What do you do when a hero takes a fall? For years I've been tracking the career of director Michael Lehmann, convinced that he had a kind of hidden brilliance packed somewhere in the corners of his films. If I persevered, I would have been the first to discover the hidden connection and trace the line that would lead to a major re-discovery. But then I saw Because I Said So (152 screens). I breathlessly arrived at the screening, excited by the possibilities the evening would have in store for me. The movie started, and I re-adjusted my expectations, thinking that maybe I'd have to work a bit harder to find something good. The movie kept going and I began to despair that I'd find anything good. The movie went a little further and I became convinced: this movie doesn't have anything good. It's one of the worst, most annoying movies I've ever seen. This was re-affirmed when the critic sitting directly to my right leaned over at one point and whispered, "kill me."

p class="MsoNormal">This was a comedy with a pitch that resembled a curdling shriek. The women in this movie (Diane Keaton, Mandy Moore, Piper Perabo and Lauren Graham) behave so horribly that they sent the Women's Lib movement spiraling years backwards. Perabo and Graham usually have a kind of natural charm that works despite the material, but unfortunately they become secondary characters to the more annoying leads. It's one thing when you go into the latest Michael Bay film expecting it to be terrible, but it's another thing entirely when you go in expecting glimmers of genius and wind up with a steaming pile of dookie so terrible it could have been directed by Brett Ratner.

The San Francisco-born Lehmann started off with a student film called Beaver Gets a Boner, so right away he was teetering between the trashy genius of John Waters and the trash of Porky's Revenge. His feature debut Heathers (1989) quickly became a bona-fide cult classic, an ingenious film that I saw over and over in my early days of college. I haven't seen its follow-up, Meet the Applegates (1991), and indeed, it's hard to find nowadays, but it's another black comedy about a family of giant praying mantises disguised as humans and living in suburbia.

From there, Lehmann attracted the attention of Hollywood and landed a job directing a multi-million dollar Bruce Willis summer vehicle. The only problem was that Hudson Hawk (1991) pulled a 180-degree turnaround from Willis' Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990) that no one expected. (In Hollywood, people don't like to get what they don't expect.) Its bizarre, cartoony -- and vaguely queeny -- villains (Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant), musical sequences and other odd touches turned off critics and early audiences, and the film's reputation unfairly snowballed into that of a giant turkey. I've met Lehmann twice, and I've told him in no uncertain terms how much I liked Hudson Hawk, and I believe he thinks I'm nuts. After so many years of complete public consensus on that film, even he probably believes (wrongly) that it's a turkey.

From there, Lehmann helmed another irreverent comedy, Airheads (1994), starring the unlikely trio of Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi and Brendan Fraser as a trio of rockers who hold a radio station hostage in order to get their music played. It's not bad, and it has its share of fans. Lehmann seemed to be climbing back with his next film, a lovable romantic comedy, The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996) that re-invented the "Cyrano de Bergerac" story with the voice of a radio talk show host (Janeane Garofalo) and a not-so-bright cutie-pie (Uma Thurman).

But then came another flop, My Giant (1998), which I still have not been able to muster the courage to see. It stars Billy Crystal with the Romanian-born, 7'7" Gheorghe Muresan, who had played for the NBA's Washington Bullets. Generally one-shot sight gags do not provide the makings of great movies. But, again, I haven't seen it.

Four years later, he came back with 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002). Like Hudson Hawk, 40 Days and 40 Nights was misunderstood and un-appreciated. Most critics quickly lumped it in as a "sex comedy" and went no further, but it's actually a terrifically funny comment on both sex and religion, with a hilarious, frantic performance by Josh Hartnett and a very sweet one by Shannyn Sossamon. It's packed with nudity and subversive humor, but never sinks to toilet level.

So what's the connection? It could be people who resort to outrageous, almost unacceptable means (murder, abstinence, taking hostages, etc.) in order to prove a point, or to gain attention. The one thing that Lehmann characters have in common is the courage -- or the sheer chutzpa -- to act on their innermost desires, no matter how twisted. (Tellingly, he was at one point lined up to direct Ed Wood, which would have fit perfectly.) I suspect that this describes Lehmann as well. He probably wanted to work with Diane Keaton, and didn't care how stupid the script was.

Lehmann earned some paychecks with TV work, including the great cult show "Wonderfalls," before returning with his current disaster. But this time, he already has a follow-up film, a low-budget digital feature called Flakes (with Zooey Deschanel) ready to go. Let's hope it puts Lehmann back on track again. Everyone's entitled to one turkey. Tim Burton has his Planet of the Apes; Robert Altman has Beyond Therapy; Francis Ford Coppola has Jack; Roman Polanski has Pirates; John Huston has Phobia; Sidney Lumet has The Wiz and the Gloria remake; Otto Preminger had Skidoo; Steven Spielberg has Hook, etc. If we're capable of forgiving those giants, we should lavish a little forgiveness on Lehmann, too.
categories Columns, Cinematical