Review: Punchline (Seltzer, 1988)

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Companion review for Top 10 Tom Hanks Films 1984 – 1989

Punchline (1988)
Dir. David Seltzer; starring Tom Hanks, Sally Field, John Goodman, Mark Rydell, Kim Griest, Paul Mazursky, Damon Wayans.

Punchline could be noted for the first cinematic meeting between Tom Hanks and Sally Field. It’s more interesting because here in 1988 the pair play a couple of disillusioned stand-up comics who find an attraction in each other that would make their later incarnation as mother and son in Forrest Gump shamefully obscene. But in Punchline, Field’s older and wiser mother of three is the perfect antidote to Hanks’ wide-eyed wisecracking but deep-rooted insecurity. Writer/director David Seltzer sees these two characters as polar opposites living in the same world, each with a unique take on how to succeed in it. Both dream of comedy stardom but what is particularly interesting is how Hanks (young and hopeful) and Field (mature and retrospective) approach their goal.

David Seltzer was going through a particularly creative patch in his career when making the film. Known mainly for his screenplays and not his direction, Punchline was to be his second feature length movie as writer/director after the excellent teen drama Lucas. His screenplays are noted for their strong characters and an ability to meld engaging relationships out of traditionally disparate cultural sectors. In Lucas it was the strange, lonely school “geek” and the beautiful blonde cheerleader; in Punchline it’s a free-spirited twenty-something male and the bored, suburban housewife. Without any doubt Seltzer is a better writer than a director (consider some of the fine examples of his work under the care of more accomplished filmmakers: The Omen directed by Richard Donner and Bird On A Wire directed by John Badham), suffering from the affliction affecting so many screenwriters-turned-directors – pacing. Frequently, Seltzer doesn’t know where to cut his treasured dialogue or trim a scene fearing we may lose its motivation, and the film is disadvantaged as a result. At a shade under two hours long, the film could have done with a few trims to bring it in fifteen minutes shorter.

But when Seltzer gets it right he finds a graceful tone many experienced directors can only aspire to achieve. The opening sequence plays like a drug deal with Seltzer subverting our expectations while simultaneously setting up the cutthroat world of amateur stand-up comedians. Later, Seltzer finds a deeply affecting moment when a lustful Hanks tries to win Field’s heart in a taxi cab, while a loose homage to Singing In The Rain is not only moving but a beautiful representation of Hanks’ ability as an actor.

Unfortunately for Punchline – a film about comedy – it isn’t funny enough. Seltzer is more assured when dealing with drama than he is finding a stage for the comedy. Metaphorically, the staging of the stand-up comes across as stilted at times, and the onus is on the actors to make it work. Field and Hanks have little trouble finding their feet in front of the audience, but the support isn’t always there. Daman Wayans, for example, is hardly the confident egotist he would prove to be in the 1990s. Likewise, when Seltzer tries to force the comedy (Field’s young daughter tells a crude joke at the dinner table when dad John Goodman has guests from the Catholic church visiting) it’s predictably crass and lacking the sort of thoughtful motivation inherent in his characters. Compare this to a cut-loose Tom Hanks telling jokes to a bunch of patients at a hospital. This is one of the funniest moments of the film, largely because of Hanks’ ability to shine when given an audience, and because Seltzer sees it as a major part of Hanks and Field’s burgeoning friendship.

Digressing for a moment, I did note in the scene when the daughter tells the joke mentioning a certain male appendage that it reminded of a similar scene in The Exorcist. Maybe because it involves a priest, a young, pubescent girl, and a dinner party but I felt the director was either paying homage to The Exorcist or at least slyly referencing it. Seltzer also uses the same shot as William Friedkin when the camera tracks back to reveal the girl at the bottom of the frame.

But homage aside, the value of Seltzer’s film rests primarily on the shoulders of its two leads Hanks and Field. Thankfully, they are both excellent – Hanks having more scope than many of the characters he’d played previously in the eighties as well as lacking much of the sentiment usually associated with his parts; Field the dutiful but duplicitous housewife sharing time between the stage and the kitchen.

Many of the film’s best moments feature only Hanks and Field – the heartfelt plea in the taxi cab when Hanks asks her to run away with him, or the brilliant reproduction of Singing In The Rain after Hanks’ heart finally breaks. But there’s also the odd moment when they are singularly fantastic such as Hanks going on stage in front of his father and telling the audience about how hard he was pushed in medical school, that he didn’t want to be there and that he was afraid of blood. When he recalls the story of a dissected frog’s eye landing and sticking to his neck, tears peeking at his eye, we see a Tom Hanks not witnessed on screen before. We see fragility and pain, we see a man who escapes every night on stage only to be reintroduced into his nightmare when he comes off it.

Likewise, Field pulls us into the story with a sort of familial love; a warm, familiar, caring sensibility that is countered by her on-stage fragility. There’s a lovely scene when she comes home with a retro hair style and begins to cry in front of her children and husband John Goodman because she thinks she’s made a terrible mistake. They comfort their mother and wife, Goodman being especially good, bonding around her, explaining that she actually has the best hair cut in the world. Later, in one of the film’s most telling scenes, Field explains to her family why being a stand-up comic is so important to her. She’s graceful and sincere (it never feels trite or melodramatic), her reasoning mimicking that of Hanks’ Steven Gold’s motivation, while simultaneously highlighting the very differences that make his infatuation with her so poignant. His fragility in life informs but does not hinder him on-stage; her fragility on-stage is tempered by her maturity off it, providing Gold with the love and warmth he never received from his own family.

Punchline won’t be remembered with the sort of praise lavished on many of Tom Hanks’ films during the eighties, and neither will be held in the same regard as Hanks and Field’s 1994 pairing for Forrest Gump. But that’s more because it doesn’t fit easily into the mould of the majority of Hanks’ work in the eighties than the quality of the work itself. And, arguably, Hanks and Field’s on-screen relationship is a lot more interesting and diverse than that seen in Gump. Had Seltzer tightened it up a bit and found a better formula for his comedy Punchline could quite easily have become one of the most memorable Hanks outings of the decade but as it is it will have to be remembered as the character piece that got away.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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