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Can “Freaky Deaky” Be “Justified”?

March 1, 2013

Hollywood has been turning Elmore Leonard’s books and short stories into movies and TV shows for more than a half-century now, and they almost never get it right. They’ve had better luck with his more straightforward Westerns (Hombre, Joe Kid, 3:10 to Yuma—twice) than with his crime novels, which feature a tricky tone that veers between quirky comedy and brutal violence. In the ’80s, John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up and Burt Reynolds’ Stick mostly skipped the humor and ended up as generic action vehicles. It wasn’t until Scott Frank adapted Get Shorty for director Barry Sonnenfeld and a post-Pulp Fiction John Travolta in 1995 that we saw a contemporary Elmore Leonard film that wasn’t a crime.

Frank did the honors again in 1998 for Steven Soderbergh with Out Of Sight—arguably the best big-screen Leonard adaptation. Surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino missed the mark with 1997’s Jackie Brown, which despite some fine performances (especially from Robert Forster and Pam Grier) and great scenes, felt flabby where it should’ve been tight. In this millennium, Leonard’s had more luck creatively on the small screen, with the unjustiably short-lived Maximum Bob and Karen Sisco on ABC and, most notably, Justified, which is in the midst of its fourth bang-up season on FX. After a smokin’ pilot, it took exec producer Graham Yost and his writers half a season to nail down Leonard’s slippery voice, but it’s been firing on all cylinders ever since.

Meanwhile, Leonard movies have been embarrassments, from the ill-conceived Get Shorty sequel Be Cool (Mistake No. 1: not getting Scott Frank back to write it) to Owen Wilson’s flop The Big Bounce (which had been equally botched in 1969 with Ryan O’Neal). Despite the presence of Mickey Rourke and Shakespeare in Love director John Madden, Killshot went straight to video in 2008 and now the same fate has befallen Freaky Deaky, a not-so-hot mess made by Charles Matthau (Walter’s son) and starring the motley crew of Christian Slater, Crispin Glover and Andy Dick.

Set in 1974 Detroit—and featuring marquees with his dad’s movies The Front Page and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 on them—Freaky Deaky takes the title too literally. It errs on the side of alleged comedy, as an ex-con explosives expert (Slater) plots to blow up a perverted movie producer (Glover) but instead gets his sleazier brother (Dick). Revolution‘s Billy Burke seems to be in a different, better movie, hitting the right note of world-weariness as a former bomb squad cop mixed up with a blonde bombshell (Sabina Gadecki) who accuses Glover of rape. Are you laughing yet? Trust me—you won’t be. The whole thing feels forced.

There’s hope for another great Elmore Leonard movie, as Daniel Schechter—who showed a sly hand with comedy in the recent indie Supporting Characters—is writing and directing an untitled adaptation of The Switch, with a promising cast led by America’s best actor, John Hawkes, and also including Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher and…Jennifer Aniston. Don’t laugh. If Leonard could inspire strong work from Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, why not Aniston? Now that would be truly Freaky Deaky.

What’s your favorite Elmore Leonard flick? Any Mr. Majestyk fans? Post a comment!

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