior is manically forcing her to sew back on an eyebrow that’s been ripped off after a bizarre car accident at a convenience store.
Enter the real Sgt. Hoke Moseley, played by a wonderfully daffy Fred Ward, who’s actually the central protagonist of Charles Willeford’s twisty, hard-boiled detective series, from which Miami Blues is adapted — Armitage and Ward even had plans to release a slew of Hoke Moseley films after this, all of which fell through. He’s a figure of authority with no real authority; he relies on a slew of eccentric supporting characters — including a blind oracle and a deaf landlord — to solve his most crucial case, and even then he regularly half-asses it. He’s terribly ineffectual at his job — it should be noted that this has to be one of the least glamorous portrayals of police life ever to grace the silver screen, as he sleeps in dingy, dirty apartments and hotel rooms, drives a beat-up Pontiac, and is forced give half of his paycheck to child support — and is seen cracking jokes and slapping backs at the crime scene of the murdered Hare Krishna. Yet, for all that, he’s a decent enough guy who works in a system broken enough that most of this hardly matters much in the grand scheme of things anyway.
More impressively, he’s one of the few characters who’s able to see through Junior’s bullshit: in one key interaction, where Moseley has been invited over for dinner by the young couple after he shows up unannounced for routine questioning, he notices that Junior is hoarding and guarding his food like a convict, so he queries where he did his time. A shirtless Junior disregards the question and claims he adopted this behavior from the foster homes where he was raised (an outright lie); when Hoke points out how Junior’s grip is so strong that he must have picked it up by working out in a prison yard, it conveniently turns out it’s from working years as an aerobics instructor (another lie). Cutting between the three laughing parties during these assertions, and with the aid of DP Tak Fujimoto, who frames each primary in isolated close-ups that effectively suggest their true mental states versus their affected outward presentations, Armitage creates tension from the unease Hoke’s undaunted presence has extracted by simply keeping his wits about him. It’s the only time where Junior is put off-balance, where his baby blues and mad-mugging fail to produce a natural charm; so, naturally, he must then later rob the soon-to-be-disgraced officer of his badge, gun, and manhood (which is manifested in a pair of removable dentures), and leave him for dead.
What follows is a series of off-the-rip vignettes where Junior abuses his newfound power in order to acquire enough material wealth to keep his lover happy (as opposed to before, where he was simply stealing from people by beating the shit out of them), zipping from Miami’s many sunny locales to shady backrooms, often stumbling into each emerging situation by pure luck. He even flat-out solves a case that Hoke has been working on for some time, all while living what former President Ronald Reagan would deem “the American Dream” — “that every man must be free to become whatever God intends he should become” — by any means necessary. It’s here that Armitage bounces between Junior and Hoke’s perspectives, following the two men and shifting tonally between deadpan dark comedy, pedantic procedural, and heightened melodrama by contrasting the two leads in their ostensible journeys of redemption: one who aims only to achieve mediocrity, and another who almost convinces himself that a white picket fence and middle-class lifestyle is his ultimate objective.
But Junior’s end goal is nothing more than a ruthless sham, one he comes to realize has made him “soft” and one that even Susie is able to see through, all after baking him a nasty vinegar pie that he tearfully scarfs down. Moseley, on the other hand, proves his virtuous nature by sincerely reminiscing on how terrible his mother’s cooking was, after “accidentally” bumping into Susie at a supermarket to warn her of impending doom — and to also exchange pork chop recipes. Eventually, Junior’s luck runs out — right about the time when three of his fingers are lobbed off by a machete and Susie peels off with his getaway vehicle — and he is subsequently chased and gunned down by Hoke, who asks Susie immediately after why she’s stayed with such a blatant lunatic for so long. Her response? He ate her meals and never hit her once — which is about as sobering an answer as one can expect given the circumstances, one that respects Susie’s agency where most other screenwriters would have opted for a dumb joke instead.
Of our three leads, only one has “made it” by Miami Blues’ end, and all that “success” really entails is Hoke retaining his lowly civil servant position that barely pays the bills (and reclaiming his chompers, pearly white as ever). Susie, who gave all of her life savings to Junior while believing all of his embellishments, must now start back at square one. As soon as she copped a taste of the good life, it was yanked away from her unwittingly — which Armitage correctly discerns as the real tragedy from the original material, where she played an even more muted role in the ongoing drama. It ends the affair on a note of bittersweet regret, an odd turn after a series of even odder events, but one that feels wholly earned by the screenplay’s varied attention towards its central theme: that no matter how you slice it, the system is rigged against you. She’s left to her own devices, after Hoke decides to let her off the hook — “She’s been through hell. Leave her alone.” — and he then utters an immortal phrase that aptly sums up Armitage’s current attitude towards the Hollywood machine: “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” And the fuck out of there both Hoke Moseley and George Armitage went.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.