Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981, John Badham)

Director Badham intended Whose Life Is It Anyway? to be black and white, which would probably help with the staginess. It’s a play adaptation. Badham handles the relatively big, busy cast well, but he doesn’t know how to shoot lead Richard Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss is playing a recently paralyzed sculptor who, after approximately six months, realizes he’s not going to get better and doesn’t want to go on. On stage, the physicality of Dreyfuss’s performance matters. On film, it doesn’t. Or, at least, Badham doesn’t figure out how to make it matter. Especially not in he and cinematographer Mario Tosi’s wide Panavision frame.

Dreyfuss is good in the lead but nowhere near singular or even exceptional. His character development is defined by monologues, which refer back to scenes we’ve seen and add peculiar, narratively contrived context. He does get a good lengthy monologue during his mental health competency hearing, but it’s table stakes for the film. If there’s a courtroom scene, you expect the lead to get a good monologue. But it’s earnest enough. Badham really does try; he just can’t bring any nuance to the film.

He gets universally solid performances out of the supporting cast. There’s hospital administrator John Cassavettes (who’s arguably got the least depth), doctor Christine Lahti, lawyer Bob Balaban, hospital orderly and reggae punk rocker Thomas Carter, and then a series of nurses. Kaki Hunter plays the main one; the film opens with Dreyfuss’s accident. He’s an accomplished Boston sculptor who’s just installed a waterfront installation, then he gets in a terrible wreck. After the ER scene—look fast for Lyman Ward (and Jeffrey Combs later)—time skips ahead to Hunter’s first day, where she meets charming, irascible Dreyfuss.

While the film always accounts for Hunter’s experience of the events, she’s barely a character. She’s the object of Carter’s affections after a certain point and little more. Not Hunter’s fault, but rather the script’s. Even Badham knows to give her extra attention just to maintain a rhythm.

Janet Eilber plays Dreyfuss’s dancer girlfriend. They used to spend days at his studio with her dancing, possibly in the nude, probably not through dry ice fog, because there’s a black and white dream sequence. The one black and white sequence they let Badham do, and he wastes it early on in the picture; Dreyfuss has refused valium, so Cassavettes gives it to him anyway. He dreams about the past. A black and white dream sequence in the middle of a color melodrama, it’s an unsuccessful but not unambitious piece. If the whole thing were black and white, who knows.

Even if the film were in its intended color palette, there’d still be Arthur B. Rubinstein’s music. Rubinstein does a somewhat jazzy, upbeat score, which clashes and brings energy from those clashes. It’s just maybe not the right energy. They probably would’ve done better with no music, especially since Badham occasionally emphasizes the sound of the machines keeping Dreyfuss alive… but only occasionally. The machine noise would be omnipresent.

Back to Eilber. She gives the film’s worst performance when adjusted for importance. If she were better, another who knows.

Lathi’s good in a just okay part. She gets a lot to do in the second act, but it doesn’t go anywhere. But she tries. Eilber tries too, which helps. Badham makes sure everyone’s appropriately serious. And appropriately comical when Dreyfuss’s bad jokes break the tension.

Whose Life Is It Anyway? is stage adaptation Oscar-bait melodrama, but not bad stage adaptation Oscar-bait melodrama. It’s thoroughly competent; while Badham can’t crack the important adaptation stuff, he does a fine job with the day-to-day hospital and tracking its staff. It looks gorgeous thanks to Tosi’s soft lighting. Nice cuts from Frank Morriss. Rubinstein’s score is amiable. The cast works hard.

It’s perfectly acceptable and never anything more.

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