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Normal Life


I think NORMAL LIFE is a good movie, but I’d sympathize with somebody for hating it. It’s a true crime story about a husband and wife bankrobbing team, but mostly it’s about their fucked up relationship, and it’s like it drags you into the whole mess when you watch it. It’s about as pleasant and fun as you’d expect from the director of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER if you didn’t know he’d go on to direct WILD THINGS.

mp_normallifeLuke Perry plays Chris Anderson, who first meets Pam (Ashley Judd) in a bar when he’s a rookie cop and she’s in the middle of a screaming breakup with a boyfriend. Buddy, you gotta learn to read these signs. They’re there to give you direction, but they’re useless if you ignore them. This movie illustrates better than just about anything that just being hot isn’t enough. Pam is pretty much the worst, most manic girlfriend on record. One of the few times she’s at peace is laying looking at the stars and talking about her obsession with black holes. But then Chris laughs, “Man, you are so crazy!” and two seconds later she’s bawling and making a mad dash for the Jeep to try to run him over, like he pulled a knife on her or something. My friends, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life on a floor made of eggshells. Don’t be a Chris Anderson.

You can’t even say he likes her for the sex. She just lays there emotionlessly and when he tells her he wants her to cum too she yells at him like he’s some abuser. But of course he’s convinced he loves her and he wants to save her, so what does he do? He marries her. Okay, yeah. I don’t see how that could backfire. Problem solved.

Well, let’s just say being recognized as a couple by the state doesn’t turn them into the Huxtables. They fight over money. He finds her naked cutting herself with a knife. When he’s not home she tends to spend her time laying around in her underwear lustily fondling a gun. That kind of stuff. When his parents come to visit she won’t talk to them and then locks herself in the bathroom listening to loud music on headphones and screaming. He gets fired for not going along with the corrupt cop culture, comes home and she made dinner only for herself, and doesn’t seem to understand why this bothers him. She shows up late to his dad’s funeral wearing a Walkman and rollerblades. I’ll say it again: nothing’s worth this shit. It’s great if somebody wants to take care of somebody who has problems, but I recommend volunteering at a soup kitchen or joining some big brother program where you bring mentally challenged kids to a basketball game or something like that. It’s better for your soul, not to mention your life expectancy.

But there must be some way to make her happy and peaceful. Hey, I know – buy her a puppy! That’ll fix her! She names him “Chaos.”

Judd is so convincing as this crazy bitch that I’m still scared of her today. And I like that they don’t waste your time with a backstory of how she got so screwed up. In fact they don’t spend much time showing her using drugs, they just show the results. And Chris keeps trying to remain calm and be there for her. And you want him to turn around and run.

Then the movie switches gears dramatically when he decides to get out of debt by robbing banks. Until now you kind of felt sorry for the poor sucker, but now you realize okay, the reason he likes this psycho is because he’s worse than she is. The first robbery sequence is brilliantly intercut with Pam talking to her therapy group in rehab. Pam seems sane for one of the first times in the movie and talks about how lucky she is to have Chris because “he’s my rock.” Cut to him putting on a bulletproof vest and fake beard. Nope, she’s probly not gonna be able to straighten her life out, is what the montage tells us.

When Pam finds out about the robberies and goes with him for the first time it’s pretty funny. She’s standing there with her unconvincing wig and sunglasses and the smile on her face is priceless. She loves this shit. As they’re leaving she sprays the ceiling with bullets for extra style points.

So of course when he has enough money to leave it behind and own a used bookstore she disapproves. A dog named Chaos is not enough, she needs the real thing. “Normal life” scares the shit out of her.

Of course, this doesn’t end well (SPOILER) and it has a very realistic feel to it. There’s a great police chase that avoids feeling like Hollywood bullshit, with guns popping instead of banging. I tried to look up the true story this is based on and I couldn’t find anything real detailed, but I wasn’t surprised to find out that the messy violence in the end was all pretty much how it really went down. Maybe that’s why this whole thing feels so morbid, it’s adapted from reality.

Judd is perfectly horrible, this is a really good performance. And I think Perry is good too, although it’s hard to mentally separate the poor guy from that TV show he was on. He plays a similar brooding character but with a mustache, because he’s a cop. Because of his career it’s easy to think of as stunt casting, but I think he does well, it works, even with a little bit of 90210 distraction.

There aren’t many other actors with much screen time, but I like Tom Towles’s appearance as his dad, who coughs through the whole wedding and looks like he’s about to have a massive heart attack. It seems at first like it’s because he knows what a mistake his son is making, but actually I guess he’s just really sick.

Man, whatever happened to John McNaughton? I guess he just does TV now, but I bet he has more good movies in him. This one was made for cable, but it’s better than alot of theatrical movies, fitting really well in the “true crime with the names changed but you know who I’m talking about” mold of HENRY.

When this came out there were complaints from two sides of the story – the family of Jill Erickson, who said the character of Pam was not an accurate portrayal, and the family of a prison guard killed by Jim Erickson in his escape, who rightfully didn’t want to see that asshole glorified. Maybe there’s something sick about wanting to watch these types of stories, but I can’t deny my fascination with them. Sometimes crazy shit goes down, and you think “how the fuck did that happen?” and you can’t help but want to know more of the story. (This one I guess was so interesting it not only got a John McNaughton movie but also a network TV movie starring Bruce Campbell and Lori Laughlin.)

Anyway, it’s good to see that McNaughton lightened up a couple years later and made the dark but hilarious WILD THINGS. But if you’re willing to submerge yourself in the muck this is a good one too.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 4th, 2010 at 3:02 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Normal Life”

  1. Good Review, I haven’t seen this movie in years but I do remember everything that happened at the Federal building and the shootout beforehand. I won’t really get into the details in case someone goes out to find the movie but what happened seems like something a movie writer would have come up with. Jeffrey Erickson was one crazy SOB but he probably could have gotten away with the robberies if they weren’t so greedy. McNaughton is from the Chicago area but I’m not sure if the writers actually spoke with their families when they wrote this movie or if most of it is purely speculation.

  2. “true crime with the names changed but you know who I’m talking about” should be a tag.

  3. It’s a shame what happened to Ashley Judd. She was a pretty good actress for a while – she was really good in a small part as another nasty bitch in Smoke – but then she did nothing but those bland glossy thrillers. Maybe it was Michael Bolton’s fault somehow – his way of getting back at her for making him cut his hair.

  4. Well, to be fair to Ashley Juddy, she’s got other interests besides acting. I’ve seen her around Cambridge MA a few times recently where she’s currently studying policy and government at Harvard. And post “Silence Of The Lambs rip-off” period she was really good in Frida, Bug, and De-Lovely.

  5. Jareth Cutestory

    January 4th, 2010 at 9:14 am

    I think that the only time I saw Luke Perry in a vehicle that didn’t remind me of 90210 was when he did that HBO show JOHN FROM CINCINNATI. But of course the character on that show was so similar to his 90210 character, you’d be excused for mistakenly thinking that 90210 got really good in its 11th season. Like Christian Slater, I can never tell if Perry, given his limitations, is lucky to have a career, or unlucky to have not found that one vehicle that would capitalize on his particular talent, like Keanu Reeves did with THE MATRIX.

    Still, I’d have to say that Perry’s doing better for himself than those two former co-stars of his that ended up playing themselves in DOMINO. That was a sad day for everyone.

  6. Brian Austin Green is fucking Megan Fox so he’s probably one upped Luke Perry.

  7. Yeah, but Lawrence, the poor fucker also has to listen to her dinner conversation. I’m not envious.

  8. Yeah, how do you escape something like 90210? Is it because they stayed on the show too long to not be mostly associated with it, or if they were good enough could they reinvent themselves in our minds? Nobody associates Johnny Depp with 21 Jump Street anymore, and it may be because he’s an incredible talent who wasn’t put to his full use on that show, but it also didn’t last years and years like 90210. Nobody thinks of Bruce Willis from Moonlighting, but that was more adult and respected. I don’t know, it’s a weird thing.

  9. I think it has something to do with 90210 being a show that only teen girls liked. So Perry had both the “He was on a hit TV show for years and I can’t picture him playing other characters” thing AND the “He’s just a prettyboy that my little sister likes” thing to get over. Considering he’s not all that great an actor to begin with it’s not surprising he never recovered.

  10. One Guy From Andromeda

    January 4th, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Another fine and completely overlooked performance in a great little known movie by a guy unable to shake his 90210 roots is Jason Priestley’s turn in Coldblooded. Thought i’d throw that in here…

  11. Luke Perry was in that bullriding movie, 8 Seconds. I haven’t seen it in forever but I remember liking it quite a bit.

    As for Ashley Judd, she was in a movie (I think it’s called, Eye of The Beholder) with Ewan McGregor. Yeah, she get’s naked in it so that there is worth checking it out. I can’t vouch for the rest of the movie though. She was also in Heat and as far as I’m concerned anyone involved in that movie gets a free pass for life. (A pass that Jon Voight has been taking advantage of ever since)

  12. I remember watching this back when it premiered on HBO in ’96. I liked it a lot but I was left thinking that maybe it’d work better if they didn’t pull that “let’s show the climax first and then flash back to the beginning” move. It would’ve been more of a trip to watch if you had no idea where the story was headed, but then, that idea is null and void the moment you look at the DVD cover or read the description, so never mind.

    I’ll second Andromeda’s call on COLDBLOODED. It’s as dry and dark a comedy as you’ll ever see, definitely not for all tastes but if you’re tuned into its sense of humor, there’s much to enjoy there.

  13. Judd was amazing in Bug. That can’t be stressed enough.

  14. Wow! This review brought me back. I watched this on HBO when I was a youngster, which was a big deal since we didn’t get HBO in Canada at the time (nor would my parents have paid for it). I was on vacation or something. I still remember a good deal of the movie. I understood Luke Perry’s pain man, my 12 year old self was also hot for Ashley Judd.

  15. Jareth Cutestory

    January 4th, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Vern, I’d guess that the 90210 role stuck with Luke Perry because he best exemplified the observation that the “kids” on the show were played by much older actors. It is a bit of a stretch to think of him as a teenager. Even when he was young he looked old.

    His face will work in his favor years from now when he’s given a role that suits his face. Hopefully it will be a quiet badass role. I think he could pull that off.

    At the other end of the spectrum, we remember Fred Savage for one role because he played a kid so well. He has Leave It To Beaver syndrome. We won’t let him grow up, even when he plays a psycho on Law & Order. He needs to follow Ron Howard’s path and get into directing or something.

    On a side note, I read somewhere that one of those men’s magazines did a poll of which child star they most want to see naked now that they’re grown up. Winnie from The Wonder Years won.

    I feel kind of dirty for writing that.

  16. Nice review of an overlooked gem. Naomi Judd’s performance definately made a lasting impression on me when I first saw it, but I really think all of you guys are selling Mr. Perry more than a bit short. If anything, his turn in this disspossessed me of all of my 90210 presumptions and prejudices. Judd gave awesome crazy, but crazy is all she had to give. Perry played the average joe straightman, with the slightest pinch of superiority complex, liberal dashes of naive earnestness and sincerity, passionate desperation, cool calculating sociopath type criminal fury, and finally “off the reservation” homicidal/suicidal abandon. He played all those notes to a tee and was relatable and sympathetic throughout. This to me is one of those films that makes clear beyond all doubt that an actor (or ‘ess) is only as good as their material. Given more material like this, I’d put Mr. Perry in league with Johnny Depp any day of the week.

  17. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000625/

    Scroll down.

    Speaking of child actors, did anyone else know that Peter Billingsley was an executive producer on Iron Man? So I guess he’s doing okay. What a relief!

  18. Well, looks like “Savage” Fred Savage is doing well as a TV director, although he probly stays up late furiously washing his hands like Lady Macbeth over DADDY DAY CAMP. I was gonna ask, Jareth, did you ever see that movie THE RULES OF ATTRACTION? It has a hilarious/shocking cameo by Savage and also stars the dude from Dawson Creek as a crazy asshole (and brother of Patrick Bateman I believe).

  19. Holy shit, I didn’t notice that cameo when I saw Rules of Attraction (I blame Clifton Collins). Man, which out of the spotlight star is left to play against their image?

  20. Winnie from the Wonder Years ended up being incredibly sexy. So did Punky Brewster. And the chick from the Cosby Show that married Lenny Kravitz.

  21. Jareth Cutestory

    January 5th, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Vern: I’ll be sure to add RULES OF ATTRACTION to my list of Films I Probably Should Have Seen By Now. I know the film you’re talking about; I was put off by the superlatives that were getting thrown around about the film on AICN. Maybe I’ll also get around to seeing what the big deal is with Doogie Howser in those WHITE CASTLE movies.

    By the way, Vern, that Lady Macbeth comparison is a thing of beauty: “Out, out damn Gooding Jr.” It’s the best acting Fred Savage ever did, and it’s only a figment planted by you in my imagination. Well done.

    I also have a list of FIlms I Should Know Better Than To Watch. ECKS VS SEVER is on that list.

    dieselboy: For better or worse, former Cosby girl Lisa Bonet could teach all child actors how to radically reinvent yourself as a public persona, if not an actual actor. Whatever the end result, that role she took in ANGEL HEART pretty much dropped a bomb on the media.

    Maybe Luke Perry should have got naked and bloody when the there was still a climate for it to have produced a scandal.

  22. Jareth, let me tell you in all seriousness that the HAROLD AND KUMAR films are the best and most nuanced examinations of race in America yet put to celluloid. Watch them immediately.


    Carrot Top does a guest commentary for Rules of Attraction.

    There’s also a part where Dawson Van Der Beek answers the phone with someone breathing on the other end and says something to the effect of, “Patrick, is that you?”

  24. mr Subtlety; I agree with the harold and kumar thing. Actually I am glad that somebody else noticed it too. Being an immigrant (in Europe) I was struck the first time I saw the White Castle one. Most Hollywood production suffer from trying to be wiser than they are. This was one of the few that was genuinely deep while pretending to be dumb.

  25. Man, I always had a thing for Ashley Judd, but this film damn near erased it. Love McNaughton’s work, and I seem to remember he shot this after one of his stints on Homicide: Life on the Street, and that it even shares some crew with that, specifically DoP Jean de Segonzac, who has gone on to do Mimic sequels and other interesting DTVs. I thought it was an effective stylistic choice, tell a true-crime feature in the style of Homicide, and it definitely worked for me. Good film.

  26. Wait… …there are “Mimic” sequels!?

    Clearly I don’t go to the video store enough anymore! (You called them “interesting” Hugh; are they in fact any good? I loved the original film, its usual Hollywood-magic-evolution plotline notwithstanding. My mind is kind of boggling that the DTV sequels might be even good enough to be “interesting”…)

  27. I watched this movie when it came out on cable just for an Ashley Judd nudie movie. I did appreciate that (when she wasn’t cutting herself) but was really moved by the despair of her situation. This was when I was in college, before I became a grown-up and actually saw these type of people for real. This was the movie that made me love Ashley Judd, until she was mean to me.

  28. You sure get some weird spambots here, Vern.

  29. John McMotherfuckinHENRY Naughton has come out with a new movie called THE HARVEST and I’ve seen it and I liked it a lot and I would recommend it to you Vern and all you other nice people. Michael Shannon, Peter Fonda and Samantha Morton round it out. I can’t really talk about it without spoilerizing the plot, but suffice to say it’s somewhat similar to McNaughton’s NORMAL LIFE in that it’s a slower burn plot that focuses on an incredibly fucked up married couple, as they look after their dying bed-ridden son, but with some truly disturbing elements.

    McNaughton doesn’t do much these days, but when he does, it’s almost always interesting and worth a look in my opinion.

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