Tin Men (1987, Barry Levinson)

Tin Men is expansive. So expansive writer-director Levinson can’t get everywhere. He doesn’t have time in 112 mintues, he doesn’t have the structure for it either. Tin Men establishes its narrative distance firmly, deliberately, and usually hilariously in the first act. When Levinson gets to the end of the second act, he’s way too interested in all the plot strands he’s got going on. By that time, the film has–for better or worse (worse, but more on it in a bit)–become Danny DeVito’s movie. DeVito had been sharing more with top-billed Richard Dreyfuss, but then Levinson moves the focus away from Dreyfuss. Except then Levinson becomes immediately more interested in everything going on around DeVito. Except DeVito’s completely unaware of all the things going on around him. So it changes the film’s tone.

At one point, DeVito gets called out on his apathy; while he doesn’t improve, he does start getting more likable. Likable is one of Tin Men’s biggest problems. Levinson loves all of his characters way too much. They’re all a little too precious. When the film starts, however, the characters aren’t likable or lovable or precious. In fact, they’re not supposed to be any of those things, much less all of them.

Tin Men opens with a very nostalgic, sentimental opening title sequence. Levinson’s got some issues with the sentimentality in the film. There’s very little, except when he forces it. After the titles, we meet DeVito and suffering wife Barbara Hershey, then DeVito runs into Dreyfuss. Literally. Car accident.

From their inital argument, which is before the characters are established (and it takes Levinson around half the movie to establish DeVito), Tin Men moves on to setting up the ground situation. DeVito and Dreyfuss are both aluminum siding salesmen. They work for different companies. They have acquaintances in common, but don’t know one another.

Then it’s time to introduce the acquaintances, which is where Tin Men is often its most easily amusing. Big list. Here we go. John Mahoney is Dreyfuss’s sidekick. Jackie Gayle is DeVito’s. Mahoney and Gayle have about the same size parts, except Mahoney’s drama and Gayle’s comedy. Levinson sets DeVito up to have the more humorous storyline, which requires no one like DeVito. Not the other characters, not the viewer.

Sorry, off track already.

Supporting acquantiances–Seymour Cassel, Richard Portnow, Matt Craven, Alan Blumenfeld, and Michael Tucker are Dreyfuss’s entourage. Cassel’s amazing. His delivery of his one-liners transcends. Every one of his scenes is phenomenal. Portnow and Craven are background. Blumenfeld’s a new salesman, so he gets more. Tucker’s a cameo. He’s good, but it’s a cameo. A meaty one, because Levinson loves the characters so much. When he’s being overindulgent with the characters, he’s able to keep the sentimentality in check. When he’s just trying to package the film? That sentimentality flails, always at the wrong time. Levinson can’t figure out how to package the film because it’s not sentimental, even if he intends it to be.

I’m off track again. Tin Men is so much at once, so much.

DeVito’s entourage is Stanley Brock, Bruno Kirby, and J.T. Walsh as the boss. Brock’s hilarious. He’s the Cassel analogue but the delivery is different. Kirby’s the straight man and he’s great. His deliveries of Levinson’s speedy dialogue is magical.

So back to complaining about the packaging. Between the opening and closing bookends, Levinson examines all sorts of things. Sure, there’s the overarching story of Dreyfuss discovering true love with Hershey after stealing her away from DeVito as a prank, but Levinson loses track of that story. He focus on Hershey briefly, setting her up to have a bigger part separate from Dreyfuss, Levinson pulls back. And it’s a shame because Hershey’s awesome and Levinson writes her scenes well. He just can’t keep the film away from DeVito.

Because DeVito is spellbinding. He never learns. He never impresses. He should be loathsome but he’s not because he’s kind of a dope. The character’s usually unpleasant but watching DeVito isn’t.

Dreyfuss is excellent. His part’s not as good.

DeVito overpowers Tin Men until Levinson gets distracted with the American Dream angle. Once Levinson grazes that idea, he can’t stop circling it. Because Tin Men is positive. It adores the trappings of its time period while eagerly anticipating coming progresses. Levinson beautifully foreshadows in the film.

Whenever there’s something deft, Levinson can handle it. When it’s the big stuff like Dreyfuss and Hershey’s romance, he gets distracted. And maybe even bored. Dreyfuss and Hershey get some movie moments–like a lovely rain reconcilation–but Hershey’s best opposite DeVito, not Dreyfuss. Levinson fumbles the character focus in the second half.

Great score (and songs) from Fine Young Cannibals. Stu Linder’s editing is breathtaking. Levinson and Linder cut loose a few times and create these bombastic and sublime sequences. Superb editing.

Peter Sova’s photography is all right. Tin Men is a Touchstone eighties movie and it looks like one. It’s overly saturated, which is great to emphasize the clothes and sometimes the cars; it doesn’t help with the rest. It’s not crisp enough. It’s Levinson’s fault. Sova seems perfectly capable of lighting an interior with some personality. Levinson isn’t tasking him.

Great production design from Peter Jamison.

Tin Men is an excellent (if oversaturated) production. It looks wonderful. It moves wonderful. It sounds wonderful. Tin Men just doesn’t get anywhere wonderful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Barry Levinson; director of photography, Peter Sova; edited by Stu Linder; music by Fine Young Cannibals; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Mark Johnson; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (BB), Danny DeVito (Tilley), Barbara Hershey (Nora), John Mahoney (Moe), Jackie Gayle (Sam), Stanley Brock (Gil), Seymour Cassel (Cheese), Bruno Kirby (Mouse), J.T. Walsh (Wing), Richard Portnow (Carly), Matt Craven (Looney), Alan Blumenfeld (Stanley), Brad Sullivan (Masters), and Michael Tucker (Bagel).


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