Barkin is only positive note in 'Man Trouble'

July 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Everyone connected with "Man Trouble" is 100 percent culturally validated: Jack Nicholson, of course, is the leading film actor of his generation; Ellen Barkin, after a series of vivid, passionate performances, is the first genuine actress since Meryl Streep to poise on the edge of movie stardom; Bob Rafelson, the director, is a legendary enfant terrible of Hollywood, having helmed the classic "Five Easy Pieces," as well as "Mountains of the Moon" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice;" writer Carole Eastman wrote "Five Easy Pieces."

And what have these brilliant, creative, wealthy people managed to unleash in "Man Trouble"?

Well, not just a bad movie. They're too smart to make just another bad movie. And not a mad bad movie, either, one of those zany catastrophes that ride a wave of self-delusion merrily into the reefs of reality. No, what they've managed is a kind of monument to the malign arrogance of the creative, a movie whose prime note is contempt for humanity and love for self.

It's not just bad, it's rancid. The movie hasn't a single redeeming feature, and its artistic failures -- it's slow, unfunny, unclear, self-absorbed and, to boot, a cabbage-patch of conflicting moods -- don't begin to get at what's really wrong with it. Over its endless running time, the movie manages to be sexist, racist, classist and doggist. Yes: It's even anti-dog. It's just plain ugly.

Nicholson plays Harry Bliss, the slovenly and only marginally ethical owner of a guard dog service; he's married to an Asian woman whom both he and the movie treat as the butt of one ethnic joke after another, even to the point of inviting us to laugh at her accent. Meanwhile, he appears to be sleeping with his assistant, whom he and the movie also despise as a working class drag.

Ellen Barkin, on the other hand, plays Joan Spruance, a classical musician who lives on what might be called the Planet of the Rapes. Everybody -- her ex-husband, an admirer in the orchestra, a passing working-class tree surgeon -- wants to rape her. She hires Nicholson, who provides her with a guard dog that immediately tries to rape her. She ultimately falls for Nicholson, and the movie approves of this union with a liar, swindler, cheater and lout because of his one overwhelming and all forgiving virtue: He is not a rapist.

Fragments of other plots are mixed in. Beverly D'Angelo shows up in a demeaning characterization as a bimbo (for a feminist text, "Man Trouble" is unbelievably misogynistic toward women whom it thinks "don't count"; that is, are not upscale classical musicians). She is being pursued by a sleazy lawyer (Saul Rubinek) who in turn fronts for a sleazier billionaire played by Harry Dean Stanton.

None of this is funny, and Nicholson is so torpid you're afraid he's going to fall asleep. Only Barkin remains radiant throughout, and only Barkin emerges, at the end, with anything like a $H reputation left. As for the rest, it's strictly a case of "Honey, They Shrunk My Reputation." Blech!

'Man Trouble'

Starring Jack Nicholson and Ellen Barkin.

Directed by Bob Rafelson.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated R.

No stars.

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