Lovefest: The Creeping Terror

This article was written for Lovefest, a group project of the Dissolve Facebook community, in which individual writers step up to defend or promote films that flopped, were critically maligned, or are generally forgotten. My previous Lovefest entries can be read here and here; a list of all of the movies covered in past Lovefests can be found here.

ct.title

For me, it started with Gilda Radner: in one sketch in It Came From Hollywood, the 1982 homage/clip show celebrating old genre flicks (and an early inspiration for my love of monster movies), Radner plays a little girl excitedly describing and reacting to the latest monster shows she had seen, throwing stuffed animals around the room while pretending they’re the Fly, the Horror of Party Beach, and so on. “I call this one the carpet monster,” she says over a clip of a creature that does indeed look much like an ambulatory pile of carpet samples, or perhaps an oversized bedspread, invading a dance party. “He eats up ladies . . . except for their shoes,” she continues as a pair of shapely nylon-clad legs is slurped into the monster’s gaping mouth. After rediscovering It Came From Hollywood a few years ago, I set out to watch the complete “carpet monster” movie, whatever it was: ICFH ends with a list of the movies excerpted in the film, but doesn’t credit them in individual scenes. With the help of Google and IMDB I was able to narrow it down and found that I already owned a copy of The Creeping Terror (A. J. Nelson, 1963) that I hadn’t watched yet on a public-domain monster movie collection. (Only afterwards did I find out that The Creeping Terror had been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000; I could have saved myself a lot of trouble but I had stopped watching the show by the time that episode aired.)

It would be a stretch to say that I “love” The Creeping Terror, and even more of one to defend it on the basis of its quality, which veers from workmanlike to surreally inept. Like Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Creeping Terror was included in Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards; we’re long past believing that Plan 9 is actually the worst movie ever made, but The Creeping Terror . . . well, let’s just say it’s still awaiting its critical reevaluation. Made on a shoestring in 1963, the film features hopelessly crude special effects, amateurish acting, and a plot that’s beyond formulaic: it’s schematic. Yet I would argue that it is an interesting film in its own right, with some effective moments that are overshadowed by its reputation (and yes, there are some jaw-droppers as well).

ct.martin.brett

As the story goes in its 76-minute run time, Deputy Martin Gordon (Vic Savage), returned from his honeymoon with his new bride (Shannon O’Neil), sees a UFO land (an effect accomplished with some blurry moving lights and footage of a rocket liftoff shown in reverse). Joining his uncle, the Sheriff, to investigate the landing site, they find a spaceship with a monstrous creature locked inside; the Sheriff is the first to be eaten while exploring the ship’s interior. After that, the investigation is taken over by the military; a top space scientist, Dr. Bradford (William Thourlby), arrives to study the ship and, if possible, communicate with its passenger. Unbeknownst to them, a second creature had already escaped into the nearby woods, and it cuts a swath through the area population, (slowly) eating necking picnickers, a young mother, a boy and his grandpa, the participants at a “hootenanny,” and finally an entire community center’s worth of dancers. Once the monster hits the nearby lover’s lane, the authorities catch up to it and confront the creature; it gets shot up by a platoon of soldiers, and then eats them. The Colonel finally blows it up with a grenade.

ct.monster5

“Anyone who experienced that catastrophe and lived would never go there again.”

After finding electrical components in the creature’s carcass, Dr. Bradford returns to the ship and is nearly killed by an explosion that releases the second creature. Deputy Gordon rams his police car in to the monster and kills it. Bradford tells Gordon that he has solved the mystery: he believes that the monsters were sent by a distant civilization as test animals, “living laboratories” engineered to eat and evaluate whatever life forms they found. He guesses that, now that the creatures are dead (and humanity’s weaknesses known), the ship’s computer will transmit their findings back to their home planet. Gordon tries to smash the ship’s computer but fails. Before he dies, Dr. Bradford says there may yet be reason to hope: perhaps by the time the creatures’ alien masters can act on the information they collected, mankind will be more advanced and ready for the challenge. “Only God knows for sure.” The End.

ct.soldiers

The first thing one notices is the intermittent sound: sometimes the characters’ voices are dubbed so they are speaking lines normally, but most of the time an omniscient voiceover narrates the film, paraphrasing the conversation the characters are having onscreen, their mouths still moving out of sync. There are reasons for this, having to do with the film’s fly-by-night production (see below), but the result is alienating; it would be death for a romantic comedy, but for a horror film it sort of works, and it lends a documentary gravity to the otherwise absurd plot: its very flatness is ironically a mark of verisimilitude. In one scene in which Martin’s friend, fellow officer Barney, deals with the emotional fallout of his buddy getting married and not wanting to hang out as much, the narration takes on the fatherly tone of a contemporary mental hygiene film, as if this were merely a case study for class discussion: “Life has its way of making boys grow up, and with marriage Martin’s time had come,” the announcer intones while Barney stews on the couch, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon making out in the kitchen. In other scenes, the effect is downright surreal as the sound engineers add layers of ambient sound and music after the fact to cover up the characters’ uncomfortable silence.

ct.newlyweds4

The film’s isolated settings (filmed at the shabby Spahn Movie Ranch, a comedown from the intended Lake Tahoe setting) also contribute to its sense of menace: most of the victims are outdoors or near the woods, making them seem small and easy to pick off. One might think that almost anyone could outrun the slow-moving monster, but in one of the film’s more laughable conceits, the creature is so terrifying that most of its victims stay rooted on the spot, screaming in fear until it can catch up to them. The film’s money shot (repeated often) consists of a woman’s legs or feet dangling from the creature’s maw as it swallows them slowly enough that the actors could be crawling inside (which, of course, is how it was actually filmed).

ct.legs3

Other kills are more cinematically effective, either shown from the monster’s POV with the cowering victim in the center of the frame (the death of the young mother hanging laundry while her baby fusses inside is probably the most effective in the film; in addition to the weird effect of the creature wriggling into the otherwise mundane shot, at the moment of the woman’s death her scream cuts to the sound of her baby crying) or simply left for the audience’s inference (Bobby, the young boy fishing with his grandpa, leaves behind only a bit of torn cloth from his shirt). Scenes in which the monster kills with brute force are less successful: when sucking a pair of teenagers out of their convertible at lover’s lane, it appears to be humping the car; later, it eats all of the soldiers at once by dropping on top of them. Even at the dance, it’s impossible to imagine the creature killing everyone without them obligingly lining up to get in its belly.

ct.mother2

The film’s most elaborate set piece, the creature’s attack on the dance hall, shows The Creeping Terror at its best and worst. An uncharacteristically long buildup shows the dance in progress, the crowd made up of a range of ages; while the band plays a repetitive twist tune, dancers fill the floor while others sit at tables and the bar. It’s all very normal; the only element that might raise an eyebrow is the amount of time spent on close-ups of the legs and feet of several dancers in tight pants. On the sidelines, a few human dramas play out: a woman leaves in a huff, and a drunk swipes the drink she left behind; a fight breaks out. It’s possible that these characters were more fully fleshed out in the original script, but with only a few audible lines here and there all we get are snippets. It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anyone, observing people at random and only seeing disconnected glimpses of their behavior.

ct.dance2

Abruptly, we see a shot of the approaching monster outside, the music twisting away at a lower volume, as if heard from a distance, so we know it’s nearby. The narrator has already informed us that the community dance hall would be the next target, but the sequence, cutting between the oblivious dancers and the creature outside, getting closer, is almost suspenseful. A shot of a dancer’s jiggling bottom cuts to the writhing tendrils that crown the monster’s “head.” Subtle, it is not.

ct.dance9

Suddenly, without any transition or shot of the monster coming through a doorway, it is there, in the corner of the room! It is in this moment that the film’s weak grasp on continuity comes to resemble the anti-logic of the nightmare, and the scrambled soundtrack reinforces the confusion. A woman shouts, “My God, what is it!?”, her voice dubbed, but another woman screams without any sound added, her terror expressed only by the musical soundtrack, the relentless twist finally giving way to more typical horror music.

ct.dance3

The partygoers gather in one corner of the room while the monster, shot from overhead, awkwardly pushes past tables and chairs; they would obviously have time to reach the exits, but this is the kind of nightmare where your feet won’t budge, and they have no choice but to await their fate (in one overhead shot of the monster, a couple clearly approach the monster and the man even gives the woman a little push forward as if to say, “you first”). Insanely, the fistfight that broke out earlier still continues in the other corner of the room. We get plenty of close-up shots of pretty legs sticking out of the creature’s slit-like mouth, and if we haven’t figured out by now what the director’s main interest in the material is, then I don’t think we can say he’s the one who doesn’t get it.

ct.legs1

After years of contradictory information about the making of this low-budget oddity (so obscure at first that there’s no evidence it was even screened until it was sold as part of a TV package in the 1970s, leading to late-night broadcasts and sparking its notoriety among horror hounds), several facts came to light thanks to the research of fan Pete Schuermann (the story as I now relay it comes from Schuermann’s docudrama The Creep Behind the Camera and an article in Screem magazine no. 30 by Brian Albright). For one thing, leading man “Vic Savage” and director “A. J. Nelson” were one and the same person, a petty criminal and con artist named Arthur White. White had always wanted to be a star, and this obsession seems to have sprung from the same sociopathic narcissism that led him to abuse and exploit everyone around him, including his long-suffering wife Lois.

ct.martin

It is unclear whether he intended The Creeping Terror to be a real movie or if it was a hustle all along, but in addition to making the movie as cheaply as possible, he funneled much of the funding he got from backers (including Thourlby, a former Marlboro Man) into his personal drug habit, and he spun the opportunity to make his film further by selling shares in it to cast and crew, effectively turning it into a pay-for-play scheme. (He had previously absconded with the profits from his first film, Street-Fighter.) According to some members of the film crew at the time, he would film the same scenes with different people multiple times because he had made so many promises, often without actually putting film in the camera. In any case, White disappeared before the movie was completed, possibly fleeing law enforcement (in addition to drugs, White had connections to a prostitution ring and Schuermann’s film implies he may have been involved in child pornography) and leaving Thourlby to piece together the existing footage and replace the missing (or possibly never-recorded) audio. By this time, writer Allan Silliphant had cut ties with White in disgust, so there was probably no longer a script to refer to and the actors had all gone their separate ways: thus, the voiceover was written to patch the scenes together.

ct.poster

From these behind-the-scenes details, it is clear that The Creeping Terror works largely by accident and thanks to the hard work of professionals trying to salvage something out of disaster. It’s hard enough to make a movie on purpose: the fact that The Creeping Terror is as watchable as it is, flaws and all, is nearly miraculous. (Even as a patch-up, it compares favorably to the similar work of White’s contemporary, Jerry Warren, for example.) But what are we to make of Arthur White and his contribution? Aren’t there enough actual good movies in the world that we don’t have to feel obligated to give time to work made by scumbags? For what it’s worth, I had seen The Creeping Terror and found it interesting before I heard about its origins; I don’t think White’s scamming and abuse make his movie “cool” or “edgy,” and there were plenty of earnest, would-be professional filmmakers involved with the production. They were White’s victims, too, and they could have cut their losses, but they didn’t. (If it makes you feel any better about watching, White never made any more money from it after dropping out of the production, leaving it in a legal limbo; he died in 1975 and the film is now in the public domain.)

ct.newlyweds1

But knowing the context does explain some of the more bizarre choices the film makes, and especially shines a spotlight on the sexual imagery that lies so close to the surface, on the obsession with legs and feet, with the blunt symbolism of a monster that combines both phallic and vaginal imagery, and especially with the film’s odd detours into the domestic sphere. Shannon O’Neil (her real name Shannon Boltres), the lead actress, was White’s girlfriend at the time, even while he was still married to Lois, who had returned to him with the promise of better behavior after one of their splits; were the scenes of newlywed bliss meant to rub his infidelity in Lois’ face, or was he imagining the married life–he upstanding and virile, she nubile and obedient–that he would have preferred? Or was it simply the writer’s take on a well-worn formula? Perhaps because she has an actual character to play, neither one of the screaming victims nor a stoic hero, O’Neil/Boltres comes off as the best actor in the film, with a few small moments that suggest she knew exactly what kind of movie she was in. She doesn’t have any later screen credits, so it’s hard to say what she might have done in a better film.

ct.legs4

Screenwriter Allan Silliphant later claimed that his script was intended to be a spoof, with a brain-dead plot and comically obvious symbolism, and that does line up with a certain kind of gleefully acidic L.A. satire; but the end product doesn’t scan as being funny (aside from the unintentional laughs) or even ironic. It’s too out there, more like the cut-up methods William Burroughs was exploring; the contemporary equivalent to its scrambled production method might be one of those scripts generated by an A.I. after feeding it x number of sample scripts, the results inspiring the nervous laughter of seeing ourselves reflected back at us by something completely alien. As Brian Albright describes it, The Creeping Terror is “almost an un-film.” But honestly, most genre movies involve some mental sorting of this kind, separating what works from what can be enjoyed in a humorous way and what can only be discarded. This may be an extreme example, but it’s short, rarely boring, and includes several memorable sequences.

ct.pipe

In the lover’s lane scene, there’s a guy sitting in his car by himself, smoking a pipe, apparently spying on the young couples parking and necking, or maybe just checking up on them. When the monster shows up and starts attacking teenagers, the pipe smoker just sits and watches in disbelief before driving off. He’s the only completely passive observer in the movie. I guess he’s a little like the audience for this film: he came to see one thing, possibly with a prurient interest, but he got a lot more than he bargained for.

ct.end

Advertisements

Addicted to Love: A Reappraisal

This article was written as a contribution to Lovefest, a series of pieces by commenters on film website The Dissolve, organized by commenter The Narrator.  The only requirement was to write about a movie you like but no one else does.

Audiences who only went by this poster had no idea what they were in for.

Audiences who only went by this poster had no idea what they were in for.

In the 1997 film Addicted to Love, astronomer Sam (Matthew Broderick) appears to live a charmed life: after successfully predicting a supernova, he turns his observatory’s telescope to see his girlfriend, schoolteacher Linda (Kelly Preston) wave at him, as he does every day at noon (which is totally not weird or creepy, why would you say that?).  He’s perfectly content with everything the way it is until Linda tells him that she’s been selected to represent her school district in New York City for two months; unwilling to give his blessing (“Stay,” he tells her bluntly) but too timid to join her, he even drives his truck next to her plane as it takes off so he can see her one last time.

Cut to Sam preparing for Linda’s return two months later; instead of Linda, he is joined by her father (Nesbit Blaisdell in an amusing turn) who is there to read her “Dear John” letter.  “I’m not finished—the best part’s coming up,” he says as Sam rushes to pack so that he can work it out with Linda in New York.  Once in New York, Sam tracks Linda to an apartment, but to his horror he hears a man’s voice through the door: Anton (La Femme Nikita’s Tcheky Karyo), a French restaurateur possessing a volcanic temper and Rabelaisian appetites.  Rather than confront his rival, Sam retreats to a conveniently abandoned building across the street and begins living there as a squatter, spying on the pair.  Borrowing a camera obscura from the observatory, he is able to project an image of the apartment onto the wall of his crumbling loft, recording and analyzing Linda’s every gesture with the same precision he uses to observe the stars, convinced that once her infatuation with Anton is over, she’ll want to continue her relationship with Sam right where it left off.

cameraobscura

Enter a mysterious motorcyclist in sexless black helmet and body armor; after breaking into Sam’s loft, the intruder removes its helmet, revealing it is none other than Meg Ryan, sporting a look reminiscent of Melanie Griffith’s road warrior in Cherry 2000 and with a gravelly, threatening voice she abandons after only two lines of dialogue.  Her character, Maggie, is Anton’s ex, and like Sam she wants to use the loft to keep tabs on him; unlike Sam’s passive stalking, however, she is bent on revenge.  Anton used her to get in to the United States and then dumped her, and now he is going to pay.

The contrast between Maggie’s edgy, in-your-face to-the-extremeness and Sam’s attempts to keep everything (including himself) under control at all times is the comic mainspring of Addicted to Love’s first half.  Maggie needles Sam relentlessly, challenging his certitude that Linda will return to him (“The only way that girl is coming back to you is if a blast of semen catapults her across the street and through the window,” Maggie says with the tact that marks her character), with Sam insisting that everything is going according to plan.  The pair has real chemistry, and it’s clear that they belong together in an opposites-attract way. To its credit, the film doesn’t draw out the will-they/won’t-they: they will, before the film is half over, but under circumstances that highlight their obsessions with their exes.  They have unfinished business before a happy ending is a possibility for either of them.

Maggie’s plan is to destroy Anton utterly, to reduce him to zero dignity, to make him suffer as she suffered.  She enlists Sam to plant suspicion in Linda’s mind through a series of screwball contrivances: they steal Anton’s credit card and use it to buy flowers and jewelry; they bribe a street performer to put lipstick on a monkey, which plants kisses on Anton; they pay schoolchildren to spray expensive perfume on Anton with squirt guns (as absurd as their schemes are, the comedy really pays off when Anton tries to explain these weird occurrences to an increasingly dubious Linda: it’s New York, rich school kids have nothing better to do than squirt people with perfume, right?).  Sam takes a job washing dishes at Anton’s restaurant, an opening that allows them to sabotage an important critic’s visit (warning to the squeamish: it involves cockroaches).  Maggie even has a plan to trigger Anton’s allergies so that he is unable to model (his job before he opened his restaurant).

But a funny thing happens as Sam gets closer to Anton: he gets to know him, and Anton (not knowing who Sam is, of course) takes him under his wing.  As Anton, Karyo gives the film’s biggest performance: he absolutely is the intimidating, smooth-talking continental horndog Sam takes him to be, with a habit of threatening to rape people’s skulls (“He says that to everybody,” Maggie tells Sam), but he has positive qualities as well, and tries to share his wisdom with Sam.  As much a perfectionist as Sam, Anton is otherwise everything that Sam isn’t: a driven alpha male who isn’t afraid to go after what he wants.  In a scene set in the restaurant, Anton explains that France is like the planet Krypton—everyone there can do what he does—but when he came to America with his charming accent and culinary skill, he became Superman (one nice touch: Anton’s other employees echo and respond to his story as he tells it; it’s obvious they’ve heard it many times).  (The same concept would resurface in Love, Actually, but in fairness, Addicted to Love isn’t the first film by any stretch to point out that Americans are entranced by foreign accents.)

As Anton’s life falls apart (Linda does leave him, but not because of Maggie and Sam’s frame-up job: it turns out he really was sleeping with someone else), he holds Sam closer, believing him to be his only friend.  He drags Sam back to the apartment with him, plying him with wine and food (to Maggie’s disgust: she’s still watching them through the camera obscura).  When Sam finally confronts Anton about the women he’s wronged and reveals his identity as Linda’s ex, Anton surprises him—and Maggie—by confessing that he knows he used Maggie terribly, that he tried to love her after she helped him come to America (“I thought if I could just love her, then . . . the shame would go away”) but found it impossible.  “You can’t choose who you love. . . . Who the hell do you think you are you to judge?” Anton asks the man who punched him in the face, broke into his apartment, destroyed his restaurant, and pushed him down an elevator shaft (the last was an accident, but still).  While Maggie goes to comfort Anton (“Just say we’re even,” she says as she scratches the itchy rash that she herself caused), Sam goes to Linda and confesses.  At least, that’s implied: just as we have through much of the movie, we only see Linda’s angry reaction through a window, and we later see her return to Anton.

As for Sam and Maggie, they’ve discovered their true feelings for each other through everything they’ve done together, right?  Not quite.  Sam is ready to have a relationship, but Maggie insists she has no feelings for him and that he should just move on.  Sam leaves, but on the plane ride home he finds two last symbolic images: an envelope of photos of him and Maggie together, and an in-flight showing of Lassie.  As he tells Maggie upon his return to New York, Lassie helped him realize that Maggie was just pushing him away for his own good, that she didn’t want him to be hurt again.  One last joke, a kiss, and—after a Fincheresque trip through the camera obscura itself—we’re on to Neneh Cherry’s terrible rendition of the title song over the end credits.  It’s a bit weak after the whiz-bang climax, but the meaning is clear: Sam and Maggie are through the looking glass and back in the real world, no longer trapped by their illusions.

Even this summary of the plot skims over many details: Addicted to Love is a ribald farce, packed with incident, that nevertheless makes time to simply hang out with its lead characters.  It’s light and frothy, except when it isn’t, when surprising shadows darken the mood and the snappy dialogue gives way to yearnings that words can’t convey.  The long takes of Sam and Maggie simply watching, the camera centered on their faces as they react to what they see, suggests that despite its billing as a film about revenge, Addicted to Love is at its core a film about loneliness.

MegRyan2

In fact, Addicted to Love might as well be called Gaze: the Movie for its frequent scenes of men and women (but mostly men) looking at each other and themselves through telescopes, cameras, mirrors and other devices.  Sam and Maggie (an astronomer and a photographer, respectively) see the world literally refracted through lenses and mediated metaphorically through their ideas of what love is and how their lovers should respond to them.

The theme of seeing and being seen is further developed in dialogue: Linda was “imprinted” on Sam’s psyche as the perfect woman when they were in grade school together; Maggie predicts that Anton will make Linda feel like she’s “really been seen” for the first time, remembering her own experience with him.  The power of looking isn’t subtext: it’s right on the surface.  Even the concluding revelation, in which Sam realizes that Maggie—despite her protests—actually loves him, arrives in the form of pictures of Sam and Maggie together.  It suggests that people might lie, but cameras don’t.

Screenwriter Robert Gordon would go on to write Galaxy Quest, a connection of which I was unaware until I started researching this film.  In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, and although Addicted to Love isn’t as tight as Galaxy Quest (a hilarious and perfectly cast tribute to Star Trek and its fans), both films take a familiar genre (the romantic comedy and the science fiction adventure) and turn its tropes inside-out, looking for the human reality beneath the clichés.  You can call it “deconstruction” if you like, although I don’t think that acknowledges the degree of self-awareness that was already a big part of the 1990s romantic comedy boom.  Rom-com characters are constantly comparing their experiences to fairy tales and romance novels—what is Sleepless in Seattle but a movie-length tribute to An Affair to Remember?—and finding their own lives lacking.  (The current fascination with Jane Austen takes a similarly layered view of romantic expectations.)

Both films also walk a fine line between satirizing and fulfilling the pleasures of genre, in Addicted to Love’s case through casting against type and a deliberate rejection of the gauzy, soft-focus refinement associated with romantic wish-fulfillment: Addicted to Love puts the “com” front and center, the better for the “rom” to sneak up on the audience.   With its cartoonish cruelty and overreaction, baroque schemes and contraptions, and setting in a decaying old building, Addicted to Love bears comparison to Gore Verbinski’s feature debut, Mouse Hunt (or possibly David Fincher’s Fight Club: it wouldn’t take much editing to suggest that Maggie is a figment of Sam’s imagination, representing the aggressive side of his personality).  Like Verbinski, Dunne is clearly enamored of old-school slapstick, but unlike him Dunne, along with Gordon, is interested in plumbing the psychological depths beneath the Rube Goldberg surface.

As far as romantic comedies go, one of my least favorite conventions is the “wrong” man or woman with whom the heroine or hero is involved (possibly engaged), and with whom the relationship must be broken off before they can be united with their soulmate.  This thankless character is usually handled in one of two ways: sometimes they are so mild-mannered and understanding that they meekly step out of the way (think of Bill Pullman in Sleepless), making the breakup relatively painless (for the leads, at least).  On the other hand, sometimes they are so transparently awful that it’s easy for the audience to root against them.  Either way, it turns a potentially nuanced character into just another obstacle for true love to overcome on its way to the inevitable happy ending.  Addicted to Love takes two of those types—a bland “nice guy” and a possessive psycho—and puts them at the center, revealing that they have more in common than is apparent on the surface.

Obviously, the likeability of the stars is a key factor in Addicted to Love, which asks us to sympathize with characters way outside the bounds of accepted behavior.  If you don’t share my fondness for Broderick and Ryan, it may not work for you. The casting alone is meant to put us on their side, however: as I alluded to above, Ryan is not at all convincing as the vengeful badass she at first portrays, but it’s essential to the comedy that we know and recognize the vulnerable and kind-hearted Ryan of other films beneath the black leather and “Project Mayhem” exterior.  We need to see Maggie as wounded rather than evil: if she were played by Angelina Jolie, Anton would be dead before the movie even started.  (For that matter, consider a gender-reversed take on the story: if it was Karyo playing the angry, resourceful ex, enacting revenge on Ryan, we would be looking at an Enough-style suspense thriller or a cautionary Lifetime movie.)

AddictedtoLove

Maggie is a Hollywood costumer’s idea of a punky, bohemian “bad girl,” adding accessories such as oversized aviator goggles and a feather boa to her ensemble.  It never feels like more than playing dress-up, but where some may see that as a failure I think it matches the heightened tone of the film, and it’s great fun to see Ryan cut loose.  Despite her “mousy” or “pixieish” public image, Meg Ryan has actually taken on some surprising roles; however, her onscreen persona is dominated by When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, and the success of her films has largely depended on her adherence to the “Meg Ryan” character type.

As for Ryan’s costar, in the 1990s Matthew Broderick was an actor in transition, no longer a boy but retaining much of his boyish charm.  He spent the latter half of the decade alternating between lead roles in junk like Godzilla (1998) and Inspector Gadget and parts that made his boyishness seem wimpy (as in The Cable Guy), or revealed less appealing sides of that quality (such as 1999’s Election). Addicted to Love falls square in the middle of those years: Sam’s can-do attitude (and the way he puts just as much effort into sneaking around and spying on his ex as he does into his work as an astronomer) anticipates Broderick’s similar fall from grace as Jim McAllister in Election.

Like Jimmy Stewart, Broderick specializes in characters who are likeable, but who often put that likeability to the test.  Mr. Potter’s words to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life could equally apply to many of Broderick’s adult roles: “Look at you.  You used to be so cocky.  You were going to go out and conquer the world. . . . What are you but a warped, frustrated . . . miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands and knees?” (After last seeing Broderick in Tower Heist, I was shocked to see how buff he is in Addicted to Love: he looks like a leading man, even if his character doesn’t act like one.)  There is still much of Ferris Bueller in Sam, the world just starting to slip from his grasp.

And speaking of Stewart, although the situation is superficially similar to Rear Window, Addicted to Love leans closer to Vertigo in its examination of Sam’s obsession (this is very much a script by a writer just out of film school): the audience’s first view of Linda is through Sam’s telescope, through which he gazes at her every day at noon; later, the comedy slows down for us to just look at her through Sam’s camera obscura.  There are notes of real longing in Broderick’s performance that make his actions understandable, if not excusable.  There is an obvious metaphor of moviegoing that runs through all of the surveillance Sam and Maggie undertake in the film, and Dunne is honest enough to acknowledge its appeal: Kelly Preston is as radiant as a silent film star in these moments, and the scene of Sam standing next to her projected image, trying to will himself into the frame—back into a relationship with her—isn’t played for laughs.  It’s telling, however, that not only is he unable to hear what goes on in the apartment between Linda and her new lover, he doesn’t want to hear it.  “I just want to be with her,” he says of the image, but clearly he prefers the fantasy to the whole person.  Only after his curiosity gets the better of him and he avails himself of Maggie’s bugging equipment does he listen in, and the sound of Linda and Anton’s lovemaking convinces him to join forces with Maggie.

Linda

It’s likely that Addicted to Love fell between two stools in 1997: too gross and weird for audiences expecting another Sleepless in Seattle, but not acidic enough for fans of black comedies like The War of the Roses.  Still, its mixture of slapstick and psychodrama has its charms for those on its wavelength.  It’s no Galaxy Quest—not everything works, and as I said it depends greatly on the viewer’s appreciation of some very specific elements—and there’s no question that Addicted to Love is off-putting: while not as dark as Helena Bonham Carter saying “I want to have your abortion,” this is a movie in which America’s sweetheart delivers a monologue about her father picking maggots from a dog’s anus and cites it as an example of love. As with Meg Ryan’s character, however, it’s all an act, a deliberately abrasive exterior that conceals a squishy, pulsating heart.