January Man

Serial Killer Comedy Thriller?  Yes!

Main Cast:  Keven Kline, Harvey Keitel, Rod Steiger, Susan Sarandon

Director: Pat O’Connor

Genre. Sometimes I think even the word is deplorable. Pigeonholing films, books and music into predefined categories. Is it action, drama, romance, sci-fi, punk, alternative? What if an entry into the media arts fits into none of the existing genre? Or fits into several? It seems that when a movie breaks the traditional mold it either tanks at the box office, is roundly criticized as a poor entry into a genre that doesn’t fit, or both. This is really too bad. It makes Hollywood timid about taking stylistic chances and makes audiences lazy, always giving them something they can hang a label on. Personally, I like a movie that takes its time revealing its nature. Especially if its nature is a subtle skewering of a tremendously popular genre. The January Man is just such a film.

A 1989 release, The January Man stars Kevin Kline as Nick Starkey. Nick is currently a New York City Firefighter, our first glimpse of him is as he valiantly saves a girl from a burning building and then asks for a coffee. Nick has a brother, Frank (Harvey Kietel), who as Police Commissioner is under fire for failing to solve a string of killings. Two years prior, Frank fired Nick from his department due to allegations of corruption. It is established early on that Frank knows the allegations were false, but was willing to sacrifice the reputation and career of his brother in order to cover up the real source of the graft.

As the movie opens, the daughter of Mayor Flynn (Rod Steiger) is celebrating the New Year with her good friend. Soon after they part company, the friend is strangled by the killer at large. Daughter Bernadette (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is grief stricken, and the mayor is panicked. This killing strikes too close to home, and he fears for both his daughter and his political career (not necessarily in that order). Believing Nick to be a brilliant detective, he orders Frank to get him reassigned, no matter what. Relations between the brothers are understandably strained; due to the screwing that Frank gave Nick, as well as by the fact that Nick has long been in love with Frank’s wife Christine (Susan Sarandon). Nick agrees under the condition that he be allowed to cook dinner for Christine. Frank agrees. Odd? Yes. But this little dinner scene firmly establishes the major players and their relationships.

As the movie progresses, we learn that our serial killer is one of those “brilliant psychopaths” that so many thrillers rely upon to make their villain interesting. We also learn that Nick is eccentric as all get out. He hires his neighbor Ed (Alan Rickman), a painter, to be his assistant, and generally does everything he can to needle his commanding officer (Danny Aiello), who has been ordered to accommodate Nick completely. Nick also becomes very fond of Bernadette, and she of him.

This is definitely the type of movie that would suffer from too much plot summary, it’s much too fun to see things unfold for yourself. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of twists and turns and plenty of hijinx to come. So, you’re wondering, how does this movie defy the thriller genre? The answer is that it is satire, through and through. The thriller elements are completely and deliberately over the top, and there is comic relief to spare. Nick’s investigation of the murders and revelations as to the next target are hilariously ludicrous, unbelievably complicated and ridiculous. The movie plays this portion of its satire very close to the body. It’s very subtle, and in another context would just be stupid and unbelievable. Here, however, we also have these crazy caricatures to play with. Nick is a rebel, unorthodox genius to the nth degree. His fantastic leaps of logic in figuring out this enigma of a killer so closely parallel those of a typical thriller that it is only with the other elements that we see the goofy satire emerge.

Frank is a stereotypical, power hungry, forever brooding political opportunist, whose mother always loved his brother better. The mayor is a stereotypical loose cannon politician with enough savvy to only lose it in the company of those whose livelihoods depend on staying in his good graces. Christine is the stereotypical viper who married a man she doesn’t love because he is powerful. Bernadette is the stereotypical damsel in distress, much younger than Nick, who ends up being his staunchest ally. Each character plays the thriller out in the most broad and predictable fashion imaginable.

The one monkey wrench, character-wise, is that of Ed. He simply does not belong in a typical thriller. A grubby, goofy artist, he is also something of a computer savant who, with Bernadette, stands by Nick to the end.

The satire is not inherent within these characters, but rather within the dialogue and its delivery. Each peripheral character is over the top stereotypical, and Nick and Ed provide the comic dialogue and delivery that makes the movie sing. As the film moves along, it becomes increasingly silly as well as over the top typical. The final chase is one of the funniest I have ever seen in an “action” sequence. It epitomizes and revels in skewering the ridiculous concept of the genius serial killer, all the while having the peripheral characters going completely ballistic. It’s absolutely priceless.

Kevin Kline is one of those actors who I don’t follow with any regularity, but I have noticed that he has an amazing level of comfort in front of the camera. Nick could easily have been either too serious or too goofy, but Kline manages to strike a balance (leaning, of course, toward the goofy) that gives him both charming warmth and a very silly slapstick bearing. The combination fits the role perfectly. The other performance that the movie simply could not have done without is that of Alan Rickman as Ed. Not a huge role, it is nevertheless crucial in setting the tone of the film. Most often used of late as the ultimate bad guy, here he is anything but. He’s sarcastic and eccentric, as well as loyal – to a point. It seems that every time he is on camera, he’s pulling some sort of wonderful smirk that speaks volumes.

The rest of the cast is good, but not as good as Kline and Rickman. Keitel carries the brooding Frank well, Steiger has a couple of moments when you think his head is going to explode before he immediately becomes calm and rational. Mastrantonio is mostly window dressing, but she’s very good at it, and has a funny scene toward the end that plays well. Sarandon is appropriately witchy, and Aiello always looks like he’s just about to blow a gasket. At one point he loses all patience with Kline’s Nick and has what amounts to a tantrum, at the crescendo of which he declares Nick to be “a dilettante fuck”. Not the type of verbiage (the “dilettante”, not the “fuck”) one would normally expect from this type of character, but perfectly fitting the tone being set.

Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski has some fun with the comic scenes (an ice skating scene in particular), as well as that marvelous chase scene, giving us camera angles that serve to highlight the absurdity of the situation beautifully. The Marvin Hamlisch score is, for the most part, unremarkable, with the exception of a little porn-like music creeping in here and there. Writer John Patrick Shanley and director Pat O’Connor took a big chance with The January Man, and lost at the time. The movie was largely panned, and faded away quickly. With the passage of some years, however, and the burgeoning thriller genre, this clever little satire hits the spot. It’s as if the filmmakers were able to see the future and the depths to which many thrillers would sink, and gives them a proper skewering before the fact.

Overall, The January Man is a clever satire of a genre badly in need of a clever satire. Kevin Kline and Alan Rickman give shining performances, and the rest of the cast nails the overacting necessary to pull this off. Billed as a comedy thriller, and one about a serial killer at that, it’s easy to see why audiences at the time didn’t lap this up. With the passage of some years, and the production of a slew of truly awful thrillers, this movie is a good example of a film ahead of its time. It’s definitely worth a watch now.

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