Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance back from the dead.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)
Director: Norman Mailer
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Isabella Rossellini, Debra Sandlund, Wings Hauser
IMDb rating: 4.7
Metacritic rating: N/A
There are good films, and there are bad films. And there are films so hilariously incompetent, so deliciously awful, that they escape the regular spectrum of film judgement and head off into some wondrous fifth dimension where time and space meet in a kind of shambolic nirvana. Those versed in all things Miami Connection and Tommy Wiseau will know the feeling well: that mix of mean-spirited glee and all out bemusement as someone’s creative vision implodes on the screen in a hailstorm of pants dialogue and nauseous cinematography. They’re what aficionados like to call ‘good-bad’ movies, and I hold many of them very close to my heart.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance was a multi-million dollar production made by a Pulitzer Prize winner. And yet it still manages to be awful
The Room and Troll 2 are the most notorious examples of the good-bad movie, but in many ways Tough Guys Don’t Dance is their superior. You see, whereas the likes of Things and The Amazing Bulk were made by people with only the shoe-stringiest of budgets and a less than capable grasp on the concept of ‘filmmaking’, Tough Guys Don’t Dance was a multi-million dollar production written and directed by a Pulitzer Prize winner. And yet it still manages to be awful – and I mean appalling – in such a glorious and frankly embarrassing fashion that I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of sick and twisted masterpiece.
I’d try and explain the plot, but even after numerous, joyous viewings I still have little to no idea why anything is going on, or for that matter who anyone is. Why does Ryan O’Neal suddenly have a dog? Why does he write numbers in shaving foam on the mirror? Why is there an impromptu séance in the film’s opening minutes? So many questions, but with incompetence this hilarious there’s no need for answers.
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Just gaze into O’Neal’s eyes as he tries to straight-facedly spout lines like, “Do you want to tickle my stick?”. There is shame in those eyes, there is clawing regret, and it’s absolutely hysterical. I’m truly unsure if Norman Mailer (who both directed and adapted the film from his novel of the same name) was attempting to invent a new kind of hip slang, or if he just couldn’t be bothered to write in coherent English. His marvellously nonchalant appearance in the film’s ad campaign, in which he grumpily reads out the opinions of test audiences, seems to suggest the latter, but the dreamer in me likes to think that it’s the former.
It’s a film somewhat reminiscent of last year’s The Counsellor, a truly awful movie that was doomed from the moment it gave Cormac McCarthy complete authorial license. This is not, you see, because Cormac McCarthy is a bad author – on the contrary, he’s one of the greatest writers living today – but because there is a huge difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay. A master of one is not necessarily a master of the other, and McCarthy’s prestige meant no one was willing to stand up and tell him the script was rubbish. But where The Counsellor was an awkwardly written and clunky crime epic, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a full scale mess that makes progressively less and less sense as Mailer hurls his rampant incompetence into every corner of the film.
For people who derive pure enjoyment from watching pieces of cinematic garbage, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is an untapped zenith
The ‘acting’, if you can call it that, comes from a pretty impressive cast (including Isabella Rossellini, fresh off the set of Blue Velvet) constantly wrestling with hilariously misjudged dialogue. As good as “We’re on a zoom” may look on paper, it will never work in a movie, even when uttered by a police chief who looks more than a little like a psychopathic spade. I’d say I feel bad for everyone involved – especially O’Neal, who trudges through the film in a sort of semi-bemused waking coma – but I’m way, way too mean spirited for that. And Tough Guys Don’t Dance just keeps on giving – it even has a cameo from Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) as a wife swapping Southern preacher with an oversized Johnson. Now if that isn’t a selling point, I don’t know what is.
I came across Tough Guys Don’t Dance completely by accident, and the unbridled joy of that first, uninformed watching will stay with me until my dying day. It was like waking up for the first time. It’s an absolutely magnificent viewing experience, packed with hilariously stagey cinematography and a script so bad that you will never look at the word ‘imbroglio’ the same way again. I know I’ve made it sound awful, and it really is awful, but boy is this a kind of awful I can get behind – for those countless, semi-strange people who derive pure enjoyment from watching pieces of cinematic garbage, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is an untapped zenith, a talent bomb of the highest and most hilarious order. Dare I say it’s better-worse than The Room?
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All images: Cannon Films