After Hours (1985) — Not your regular Scorsese film

Marcy definitely has no distinguishing burn scars.

Flinthart’s review: I saw After Hours at the cinema when it came out, back in the day. (Yeah. I’m old.) It perplexed hell out of me, but it left an impression and I always intended to see it again, somehow, someday.

Today’s the day. I fired up a copy of the movie, sat down with the Mau-Mau (my daughter) and cracked a bottle of way-too-sweet riesling. Sure enough, the film is just as perplexing, just as disturbing, but with almost 40 years of perspective on it… yeah. This is a good film. Don’t take my word for it, though. Turns out it pulled a bunch of nominations and awards for Scorsese and various cast members at Cannes and elsewhere. But… wow, eh?

This is not your regular Scorsese film.

It’s easy to nutshell the plot: Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne, who you last saw playing a rotting ghost in An American Werewolf in London) is a data entry guy in a Madison Avenue company in New York who’s training up new hire Lloyd (Bronson Pinchot, before got famous for camping it up as Balki in Perfect Strangers). It’s a bland, corporate job and Hackett knows it. At a café, he meets Marcy (Rosanne Arquette) and gets her number. On the pretext of buying sculptures from Marcy’s sculptor flatmate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), Hackett calls Marcy and gets an invite to her SoHo residence.

And then it all goes wrong. So very wrong — and pretty soon, all poor Paul wants to do is get home again, except.. well, it’s after hours, isn’t it?

On the way to Marcy’s, Paul’s money blows out the window of the cab, leaving him unable to pay the cabbie with his remaining 97 cents. The meeting with Marcy goes poorly. It becomes apparent that Marcy has a hell of a lot of baggage, and may well be carrying horribly disfiguring burn scars. Stressed, Paul bails. But he can’t get home because subway fares have gone up at midnight, leaving him 53 cents short. Meanwhile, a couple of burglars (Neil and Pepe, one of whom is played by Cheech Marin — probably Pepe, I guess!) are ripping off the neighbourhood, and people are increasingly suspicious of strangers in the area.

The comedy of errors continues, ratcheting up as Paul discovers that Marcy committed suicide by sleeping tablet in the aftermath of his tactless exit (and most definitely does not have disfiguring burn scars!) then accidentally runs afoul of desperate cocktail waitress Julie (Teri Garr) who fastens onto him like an emotional leech and swears vengeance when he (very sensibly) flees her clutches.

One small disaster leads to another, and another, and another. Paul barely escapes a brutal attempt at giving him a mohawk in an underground nightclub, and then is fingered as the local burglar by the angry Julie, which leads to him almost getting into a gay hookup and then being pursued by a vigilante mob led by yet another strange woman (pretty much all the female characters in this film are weirder than a sackful of badgers on acid) who drives a Mister Softee Ice Cream truck. Eventually Paul is disguised as a plaster sculpture (by still another weird woman) to save him from the mob, but the ‘sculpture’ is stolen by Neil and Pepe (and there’s actually a good reason for this!) which leads to our hero falling out the back of the burglars’ van right in front of his place of work, just as the doors are opening for the day…

It’s thin stuff, held together by a web of coincidence and circumstance — but Scorsese is Scorsese, and the direction and the film-making in general are top-notch. Scorsese creates a sense of dislocation, and a rising tension which far exceeds the apparent stakes of the story. As Paul ventures deeper and deeper into the night-lands of the city, it becomes clear that he’s fallen out of his own story and into a realm where he simply doesn’t fit. As diner waiter Pete (perennial character actor Dick Miller) says: “Different rules apply this late, know what I mean? It’s like… uh, after hours.”

And that’s what makes it really interesting. After Hours is a very different take on the Hero’s Journey (Campbell’s monomyth,The Hero With A Thousand Faces). Hackett does not — as classic heroes are supposed to do — refuse the initial call to action. Nope: At the first hint of interest from Marcy, he takes the opportunity to plunge into the night realm, the other world. Yet unlike Campbell’s Hero, Hackett is utterly, totally unprepared for that other world of adventure. He does not overcome obstacles; in fact, the obstacles, united by a web of unfortunate coincidence, come extremely close to overcoming him. And when he finally returns to his regular world, it is not in triumph, bearing wisdom. Paul barely escapes the night realm, rejected and ejected from the lands of adventure, and the only wisdom he gains is the certain knowledge that he is utterly incapable of understanding that realm, let alone conquering it.

This is the message of the film, if there is one: It’s one thing to hear the call of adventure, and entirely another to fulfil it.

Now, all that stuff about Joseph Campbell and the monomyth and the rest — that’s educated, writerly observation and if you don’t happen to lean that way, you might suspect this film of being dull. But it most certainly is not. Worst comes to worst, you can amuse yourself just spotting the string of big-name actors appearing early in their careers. The steady flow of peculiar, eccentric, even crazy night-people provides plenty of entertainment, while Griffin Dunne’s increasingly anxious, frightened and harassed turn as everyman Hackett is sympathetic and convincing.

Meanwhile, the streak of black humour that runs through the film provokes uneasy but genuine laughter often enough to remind you that yes, this is meant to be a comedy. A Scorsese comedy, if you can wrap your head around that. And if you can’t, so much the better, for the odd, paradoxical nature of the film is at once its greatest charm and its most disturbing attiibute. Watching it, ultimately, we’re left — like Paul — with the unnerving feeling that the world we know is just a veneer, a thin shell covering a much darker, much stranger and more surreal reality which is altogether too easy to find should one take a wrong turn… after hours.

Didja notice?

  • Watch for: the beardy guy operating a searchlight in the underground nightclub (Club Berlin). That’s Martin Scorsese. Yeah. Bit of a sad cameo, but there you go.

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