Street Smart (dir. Jerry Schatzberg, 1987)
“But you don’t love me, that’s news to me” – Foxygen
So, the Super Bowl is this Sunday and while I don’t really have a dog in the fight (bad analogy I know given…), it did make me realize that this post does have some connection to the big game. Way back in 2000 a commercial aired during the game that I can still remember. It featured a somber monologue about the future and an incredible image of Christopher Reeve walking upright. In case you forgot, Christopher Reeve, most well known for playing Superman, had been paralyzed since 1995 from a horse riding accident. The commercial was pure wish fulfillment. But it got me thinking about Reeve’s work outside the Superman canon. He was a Julliard trained actor who starred in a number of memorable films, including Remains of the Day, Village of the Damned, and one he personally fought to get made, Street Smart.
Street Smart is a late 80’s NYC thriller about Jonathan Fisher (Christopher Reeve), a young reporter assigned to write a magazine article on a Times Square pimp. After spending a few nights trying to track down an interesting lead, Fisher decides it would be easier to simply make up a story. Meanwhile, an actual street pimp named Fast Black (Morgan Freeman) accidentally kills a “John” and is put on trial for murder. Fisher’s article is a huge hit and the investigator in the murder case decides that the subject of Fisher’s piece must actually be Fast Black. The film then follows Fisher as he tries to keep the cover on his fake story and appease Fast Black who wants to use the story as an out in the murder trial.
Let it be said that on paper the plot sounds riveting. I was expecting a taught , gritty street drama. And yes, there are moments that capture the ugly world of New York in the 80s. Train cars covered in graffiti, casual stabbings, whatever. But this grim world is woven together with these weird Ferris Bueller-esque comedic hijinks. Summed up in one particularly bizarre scene: It’s a high society party where Fisher takes Fast Black and one of his hookers as guests of honor (after the article becomes a sensation Fisher uses Fast Black to cover his ass). Anyway, when Black and his girl arrive at the mansion we’re treated to a lot of shots of older white people looking scandalized, spitting up their drinks, doing double takes. Fast Black and his girl spend the party making inappropriate sexual innuendos with the guests. There’s even a shot of an older Monopoly type character ogling the hookers legs. The scene completely undermines the true to life tone that Street Smart hopes to achieve.
And this intended tone isn’t helped by a supremely dated score. I ran into the same problem when re-watching Planes, Trains, and Automobiles recently. Both films use this very overbearing, sparkly, synthesizer. It immediately takes you back 30 years. But not in a pleasant, “remember the good ol’ days kind of way” more in an “I can see that humanity actually has matured” kind of way. And unfortunately Street Smart goes one step further by blending these blip-blorp robotic love sounds with the trumpet of Miles Davis. Seriously.
However, Street Smart should get credit for presenting Fisher as a sharp, resourceful guy. He rarely makes any mistakes on his own in the film. All of his issues tend to come from mitigating circumstances. Often in a film like this the plot depends on mistakes made by the protagonist, so it was refreshing to see a film where Fisher does almost everything right, and in fact uses his wit to get out of tough situations. Reeve doesn’t play a victim. He holds his own against the seedy worlds of Law and the Street.
Morgan Freeman also gives an interesting performance in the film. He totally captures the emotional extremes of a man whose work involves selling humans to other humans for sex. Perhaps the most effective moment comes when Freeman casually starts shooting hoops with neighborhood kids. It’s all fun at first, but when Freeman’s shot is blocked by a teenager he suddenly throws the teen against a wall and threatens to kill him on the spot. It’s a brutal switch in character. And you can see why the role earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
But a film like Street Smart suffers because as much as I tried, I couldn’t divorce the young Morgan Freeman I saw screen threatening to gouge out a woman’s eye, from the genteel old man in shit like The Bucket List. When Morgan Freeman tells Reeve that he’s gonna cut his face, I couldn’t help but hear the voice from March of The Penguins. And that’s a bummer right? It’s too bad that all these excellent actors, who were so raw in their early years, eventually settle down to do middling comedies and geriatric crowd pleasers. I’m think of Robert Deniro going from Taxi Driver to Meet the Fockes, or Dustin Hoffman going from The Graduate to Meet the Fockers, or Barbara Streisand going from The Way We Were to…Meet the Fockers. Basically anyone involved in Meet the Fockers.
The film is competently directed by Jerry Schatzberg. Schatzberg started as a magazine photographer and took the semi-iconic photo of Bob Dylan that graces the cover of Blonde on Blonde (cools side note: The blurry image of Dylan was interpreted to mean that he was on heavy drugs during the recording, however Schatzberg explained that the photo was taken on an extremely cold day and they were both just shivering). In film, Schatzberg is primarily known for his work with Al Pacino in the early seventies (Scarecrow and Panic at Needle Park). But you can see by the late 80’s he was kind of phoning it in.
In conclusion, Street Smart is a just okay film. It suffers from abrupt tonal shifts and just a general lack of…grip. You watch it. You get it. It’s over. It wasn’t the lost Reeve classic I hoped for… so I guess I’ll just remember Christopher Reeve this way.
– Fast Black’s kitchen is painted the same awful teal color as my current kitchen. Landlords above 110th street must be contractually obligated to paint their apartment kitchens with summer beach colors. Odd.
– For some inexplicable reason the filmmakers in the 80’s felt the need to rehabilitate the image of sex workers. The actress Kathy Parker plays a prostitute in the mode of Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman, you know the hooker with the heart of gold bit. Street Smart along with films like Risky Business, Trading Places, Pretty Woman, even American Gigolo to some degree, all attempt try to redefine the prostitute as this charming, understanding love interest.
– Reeve’s voice sounds almost exactly the same as Robert Redford’s. If you close your eyes I dare you to try and tell them apart.
– I was trying to place Kathy Parker (one of the prostitutes) throughout the film. Where had I seen her? Then, thanks to the healing powers of the internet, I discovered she played the flirtatious neighbor in Edward Scissorhands. The one who tries to sleep with Edward after he gains some local fame. Maybe I should start a recurring segment where I examine character actors?
– My roommate pointed out recently that all my posts are about the same kind of movie. Usually masculine, semi-violent, American films. He suggested I branch out. Review some foreign films, a romantic comedy, an animated movie, something different. I totally agree. Any suggestions?