“I’m not an intellectual, I’m not an artist, I’m a pop culture sponge,” Joel Schumacher said in a 1990 interview. And indeed, this surprisingly modest and personal credo pretty much sums up the most crucial — and enjoyable — elements of Schumacher’s best movies.
Unpretentious, middle-brow, political without being partisan, Schumacher’s films are unabashedly and unapologetically made for mass entertainment. Often betraying his origins in fashion design, his movies are stylishly appointed and at times too slick, but they are not mindless or frivolous. Schumacher has shown a remarkable ability to take individual experience and discover in it what is universal, what transcends the particular to become a general issue the large public of moviegoers can embrace.
He always has demonstrated a keen eye for timely, socially relevant issues that also contain broad commercial appeal: youth angst (“St. Elmo’s Fire”), the sacredness of life and fear of death (“Flatliners” and the AIDS parable “Dying Young”), urban alienation and moral disintegration (“Falling Down”), faulty legal system and ambiguity toward lawyers (“The Client”), racism, vigilante and the possibility of black and white coexistence (“A Time to Kill”).
Schumacher’s 16-year-directorial career can roughly be divided into three chapters. The first phase includes his feature debut, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), starring Lily Tomlin, as well as the comedy “D.C. Cab” (1983). In the mid-to-late 1980s, he made a trilogy of youth movies, “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985), “Lost Boys” (l987) and “Flatliners” (1990), that are now known for their glamorous casts — and the label “brat pack” which described a whole new generation of actors.
The turning point in Schumacher’s career was “Falling Down” (1993), arguably his most interesting and ambitious movie to date, which also catapulted him to Hollywood’s A-list of directors. He then turned John Grisham’s “The Client” (1994) into a solid box-office success and confirmed his status as a major director with the next two assignments, “Batman Forever” (1995) and “A Time to Kill” (1996), which some critics consider the best screen adaptation of a Grisham novel. Schumacher’s upcoming “Batman and Robin,” starring George Clooney, Uma Thurman, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Alicia Silverstone will probably reaffirm his clout in the industry.
His approach to movies and their function in a large, heterogeneous American society go back to his childhood. Movies were a life-saver for the young Joel in the 1950s, when he was growing up in a depressed Queens neighborhood; only one family in his tenement had a TV set. It would seem normal that a child so obsessed with movies would go to film school and begin his career as a production manager or assistant director before turning to directing.
But Schumacher didn’t go the normal route. With the notable exception of Vincente Minnelli, he may be one of the only major directors to have come from costume design. His foray into Hollywood began as a window dresser for Bendel’s department store, then costume designer for “Sleeper,” “Interiors” and “Blume in Love.” However, realizing he was getting farther from his dream, he forsook the fashion world and became a self-taught screenwriter (“Sparkle,” “Car Wash”) before embarking on his journey as a director.
In each of Schumacher’s movies, there are disturbing scenes meant to make the viewers uncomfortable — force them to reflect on their own phobia and anxieties. “What I try to do in making movies,” Schumacher once said, “is to open up a window and show you a world.” The window Schumacher has opened may not be very wide, but it still provides a view of some of America’s deepest anxieties and besetting ills. Though middle-of-the-ground politically, Schumacher’s best movies are humanistically compassionate and emotionally involving.
“St. Elmo’s Fire” dealt with the very real problem of the limbos most youngsters find themselves in right after graduating from college. They were played by an attractive ensemble that included the brat pack team of Ally Sheedy, Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Andrew McCarthy. In “Flatliners,” Schumacher offered a visual and visceral portrayal of near-death, an experience never attempted onscreen before. The film doesn’t pretend to know what happens after death, but it conveyed the arrogance of — and the price paid — by medical students who violate their professional ethos.
But perhaps the movie that exemplifies the Schumacher touch is “Falling Down,” which starred Michael Douglas as a middle-class professional who, fired from his job at a defense plant on a hot summer day, goes on the rampage. Released barely a year after the L.A. riots, this film about urban and personal disintegration addressed a whole menu of problems that might be confronted by ordinary people: racism, class barriers, inflation, traffic jams, broken pay phones and muggers.
Schumacher directed “Falling Down” partly as an absurdist comedy, partly as a high-noon style drama, with a climactic confrontation between the furious avenger and a veteran police officer about to retire (Robert Duvall). The pilgrim of a white-bread Everyman who divests himself of values and morals, “Falling Down” can be seen as a darkly comic version of “The Terminator” — with social conscience, sans special effects.
In reviewing the movie, New York Times’ Vincent Canby put his finger on what’s distinctive about Schumacher’s style: “The film exemplifies a quintessentially American kind of pop movie making that, with skill and wit, sends up stereotypical attitudes while also exploiting them with insidious effect.”
Indeed, as manipulative and gimmicky as “The Client” is, its villain was a character most viewers could relate to: Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones), an ambitious New Orleans attorney. Pursuing mob killers who terrorize a child witness, he’s presented as an opportunistic, power-hungry politician, eager to be elected governor. Foltrigg’s combination of charm, intimidation and manipulation reminded viewers of their worst encounters with lawyers, even when they are on their side.
Similarly, though marred by plot improbabilities and moralistic speeches about race relations, “A Time to Kill” still deals with the timely issue of a white lawyer defending a black man who had killed some rednecks. Putting the viewers in the position of a loving father, who frustratingly avenges the brutal rape and murder of his daughter, the movie shrewdly avoids the issue of vigilante and the implications of taking the law into one’s hand.
Schumacher’s career shows that, with all the popularity of film schools, there’s nothing like on-the-job training, and working on the sets. Favoring movie stars, he’s an old-fashioned director who would perfectly fit — and benefit — from the studio system, if it existed. Committed to improving his skills with each assignment, Schumacher recently said, “It took me a long time to become a director, now I want to become good at it.” Many filmmakers have said it before, but when Schumacher says it, you believe him.