By Marc S. Sanders

If L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy The Wizard Of Oz were adapted in a setting of say 1985 New York City in the So Ho section, beginning sometime after 11:30 at night, then it would be a fair argument to change the name of his story to After Hours.  The story would no longer be whimsical. Instead, it would be screwball, with a disturbingly demented narrative from the brilliant but unsettling camera work of Martin Scorsese.  The protagonist would be a lonely yuppie named Paul (Griffin Dunne) who encounters one odd woman after another when all he intended to do was meet up with a kind and attractive young lady named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) who offered the opportunity of obtaining one of her roommate’s specialty crafts of Parisian bagel & lox paperweights.  (Yes.  You read that description correctly.  Don’t overthink it.)  Unlike Dorothy from Kansas though, the oddballs that Paul meets up with become challenging to him even if they insist on welcoming him into their arms.  These women are not the comfort conveniences of a scarecrow, tin man or lovable lion.

How odd that this film from Scorsese would follow his masterpieces, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver; a major departure from themes of mental disturbance exhibited by characters like Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle.  Here, the disturbance hinges on paranoia that eventually develops; not seeded in place at the start.  The film relies on absurd situations where Paul inadvertently gets in over his head when all he wants to do is return home and sleep. It quickly dawns upon Paul that it is likely not a good idea to go out after hours when a whole other kind of community is awake, that is uncustomary to his lifestyle.  I was waiting for the film, written by Joseph Minion, to tell me it’s all a dream.  My foolhardy mistake though.  Scorsese would never resort to such a tired, cliché.  If he is going to direct a film of the utmost ridiculous, then he’ll make certain Paul’s unfortunate outcomes are believable…even if they are hard to be believed.

If you’ve seen at least three of Scorsese’s films prior to After Hours, you’ll likely just fall in love with this picture based on his craft with the camera partnered with his always trusty editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.  Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus has his first collaboration here with Scorsese (before Goodfellas and Casino).  Conversations in offices or diners or apartments or bars occur, only they are more exciting than countless other exchanges of dialogue. You will be watching a film that does not sit still and always strives for your attention.  So, while Arquette’s character describes an ex-boyfriend’s obsession with the film adaptation of Oz, your director at play startlingly zooms in on her performance monologue and then circles back to Dunne, her listener on the other side of the table.  No standard quick cuts.  The camera circles and surrounds the players.  A set of keys dropped from a balcony straight down directly towards Dunne’s waiting face below gives an eye opening zoom thanks to Ballhaus’ techniques.

The developments that quickly fall upon Paul are not fair for him.  He loses his only twenty bill that he can rely on, gets caught in torrential downpours of rain, uncovers a suicide, becomes trapped in a punk rock club that wants to give him a tortuous mohawk, and a modern-day pitchfork mob equipped with flashlights and an ice cream truck are hungry for his head because they believe he’s a serial neighborhood burglar.  The poor guy can’t even make a phone call because a ditzy Catherine O’Hara revels in breaking his concentration to remember a phone number.  Teri Garr also appears with a bee hive hairdo as a waitress at an all-night gay diner vying for attention that Paul just can’t afford to give at three o’clock in the morning.  Paul just wants some basic help from anyone who can offer a simple gesture. None of it is that simple however, and the problems build upon one another until they are compounded upon his shoulders so much so that at one point, he literally cannot move out of the physical circumstance he ends up in.  Forgive my vagueness, but I wouldn’t dare spoil what that literally means.  You owe it to yourself to watch the film and find out for yourself.  My first instinct was to go “Come on!!!  Really!!!” Yet, then I remembered this is a film of daring escapes.  Still, Minion’s script and Scorsese’s film turn those breathless escapes into deeper depths of a So Ho hell, as the film proceeds to its inevitable sunrise.

After Hours might have been a subpar John Hughes comedy, only vaguely remembered from the decade of excess, the 1980s.  In Martin Scorsese’s hands though, it’s comedy pathos and yet frightening at times.  Only Scorsese can show us funny, yet bleak.  That’s okay.  It’s different.  I’ve seen the standard slapstick unfortunate circumstances of School Principal Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and countless copycats thereafter.  Scorsese offers up a different, inventive, and very twisted approach for a typical victim of circumstances beyond his control.  

My recommendation for a double feature:  watch Neil Simon’s The Out Of Towners with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis.  Then watch After Hours.  You may begin to understand how New York City can be a vicious and unforgiving beast with enough chutzpah to attack you, even if you never deserved any kind of punishment.  If you’ve ever found yourself in any kind of metropolitan city throughout North America, you’ll likely nod your head at what this poor guy encounters, and you might not feel so singled out.

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