Paul is a word processor who has the misfortune to run into a rather attractive young woman. In his understandable desire to get to know her better, Paul finds himself trapped late at night in New York's Soho district. He loses all his money early on, and soon starts getting into trouble, and then gets into worse trouble, which in turn deepens into an incredible nightmarish crisis. Paul, who soon decides that there's no place like home, is forced to appeal for assistance to increasingly weird people, most of whom have no reason to want to help him or even an active desire to harm him. The fun comes from the piling of misfortune on misfortune, each piece of ill luck being an escalation of the desperation and laughter.
Scorsese, not at all known for comedy, does a splendid job of building up the farcical possibilities of the script. His direction is witty in and of itself, and includes a very fine variety of shots displaying Scorsese's undoubted talents as a director. Considering that the whole film cost less than $4 million, less than the special effects budget for many films nowadays, the fine crafting evident in After Hours is truly amazing. Scorsese never settles for doing things the simple way, but tries to find a new twist or presentation. A few times this doesn't work, and we're left hanging with what is obviously just a bad idea, but the great majority of what Scorsese tries work.
After Hours is also blessed with a superb cast, largely composed of well known performers who seem to have taken small (but good) parts out of friendship with Scorsese. The central role of Paul, the heavily beset hero, is played by Griffin Dunne, who also is co-producer of the film. Dunne has a difficult role, as much of it consists of reaction, not action. Dunne is continually presented with impossible situations allowing him no alternative but to stare in amazement and wonder at his incredibly poor luck. But Dunne is well up to the challenge, going quickly beyond the mere confusion and fright of someone caught in a strange situation on to the outright panic of a man lost in a funhouse gone homicidally mad. His attempts to deal on a rational level with troubles exceeding all bounds of rationality are hilarious.
Rosanna Arquette plays the troubled siren who lures him into danger, a woman with odd friends and, seemingly, an ugly secret. John Heard is a sympathetic bartender, Teri Garr a strange waitress emotionally tied to the 1960s, Cheech and Chong a pair of burglars who have the Soho district in a vigilante fever, Verna Bloom a wallflower in a punk rock club, and Dick Miller a waiter in an all night diner. These are just the better known names in a large and able cast. Each has some fine moments.
Some comedies rely on the central performance of a great comedian, and these can get away with a weak script. Since After Hours isn't a vehicle for such a comedian, the script is the foundation, the element which determines if After Hours will die from the start or have the possibility of working. Joseph Minion's script is very fine, a clever buildup of steadily increasing troubles, sort of French farce goes to New York. He has a particularly good feel for odd characters. After Hours is filled with peculiar people, but the wonderful thing is that each is strange in his own unique way. The care taken with the characters extends even to minor parts, such as the boyfriend of Arquette's roommate, or the bouncer at a punk rock club. While each character is truly weird, they are each of them plausible, a person one can believe walks around and lives a life outside the script. Minion also provides some very clever lines, and has a familiarity with how one behaves in a deteriorating situation which can only be gained through firsthand experience. Paul does some fairly stupid things during his night in Soho, but they are just the sort of things a really desperate person does.
Technically, After Hours looks much better than one would expect a $4 million film to look. The photography, by Michael Ballhaus, is sort of Scorsese-standard - gritty, clear, full of harsh shadows suggesting hidden, dirty secrets. The score highlights the film nicely without being intrusive. The editing is crisp and the production design a fine evocation of a seedy artist community.
After Hours is not totally without flaws. As mentioned, some of Scorsese's ideas for staging of scenes don't really work. More importantly, one of the major plot twists relies on something terrible happening to one of the characters. While it is vital that Paul believes this has happened, it is not absolutely necessary that it actually does happen. Scorsese and Minion might have done better to show that Paul's belief in this event was mistaken in the end. Finally, After Hours lacks a real topper, a snappy ending to match what has come before. With a neat twist or gag to end the film, the impact of After Hours would have been even greater. As it is, the film somewhat resembles a shaggy dog story.
Above all, After Hours is fun, the fun that can only come with seeing an ordinary person dealing with troubles far beyond what he deserves, expects, or even is capable of handling. As is usual in Scorsese's world, there really isn't any justice. Paul doesn't deserve as hard a time as he gets, and those who might deserve some of his troubles escape scot free. From Mean Streets on, Scorsese has always pictured a world in which things inevitably go wrong, in which good men fail and evil flourishes, in which no one is safe and the insane rule. After Hours shows us the same world that we saw in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull but from a different perspective. Instead of outrage and anger, Scorsese delivers humor. Those who have had a hard time appreciating him before should give After Hours a try.
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