Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 18 September 2007
Source Warner Home Video DVD
There’s something about Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film After Hours - a strange little comedy about a hapless word processor trapped all night in SoHo - that has kept it on my mind for years. I stumbled across it on video with nary an expectation and sat riveted for the duration, never knowing, cliché as it sounds, where the film would take me next. It begins so simply: star Griffin Dunne’s workaday drone Paul Hackett strikes up a conversation with a girl named Marcy in a coffee shop and goes to meet her at her artist friend’s SoHo apartment, only to lose all of his cash in a single freak occurrence, thus losing his means of getting safely home again as well. Many critics have described After Hours as a borderline horror film; Scorsese keeps things tense with a rapid pace, and the script, written by Joseph Minion while he was in the Columbia University screenwriting program, piles on more troubles for Paul at every turn, squeezing nervous laughs out of the twisted and taboo. It’s comedy that tightens the knots in your back. Perhaps what intrigues me most about the film is the deep-seated ambivalence - about New York City, about our protagonist Paul, about human interaction in general - that’s wedded to the jittery laughs it inspires. In particular, After Hours taps into the tension between the dull-but-safe conformity of button-down desk job life and the alluring, but threatening, prospect of venturing outside of that mainstream. It’s a tension that the film never fully resolves.
A story like this really couldn’t take place anywhere but in New York City, and its love-hate relationship with a town so ripe with possibilities both enchanting and nightmarish gives it much of its charge. After Hours occasionally echoes The Clock, a half-forgotten Vincente Minnelli-directed Judy Garland vehicle from 1945 that espouses a similarly fraught view of the city and even begins the same way, with two lonely souls meeting cute. Minnelli’s young couple stay up all night in the Big Apple, meeting a kindly milkman one moment and a surly drunk the next, and finding themselves alternately invigorated and oppressed by their metropolitan environment. But while the moments of magic and romance ultimately outweigh those of urban anxiety in The Clock, the quiet bits in After Hours are few and far between. Meanwhile, its ever-mounting horrors (from unexpected suicides to involuntary haircuts) never seem to cease. Things don’t just go shockingly wrong with Paul and his would-be love interest Marcy; the guy manages to turn most everyone he meets against him, eventually finding himself being pursued by an angry mob worthy of a Universal monster movie.
Indeed, the never-ending chain of bizarre incidents that befall Paul in SoHo has triggered a concern among some viewers - myself included - that beneath this film’s offbeat and admittedly funny and inventive surface lies a rather conservative heart. Emanuel Levy classes After Hours as a “yuppie angst” film in his exhaustive indie flick chronicle Cinema of Outsiders and it indeed seems to confirm the very worst fears that a young, upwardly mobile individual could harbor about the misfits and creative types holed up in New York’s most famous artists’ enclave. Dunne is frequently typed as an “everyman” sort of actor, and one thing is certain: his perfectly ordinary Paul clashes with the scenery and denizens of Scorsese’s funhouse vision of SoHo at every turn. Surrounded by assorted bohemians, artists, punk rockers, broadly drawn homosexuals, and even Cheech and Chong, straight-laced Paul finds himself in the unusual position of outsider, and the slightly built, highly strung Dunne makes his distress palpable, wheeling from shrill protest to bemused resignation and back again.
In the context of Scorsese’s film, SoHo becomes a place so aggressively strange that it’s mythical, which is why it may be more apt to discuss After Hours in relation to another, considerably more famous Judy Garland picture as we attempt to parse its meaning. After Hours makes no bones about riffing on The Wizard of Oz; Marcy is even given a short monologue about her husband bizarrely shouting a line from the Technicolor classic during a moment of intimacy. Just like Dorothy Gale, Paul find himself stuck in a very strange place and says again and again that all he wants is to go home. And just like Dorothy, he eventually gets his wish, plunking down in front of his dreary work station again a bit worse for the wear.
Is this a happy ending? In his excellent essay about The Wizard of Oz, Salman Rushdie questions that film’s supposed happy ending, dubbing Dorothy’s there’s-no-place-like-home realization a “conservative homily” tacked on to an otherwise “radical and enabling” film about the fantastic adventures that do await those bold enough to leave their sepia-toned homes. But unlike Dorothy, Paul doesn’t make any friends on his trip over the rainbow, and if he’s grown at all (the way Dorothy undoubtedly grows up over the course of The Wizard Oz), we don’t receive any particular indication of it. Having spent a night beset upon by a myriad of weirdos like so many creepy winged monkeys, perhaps the only thing that Paul has learned is to avoid eye contact with strangers, and to spend those late nights alone in his apartment with the door locked tight. And, having been forced, as Pauline Kael put it, “to contend with one flaky, threatening woman after another,” he may very well have learned to keep away from the opposite sex altogether. (A later New York-at-night film penned by Minion, The Vampire’s Kiss - in which a monstrous Jennifer Beals transforms Nicholas Cage into a creature of the night, or at least drives him insane - suggests that Minion may have an issue or two of his own with women.)
But then, on the other hand, perhaps the very grayness of Paul’s existence prior to, and likely following, his terrifying night on the town is a bit of barbed commentary in and of itself. There’s a reason that the scenes at the office are restricted to the brief bookends that open and close the film; unlike Paul’s late night misadventures, they’re dull. After Hours may whip itself into a skittish frenzy over the possible disasters waiting in SoHo, but it also takes a moment at the office to ask - just as Peggy Lee’s disembodied voice does as it emanates from a jukebox toward the end of the film - “Is that all there is?”