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Mystery Date / Pure Luck

August 16,1991

The only thing I remembered about MYSTERY DATE was that Gwar was in it. It’s a once-crazy-night movie where this kid Tom (Ethan Hawke, EXPLORERS) nervously takes out his crush Geena (Teri Polo, BORN TO RIDE) and tries to impress her, and they end up at a place called Club Voltaire during a Gwar show. We briefly get to see them roaring and thrashing and performing a cartoonish decapitation – pretty great choice for the “band that would seem intimidating to these people” scene. (In Keanu’s THE NIGHT BEFORE it was Parliament-Funkadelic.)

What I did not remember is that Tom finds a dead body in his trunk, accidentally kills a cop, and gets in a war with the Chinatown mafia. I thought it was gonna be a normal horny romantic comedy type deal.

Tom is a shy recent high school graduate. Since he looks like Ethan Hawke they don’t try to pass him off as a total nerd – he wears a Los Lobos t-shirt and has posters of The Stranglers, The The, Elvis Costello, UB40, and that Lynda Barry “Poodle with a Mohawk” cartoon, all suggesting he’s, like, a guy who listens to college radio or whatever. But he doesn’t make it clear what other passions he may have, save for this “mystery girl” next door (I think she’s housesitting?) who he spies on through a telescope (unethical). He lives in the shadow of his brother Craig (Brian McNamara, SHORT CIRCUIT), who’s at law school, and his parents’ dog, who they’ve taken out of town for a dog show.

Then Craig shows up at the house out of the blue, looking like yuppie Don Johnson, driving a ’59 DeSoto, trying to inspire his little bro to get what he wants by looking through the neighbor’s garbage (even more unethical) to find out her name and details about her life to use when he calls pretending to be Tom asking her on a date. Tom is horrified by the idea but of course goes along with it when she doesn’t specifically say no.

Craig gives Tom a makeover, tells him a good place to take her, gives him cash, his credit card and an ID. I really believed he was an intense douchebag genuinely trying to be his idea of a good big brother, but we later find out (SPOILER) he’s going to kill a gangster he owes money to and is sending Tom out there as an alibi. In my opinion not a good big brother.

I love Ethan Hawke in just about anything, but most of the time the appeal of his characters (or even his interviews) is a lack of self-consciousness. Think of his characters in BOYHOOD or the BEFORE trilogy – he’ll excitedly unload his thoughts on somebody without a worry in the world about if they’ll think he’s corny or pretentious or whatever. Seeing him play this character who’s so awkward and meek is not as fun, and we have to get through the discomfort of him lying to this woman and her having to continue with the date without seeming like an idiot, even as he acts weirder and weirder. Luckily Polo is very likable, so I want to forgive her not seeing through him right away.

The movie picks up when he finally tells her the truth while being offered a fancy meal at a Chinese restaurant that he has to explain to her is actually an intimidation tactic. B.D. Wong (THE FRESHMAN) plays James Lew – not the martial artist in ACTION JACKSON, BEST OF THE BEST, NIGHT OF THE WARRIOR, etc, but a fictional Tong who thinks Tom is Craig and stole a valuable vase from him. Wong seems to be having a blast, doing a weird voice, sporting a long ponytail and beads, not fitting the stereotype of any type of movie gangster, let alone a Chinese one. I think he should’ve talked and dressed like this in JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM when his JURASSIC PARK character inexplicably became a mad scientist.

Mrs. Vern thought she spotted a Washington license plate, so we were wondering if this was supposed to take place in Seattle. I don’t think so, there’s no indication of it. But I was excited to notice a scene at a payphone in front of the Ovaltine Cafe, a diner in Vancouver, BC that I know of because it was in the 2000 remake of GET CARTER (which does take place in Seattle). Anyway I now have a goal of going to the Ovaltine Cafe. Maybe get Veggie Eggs Benedict.

There is a partial but not complete hipness to the movie. Director Jonathan Wacks was a producer of REPO MAN and directed POWWOW HIGHWAY. Cinematographer Oliver Wood had shot ALPHABET CITY (plus DIE HARD 2 and BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY). Editor Tina Hirsch had cut DEATH RACE 2000 and MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI. The opening credits (title designer: Robert Dawson, REPO MAN, RE-ANIMATOR, POINT BREAK) have unexpectedly cool typography reminiscent of album covers of the era. The Gwar cameo was surprising for a mainstream movie at the time, and they make a point of putting Fisher Stevens (as a florist who stalks Tom because Craig didn’t tip him?) in a Jane’s Addiction t-shirt for the whole movie (remember, they had just launched the first Lollapalooza tour). There’s a Sonic Youth song on the soundtrack.

On the other hand two of the most prominently featured songs are “Crazy” by Seal and a song called “Lily Was Here” by David A. Stewart that officially introduced saxophonist Candy Dulfer. I know she’s talented and I saw her play with Prince and everything but she was straight up smooth jazz at this point. I’m not judging anybody’s lifestyles, you should live as Sealful or as smoothly as your heart demands, I’m just saying those are the opposite of the early ’90s idea of cool that the movie otherwise seems to be going for. (I will abstain from judging the three INXS songs.)

MYSTERY DATE was the only new movie that week, but it opened at #8. I don’t think it made back its budget. I don’t think this movie entirely works, but at least it surprised me, made me laugh a few times, and gave me new respect for B.D. Wong.

One of the movies that did better than MYSTERY DATE was PURE LUCK, which was in its second week. I don’t think I had seen this one before, and although some of it is broader than I like, I mostly thought it was pretty funny. It’s part of the weird phenomenon of American remakes of the films of French writer/director Francis Veber. His movies had already been remade as BUDDY BUDDY, THE TOY, THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE and THREE FUGITIVES, and later THE BIRDCAGE, FATHER’S DAY, DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS and THE VALET would be added to the list.

This one has a pretty great premise: Valerie Highsmith (Sheila Kelley, SOAPDISH), the accident prone daughter of a rich businessman (Sam Wanamaker, RAW DEAL, portrayed in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD) goes missing after a series of ridiculous events leave her with amnesia while vacationing in Puerto Vallarta. After months without a lead, a psychologist (Harry Shearer, a few seasons into The Simpsons) working for the elder Highsmith offers a theory that Valerie suffers from a syndrome of terrible bad luck, and that the only way to recreate the series of fuckups that led to her disappearance would be to send another person with the same syndrome to try to find her. And he knows just the guy: a lowly accountant for the company named Eugene Proctor (Martin Short, THREE AMIGOS, THREE FUGITIVES). He proves his case by breaking off the leg of one chair at a long board room table, calling in Eugene and asking him to sit down. He of course goes right to the broken chair and falls on his ass, and then is dismissed.

So poor private investigator Raymond Campanella (Danny Glover, A RAGE IN HARLEM) is saddled with journeying to Mexico with Eugene, who is under the impression that he has been chosen for his intellect. And there are various mishaps with broken down cars, quicksand, Jeeps falling off cliffs, gun fights, etc. Not all of this is funny, but Short and Glover are both excellent in the roles, and I find it really funny to see Glover glowering in white hot frustration as Short smiles amiably and keeps not quite understanding the situation. It drives Raymond fucking crazy that Eugene could have every single possible thing go wrong, but Eugene seems to barely notice or be bothered by it.

We knew before all of this that Valerie had been knocked over by a car and picked up by a stranger named Frank Grimes (Scott Wilson, MALONE) who realized she was from a rich family and thought he could get some money from the situation. We later learn that the reason he never asked for a ransom is that her clumsiness caused so many accidents and injuries that he just couldn’t afford to continue holding her hostage. Later Eugene’s own bad luck puts him in a hospital with a horribly injured man still terrified of the gringo lady who burned down his entire village by trying to cook them breakfast. Hmm.

I think the only thing I knew about this, because it must’ve been heavily featured in the advertising, is a scene where Eugene is stung by a bee and his allergies puff him up to ridiculous proportions. It’s amusing enough but one of my favorite parts is actually the beginning of that scene. Raymond and Eugene are about to be taken up in a small plane to look for Valerie from above, and Raymond of course has reason to believe the plane will crash. Eugene notices that he seems freaked out, asks him if he’s okay, and they end up agreeing that Raymond will stay at the hotel while Eugene goes up in the plane. Yeah, no problem, happy to do it.

So Raymond thanks him and next thing you know he’s hugging him, saying emotional things under the belief he’s sending him off to his death, and Eugene laughs because he has no idea why he would act this way. See, the funniest parts are complicated situations like this. It’s easier just to show Short in the goofy makeup.

PURE LUCK fits into Sarah Connor Summer only in that it is directed by a woman. Nadia Tass is an Australian director who had previously done MALCOLM, RIKKY AND PETE and THE BIG STEAL. In a later interview quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page she laments that the producers (who include STEEL DAWN director Lance Hool) wanted her to make the comedy broad to appeal to American audiences. She says that she and Glover “would like to have put a lot more pathos and paint into it,” whatever that means. As is, she says, it only appeals to Americans and Germans. As an American with some German ancestry I feel like I should like it better then, but I got some laughs out of it.


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15 Responses to “Mystery Date / Pure Luck”

  1. As a German with British ancestry, I remember laughing my ass off at PURE LUCK, but that was over 20 years ago.

  2. Is Mystery Date based on the board game? Is it in the Milton Bradley Cinematic Universe (MBCU) along with Battleship?

    B.D. Wong played some terrific villains in the pretty-good show Mr. Robot and the pretty-but-not-great show Gotham.

  3. It can’t be just a coincidence that Frank Grimes from The Simpsons suffers some of the worst luck in the world, all the while bemoaning the fact that Homer seems to have the best luck in the world, but my exhaustive two minute Internet search just now did not confirm that The Simpsons named Grimey after a Pure Luck character.

  4. I remember liking MYSTERY DATE when it came out, but haven’t seen it since and don’t remember much about it. I have a soft spot for One Crazy Night movies, though. Or just any movie that is contained either to a single location and/or a fixed moment in time. It’s funny, Vern, that you think of Ethan Hawke as more of the confident characters he plays, because my default Hawke is his role in DEAD POETS SOCIETY, which is very much the opposite. I then go to the Ultimate Fuckboy of REALITY BITES.

    I’ve never seen PURE LUCK, but I’m taken with this idea of someone so unlucky and yet so good spirited. As if they don’t realize that life should be any other way, so it doesn’t get them down.

  5. I remember both of these, saw them both in theaters. I still remembered “look in pot” from Mystery Date to this day but forgot the context til I watched it again on HBO Max. I wouldn’t be familiar with GWAR until Beavis and Butthead watched their videos though.

    I only remember Pure Luck as being one of the “fine” Martin Short vehicles. I seem to remember Captain Ron more fondly and of course the sheer insanity of Clifford is more memorable.

  6. I was sure PARTNERS, with Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt, was a remake of a French movie made by Veber, but on checking it looks like he wrote that one specially for Hollywood.

    Veber has had an impressive career strip-mining that mismatched buddy idea, and much of his comedy really is pretty broad. In the end I think it comes down to the playing. My kids adored TAIS-TOI! when they were young – it may be the first subtitled movie that worked for them – but I think it only really works because of Jean Reno and Gerard Depardieu. Similarly, I have a soft spot for THREE FUGITIVES because it turns out Nick Nolte plays comedy exactly like he plays everything else. He should’ve done more comedy (growling at Eddie Murphy doesn’t count); DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS – another remake of a French movie – works for pretty much the same reason. So I think Veber got really lucky with his early movies in getting Pierre Richard and Gerard Depardieu. Depardieu has put in a lot of work in recent years trying to obscure just how brilliant he is, and I don’t care to go there now, but Pierre Richard, who played the Martin Short part in LA CHÈVRE, on which PURE LUCK is based, is a truly great comic actor who deserves to be at least as well known as Roberto Benigni.

  7. It seems indeed that Pierre Richard is a bit forgotten among those who were born in the 90s and later (and outside of France), but he seemed to have an “old man character actor” career resurgence in recent years. At least a bunch of his newer movies actually came out over here too and they seemed to be more of the quiet “charming old man falls in love” kind of thing (Which I don’t have a problem with.) and were well liked by critics.

    Also it’s odd that he never made a Hollywood movie. Not even the random bit part in an international co-production at the height of his fame. I guess he doesn’t speak English and didn’t want to learn it?

  8. Roberto Benigni and Pierre Richard! Now we’re on my turf. Norwegian cinema and video rental stores were always big on French, Italian and English movies in the 70s and 80s. So much that Pierre Richard attended the premieres of his movies here a couple of times. Veber and Richard were a great team, together or with Depardieu, and no one, not even Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Martin Short or Nick Nolte managed to give the same life to the remakes as the originals had. I love OUT ON A LIMB, though, but Veber was just a hired gun on that one.

    And Benigni, well, I can never resist to plug THE LITTLE DEVIL, one of the funniest movies ever made.

  9. I have to say that I don’t think Pierre Richard was ever big in Britain. The Veber-Richard movies I saw in the ’80s were on late night TV and, I think, dubbed. Or stumbled across in video stores piled up with the Hill & Spencer movies – those “crazy, foreign comedies” no one could pretend were arthouse!

  10. Big would be an overstatement. But when you look at how successfull comics like Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Rowan Atkinson have been “borrowing” bits and pieces from people like Jacques Tati, Louis De Funes and Pierre Richard there’s no doubt that they have been eagerly watched by someone in your neck of the wood.

    As for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I bet they saw a lot of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movies before they made WORLD’S END.

    “Where are you going with this, pegsman” I hear you say. Nowhere, just shining a light on some big names that almost never gets mentioned.

  11. I saw Pure Luck on a church youth group trip to the movies, along with the last 30 minutes or so of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves because that was what most of the group went to see and it was way longer. I haven’t seen either movie since then, but I still feel like I made the right choice.

  12. pegsman- Jacque Tati seems to be very well known and fondly remembered by Brits around my mum’s age, which is also about Rowan Atkinson’s age, who has never denied the influence and has a somewhat famous story from his school days about writing that he wanted to grow up to “be” Tati. But I must confess I don’t believe I’ve ever heard either De Funes or Richard mentioned in public.

  13. This was an unusually comedy heavy summer retrospective, but one that must not’ve fit the paradigm was Delirious starring John Candy. Always liked that one but don’t think it made much impact that year either.

  14. Pac, MR. BEAN’S HOLIDAY was pure Tati, but some of the ideas in the Bean TV series comes from De Funes.

  15. Fred, I loved DELIRIOUS. It was a perfect vehicle for Candy, and even at eleven the name Dylan Baker was etched in my brain because of his incredible, insane performance.

    And I always loved PURE LUCK for Short’s perfectly lived-in role as a guy who’s had such spectacularly bad luck for his entire life that he just takes it all in stride. And, of course, Glover’s incandescent rage at suddenly having to put up with it. SUCH a fun movie, and the last shot is an all-timer in my book.

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