Sunburn is a Farrah Fawcett star vehicle. It’s really Charles Grodin’s movie for the most part, but it’s Farrah Fawcett’s vehicle. She can be down home, she can be glamorous, she can be faithful when playing Grodin’s fake wife (which Grodin can’t), she can be adventurous, she can be dumb, she can be smart, she can be scantily clad, she can be topless in bed but with her back turned. Because sometimes Sunburn is all about the male gaze. Sometimes it’s all about gentle comedy. Sometimes it’s bad car chases. Sometimes it’s about puppies.
In addition to Grodin and Fawcett, Art Carney rounds out the lead characters. Grodin’s an insurance investigator, Fawcett is his presumable local model fake wife (he calls an agency to hire her and it’s made clear it isn’t an escort agency), Carney is the local P.I. buddy of Grodin. Carney’s got some cred, but Sunburn is boiling over with credibility cameos. There’s Keenan Wynn, Eleanor Parker, John Hillerman. Wynn is in one scene and has like two lines. Parker doesn’t even get a close-up. She’s the widow of the case and Grodin never gets around to interviewing her. Hillerman has a couple scenes and no character. William Daniels at least has some personality.
But then there’s Joan Collins. And she’s awesome. She’s got the promiscuous, unhappy older rich married lady part. “She must be forty!” Fawcett tells Grodin at one point, hoping to dissuade his interest without appearing jealous. Because Sunburn is nothing if not a product of its time. Three screenwriters–James Booth, Stephen Oliver, producer John Daly–and the best acted moments in the film are when Grodin and Carney are mugging it for the camera. Seriously. Carney sort of assumes the space in the film Collins does in the first act or so. It’s unfortunate. Collins is a lot more fun. Carney is cute, but it’s a nothing part. Collins has a nothing part and goes wild with it.
Shame Sarafian can’t direct it. He can’t direct any of it. He goes from mediocre to bad to worse. Geoffrey Foot’s editing is awful, but it’s obviously a lack of available footage. Sarafian can’t figure out how to direct any of it. Not interiors, especially not exteriors, not his actors, not action, nothing. In the second half, once the investigation is going full steam, there’s almost some attempts at style, but Foot’s editing ruins it.
Álex Phillips Jr.’s photography is solid. Acapulco looks nice. John Cameron’s poppy score is preferable to the top 40’s soundtrack, which actually is part of the story–Fawcett is always playing cassettes on her portable player.
Grodin’s occasionally got moments. Not many, not great ones, but some. He’s able to survive Sunburn. He’s doing his thing, he’s doing it turned up to eleven, and he’s able to get through.
As for Fawcett, after a slightly promising start, she gets a terrible arc for a star vehicle and there’s only so much her likability can get through. The film lays on a lot of backstory to get sympathy, along with a clumsiness subplot it immediately drops, but it’s all show. There aren’t any real scenes between her and Grodin, just exposition–which is initially fine because of their awkward bantering–and when she makes her second act transition to intrepid, scantily clad adventurer, there’s just no support for it. Sunburn stops pretending it’s going to give Fawcett anything to do.
The cast of Sunburn is strong enough to do this thing. It’s a noir spoof, or should be. Sarafian can’t do it, the script can’t do it. The actors could. Collins sort of does.
Oh, and the non-credibility cameo stars. Robin Clarke, Joan Goodfellow, Jack Kruschen, Alejandro Rey. Alejandro Rey is awesome. Robin Clarke tries really, really, really, really, really hard. And he sucks. Goodfellow’s bad but likable. Kruschen needed to be the best credibility cameo. Sunburn’s Mr. Big needs to be someone formidable, because there is actual danger.
So, an interesting film to dissect given its motives, but it’s dramatically inert due to technical incompetence.
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian; screenplay by James Booth, John Daly, and Stephen Oliver, based on a novel by Stanley Ellin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Geoffrey Foot; music by John Cameron; production designer, Ted Tester; produced by Daly and Gerald Green; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Farrah Fawcett (Ellie), Charles Grodin (Jake), Art Carney (Al), Joan Collins (Nera), Alejandro Rey (Fons), Robin Clarke (Karl), Joan Goodfellow (Joanna), Eleanor Parker (Mrs. Thoren), John Hillerman (Webb), William Daniels (Crawford), Keenan Wynn (Mark Elmes), Jack Kruschen (Gela), and Seymour Cassel (Dobbs).