Quirky 'Search and Destroy' is a winner about a loser

June 09, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

God bless unclassifiable, offbeat oddities like "Search and Destroy," which opens today at the Rotunda and confounds every single expectation. It's just nutty enough to wash the bad taste of a commercial disaster like "Congo" out of your mouth.

The movie, directed by New York artist Dave Salle, is a hipper-than-hip rant on the topic of despair and greed and has something of the mordant black punch of John Barth's first two novels, "End of the Road" and "The Floating Opera." It also might be conceived of as a companion piece to Martin Scorsese's weird little "After Hours," and Scorsese must agree: He is executive producer and appears in a cameo as a Florida state tax accountant. It also co-stars his girlfriend, Illeana Douglas, last seen in "Cape Fear," in which Robert De Niro bit off a chunk of her apple-like cheek.

Like "After Hours," "Search and Destroy" stars Griffin Dunne at his best. Dunne is a specialist in male hysteria, and in this film he surfs the waves of his own self-destruction and self-delusion with the crazed bravado of a champ. As the movie veers this way and that, his voice quavers, pearls of icy sweat blow out of his pores, and he struggles to stay sane in a world that is not only crazy but that he himself has invented.

Dunne plays a Miami small-timer named Martin Markhiem who, when we discover him in a Florida tax office with his ex-wife (Rosanna Arquette), has just been informed that he owes the state 147,000-odd dollars. A promoter of skating and accordion acts, he yearns to accomplish big things, to leave a mark. As for taxes, as he so equitably explains to his interrogator, "They're outside my main focus."

His main focus, it turns out, is righteous indignation. Nothing is ever his fault; he is always the victim; people and "the system" are always against him -- and his brow furls with titanic anger and his eyes darken as he explains how the fact that the state requires taxes is a great injustice. In fact, that's pretty much the -- comic device of the movie: this small-time sweat merchant trying to get off the hook by bluffing his way through crises entirely of his own invention.

When his condo is appropriated, he sets off on a last, desperate gambit. Enamored of a TV self-help quack (Dennis Hopper), he )) sets out to acquire the movie rights to the man's nutty novel, which expounds his four rules of life. (Sample: "You only apologize for the things you want.") Assuming he'll be welcomed into the bosom of the great Dr. Waxling, he is astounded (and deeply indignant) when he's treated like a trespasser.

But Martin has resources. His despair makes him a superb liar and gives his performances an eerie conviction, and so it is that he connects not with the Doc but with his secretary and assistant, Marie (Douglas), a wannabe screenwriter. The two bond and go off to New York to raise the $500,000 it will take to option Dr. Waxling's great book.

The movie follows this prospective Sammy Glick on the hustle, as he connives himself into and out of one ludicrous situation after another, always protected by his desperate greed and self-delusion. It's a cinematic examination of Bismarck's great dictum, which held that God looks out for fools, babies and the United States of America. Martin is a representative sample of all three.

Soon enough, a sleazy, spooky Christopher Walken has him matched up with an out-of-control John Turturro as they try to crack the New York narcotics business and then get into credit-card fraud. Of course, Martin, who thinks he's ready for everything, soon learns that in the real world of crime, he is hopelessly overmatched, particularly when the plot veers into violence.

Part thriller, part comedy, part send-up, "Search and Destroy" defies convention as it spins its merry way toward a perfect ending. It's as goofy and amusing as they come. David Salle had never directed a movie before, and once he learns how, he'll probably never reach this level again.

"Search and Destroy"

Starring Griffin Dunne, Dennis Hopper and Illeana Douglas

Directed by David Salle

Released by October Films

Rated R (profanity, violence)

***

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