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The January Man
★☆☆☆☆
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One of the first releases of 1989 is named, appropriately enough, The January Man, and begins on New Years Eve when a pretty young socialite (Faye Grant) becomes the latest victim of a serial killer terrorizing Manhattan. The mayor of New York (Rod Steiger) wants the killer caught so he orders the police commissioner (Harvey Keitel) to reinstate a brilliant but unconventional detective, Nick Starkey (Kevin Kline), who happens to be the commissioner’s brother. Starkey, now a fireman after his brother got him kicked off the force, agrees to return and solve the case, but only if his brother agrees to allow a romantic dinner date between Starkey and his ex-girlfriend (Susan Sarandon), who is now married to his brother.

Starkey installs himself, and his artist roommate Ed (Alan Rickman), at police headquarters, much to the outrage of the captain (Danny Aiello) and begins his unusual—and implausible—methods for catching the killer while also starting up a romance with the mayor's young daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).

If the plot sounds convoluted it has nothing on the tone. To find a picture this all-over-the-place, involving this much on-screen and behind the scenes talent, you’d have to go back to Charles K. Feldman’s nearly unwatchable spy spoof Casino Royale (1967). Unlike that film, The January Man was not directed by six different men; it just feels like it was. The movie seems to try itself out as a psychological thriller, a romantic comedy, a buddy cop caper, a broad slapstick farce, and an intelligent police procedural. It takes all the worst tropes of each genre and mashes them together into an unwieldy mess.

The first-rate cast members all seem to be acting in different pictures. Steiger chews the scenery to a level beyond any performances he’s given in even a Spaghetti Western or exploitation thriller. While Keitel broods internally, never dialing up emotions in even the most heated argument. Sarandon plays the clothes, the hair and the props but never finds a character underneath them. Mastrantonio looks lost in her first attempt to play comedy, smiling a lot even when her character believes her life is in danger. Rickman is so deadpan he barely registers on the celluloid. And Aiello yells and yells and yells until his last scene where he shifts to that calm rational quiet talk he does so well—but without words that make us care. All the while Kline plays Starkey as if he’s a character we’ve already gotten to know and love in some previous movie. We’re supposed to accept how brilliant and funny this guy is with out the actor or the film ever showing us any reason to believe this.

The screenplay comes from the brilliant playwright John Patrick Shanley (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea) whose other screenwriting credits are the excellent Five Corners (1987) and the Oscar winning Moonstruck (1987)—one of the greatest screenplays of the decade.  I can only assume The January Man was something he wrote while trying to make the jump from stage to screen, and, after his Oscar win, studios were unwilling to wait for him to write something new on par with Moonstruck so he dusted off pages from random drafts of this and threw them together. 

The producer is Norman Jewison, who, in addition to his own movies like The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), A Soldier's Story (1984), Agnes of God (1985) and the a for mentioned Moonstruck, has produced memorable pictures for other directors like Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970) and Ted Kotcheff’s Billy Two Hats (1974). Jewison has made a few stinkers in his day, but at least The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966), Best Friends (1982) and Iceman (1984) knew what kind of movie they were attempting to be.

At the helm of The January Man is the award winning Irish director Pat O'Connor (The Ballroom of Romance, Cal). It’s possible O'Connor was unable to handle the transition from BBC level productions with well-behaved British and Irish actors to working with movie stars in the Hollywood studio system and all the unreasonable craziness that goes along with that unique task. But it’s equally plausible that O'Connor, Jewison and Shanley created exactly the film they set out to make, and consider its wacky, illogical plot and unbalanced, dartboard tone hilarious. However The January Man came into existence, it’s probably best for all involved that it be forgotten.

Twitter Capsule:
A terrific all-star cast and prestige creative team somehow churn out this convoluted serial killer, romanic comedy, slapstick farce. 

 

Directed by Pat O'Connor
Produced by Norman Jewison and Ezra Swerdlow

Written by John Patrick Shanley

With: Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Rod Steiger, Alan Rickman, Faye Grant, Kenneth Welsh, and Bill Cobbs

Cinematography: Jerzy Zielinski
Editing: Lou Lombardo
Music: Marvin Hamlisch

Runtime: 97 min
Release Date: 13 January 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color