Friday, December 16, 2011

'Chances Are' offers early example of Downey's talent

In honor of the release of “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” Robert Downey Jr.’s second time inhabiting the shoes of the famous detective, I wanted to take a look at a film early in Mr. Jr.’s career.

The high-concept romantic farce,“Chances Are” from 1989 has fallen off of every one’s radar, but it is a fine early example of Downey’s abilities as a comic actor and a film worth seeking out.

In the first scenes of the film, the happily married Louie Jeffries (Christopher McDonald) dies in an accident and is whisked up to a heaven similar to the one that appeared in Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait,” a film “Chances Are” owes a lot to in terms of tone and theme.

In this case heaven is a way station for souls waiting to be reincarnated. Louie does not take death well and is allowed to skip the line and be reborn. The problem is he didn’t receive an inoculation shot that will erase the memories of his previous life with his wife, Corinne (Sybil Shepherd), and best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal).

Louie is born again as Alex, who, 22 years later, takes the form of Downey. Alex winds up meeting and falling for Louie’s daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson) and eventually meeting both Corinne and Philip. Once Alex enter’s Louie’s house all the old memories come flooding back leading to some very confused emotions.

Turns out Corrine has been carrying an unhealthy torch for Louie this whole time. Philip has become a surrogate husband and father, but never officially took over either role despite secretly loving Corrine.

Now that Alex has Louie’s memories he is repulsed by Miranda’s advances, which leads to several great awkward exchanges. Similarly, the scenes in which Alex must convince Corrine he is in fact Louie are played just right. It is even funnier when Corrine not only accepts, but embraces it. This is further complicate by Philip deciding he finally will profess his love to Corrine.

In essence you have a Shakespearean case of mistaken identities except in this case the two identities are housed in one person. I love quadrangle develops between Alex and Miranda, Louie and Corrine, and Corrine and Philip.

As with any comedy of errors, despite the odds, everything neatly works out and everyone winds up with the correct partner. When done poorly this can be groan inducing, but when done correctly it is breezy, feel-good fun. The latter is the case with “Chances Are,” which features a witty script by Perry and Randy Howze. The movie strikes a nice balance to between frothy comedy and low-key romance.

The film certainly has its flaws. The great composer Maurice Jarre, who wrote scores for such films as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” provides a similarly epic score to “Chances Are” when it needs something more whimsical. The score is too overwrought and on-the-nose with telling you how to feel that it becomes laughable and distracting. This is a minor shortcoming and in a way has its own charms. I began to predict when the music would swell on the score with a knowing grin.

Through it all you have Downey at the center in a performance that allows him to be charming, goofy and tender. In “Chances Are,” Downey has a light touch and shows his apt timing for physical comedy in several fine set pieces. It is very likely it is this performance that helped get him the title role in “Chaplin,” arguable his break-out role and one that lead to his first Oscar nomination.

In the years since Downey made his comeback from his public downward spiral into drugs, he hasn’t made a blatant romantic comedy like “Chances Are,” but his assured comedic timing and finesse with dialogue are the key to the success of so many of his characterizations. The way he banters with Gwyneth Paltrow in the “Iron Man” movies and Jude Law as Watson in the “Sherlock Holmes” films follows the beats of screwball comedy.

Over the years, Downey has developed impeccable line delivery. He does snarky one-liners better than just about anyone, but underneath even the most barbed dialogue there’s a genuineness that makes even narcissistic jerks like Tony Stark in “Iron Man” likable. Cynical sincerity is what helped make Downey a star.

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