Dead Heat

Bad Career Move Derby

Welcome to another installment of Bad Career Move Derby. Today's contestants are a pair of male actors whose professions began auspiciously enough but have spiraled inexorably downward ever since: Donald Sutherland and Gary Busey.

Sutherland broke from the gate with a vengeance, lending his bug-eyed irreverence to such films as 1967's The Dirty Dozen (laugh if you must; the Lee Marvin vehicle was one of the last great action movies before special effects, Peckinpah-esque slow motion violence, and steroid-enhanced mumblers took all the fun out of the genre), M*A*S*H (1970), Klute (1971), and Don't Look Now (1973). He stumbled in the title role of Fellini's Casanova (1976), then lost ground with 1900 (1977) and The Eagle Has Landed (1977). He got back in the race with one of his most memorable roles, the pot-smoking, coed-hustling professor in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978). But then he suffered through a brutal stretch in the Eighties that began with his most famous demented killer turn in Eye of the Needle and included Bear Island, Gas, Crackers, The Trouble with Spies, Lost Angels, and Stallone's latent homosexual S&M fest, Lock Up.

The Nineties have not been kind to Sutherland. Aside from being forced to watch from afar while Julia Roberts threw over his boy Kiefer for a string of losers that would eventually culminate in her marriage to hunky pinup boy Lyle Lovett, the onetime leading man saw his screen roles dwindle to bit parts in Backdraft and JFK. He was the putative star of 1991's muddled yawner, Eminent Domain, before succumbing to the made-for-cable disease in 1992's Quicksand: No Escape, which could be viewed as a metaphor for his job prospects of late.

Sutherland enters this week's BCMD riding a vehicle titled Benefit of the Doubt, in which he costars with a wan-looking Amy Irving, who would also be a contestant in the Derby if she had a career to sully. The original Hawkeye plays Frank Braswell, a psychopath who comes home to his daughter after spending 22 years in the slammer for the murder of her mother. Irving's portrayal of Karen, the daughter, a dissipated cocktail waitress at a topless bar, may be in character, but it sure is unpleasant to behold. As interpreted by Irving, Karen's moods consist of great stretches of listlessness punctuated by occasional bouts of hysteria. You figure a guy who just spent two decades in the joint would opt for quality time with someone a little cheerier when he finally gets out.

But Frank is a real family man. He makes great, perfectly round pancakes, does the laundry, and treats Karen's son Pete with love and tenderness. Still, Frank was convicted of murder largely on the basis of Karen's childhood testimony. His re-entrance into her life sparks an uneasiness that intensifies when Karen's fiance Dan suffers a fatal on-the-job accident, tumbling onto a giant, spiked, rotating drum that shreds him into mulch. You might think that Karen would be happy to get rid of a man who makes love to her by turning the cocktail server into a giant margarita - licking salt off her shoulder, slugging back a shot of tequila, and nibbling a slice of lime while she holds it with her lips. But no, she misses him. And even though part of her doesn't trust Frank, another side of her can't help thinking how little Petey loves his granddaddy's flapjacks.

The filmmakers take great pains to create uncertainty about Frank's actual guilt or innocence. Did he really kill his wife, or was his frightened daughter's testimony exploited and manipulated by overzealous prosecutors? Even when Frank kills Dan (oops!), it's almost in self-defense. Dan curses at Frank and tries to push him; Frank counterpunches. Dan's head bounces off a wall. He's already dead when Frank dumps him down the chute that leads to the shredder. Heck, what would you have done?

But then it's time to turn Frank into a monster. He sneaks into Karen's bedroom and fondles her while she sleeps. She suddenly remembers that this is exactly what he was doing to her the night her mother died (surprise!). She awakens, screams, gathers up her son, and takes off. A seemingly interminable chase ensues. Ol' Frank proves more resilient than Jason in the Friday the 13th series, and a better tracker than the Last of the Mohicans (they didn't call him Hawkeye for nothing). You haven't lived until you've seen a silver-haired grandpa in an open-throttle speedboat chase.

Poor Donald Sutherland. You can see he wants to give Frank's character a shot of credibility. But bad writing and limp direction cripple him, ultimately ensuring that no one in his right mind would be willing to give Frank the Benefit of the Doubt.

Our second contestant in Bad Career Move Derby, Gary Busey, has not been around as long as Donald Sutherland and therefore has not had as many opportunities to muck up his reputation. But Busey is a game competitor; he's determined to make the most of his chances.

Busey is another actor who got off to a fast start. Best remembered for the title role in The Buddy Holly Story, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, he followed up with a series of disappointing performances in trash like Carny, Big Wednesday, and Predator 2. His bad luck is the stuff of legend. Off-screen he was a vocal opponent of legislation requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets until the day he crashed his bike and suffered massive, near-fatal head injuries. Luckily, Busey is a resilient guy. After all, he survived D.C. Cab, Let's Get Harry, and The Last American Hero. What's a little bump on the cranium next to those traumas?

Busey rallied recently with a bit part in The Firm, injecting the movie with a much-needed jolt of energy. But he has followed that up with Rookie of the Year, in which he sleepwalks through the part of Chet Steadman, a washed-up Chicago Cubs pitcher.

Steadman is the favorite player of Henry Rowengartner, a twelve-year-old nerd whose broken arm heals funny, giving him the gift of a 100-mph fastball. Henry is recruited by the Cubs to save the franchise and lead the team into the playoffs. (Talk about fantasy!) Steadman, who is trying to come back from major shoulder surgery but not having much luck, has to learn to overcome his jealousy of the kid's gift as well as frustration over his own slow-to-mend arm. The grizzled veteran is, of course, gruff and hostile toward Henry initially. Eventually, however, he takes the kid under his wing and engages in some old-fashioned bonding.

It's ham-fisted, sentimental gruel that would not have been out of place on the old Disney Sunday night TV series.

Rookie of the Year is partially redeemed by the odd moment of grace when you least expect it. Henry's mother, played by Amy Morton, and his school chums, played by Robert Gorman and Patrick LaBrecque, rise above the generally amateurish level set by the rest of the cast on occasion. But their efforts are superfluous. This is a movie targeted at the too-young-for-Jurassic Park audience, whose criteria for an enjoyable filmgoing experience are not likely to include quality performances, subtle character development, or witty repartee. And it may just be the wholesomest and least offensive film of the year (at least in terms of sex, violence, and profanity, although it logs high on the stupidity and patronization charts); Snow White is dangerously subversive by comparison.

Judging by the response of the largely preteen crowd at a recent screening, the predictable story, shameless mugging, corny jokes, dumb set pieces, and unbelievable premise (the twelve-year-old with the speedball is one thing, the Cubs winning the division is just too much) count for little. Thomas Ian Nicholas as Henry Rowengartner is appealing if a bit quick to resort to the wide-eyed, mouth-open-in-awe look. He's personable and funny without being too cute, an acceptable Culkin substitute. Director-costar Daniel Stern, narrator of TV's The Wonder Years, knows a thing or two about Little Big Mac. He worked with the pintsize multimillionaire on both Home Alone movies. Presumably that is also where he honed his skills at buffoonish comic relief, although he is so out of control in this film that one cannot responsibly call it acting. Behind the camera for his feature film directorial debut, Stern is as delicate as a Mike Tyson pickup line. In front of the lens he's even less adroit.

If Rookie of the Year succeeds at the box office, it goes to show just how starved parents are for harmless entertainment for their kids, no matter how vapid or hackneyed. In terms of both violence and artistic merit, this is a film that makes Home Alone look like something from the Scorcese catalogue.

But whether the kiddie pic turns a profit or not, Gary Busey comes out a loser. As the aging ballplayer with the bum arm, he proves himself adept at doing what today's professional athletes are most skillful at: cashing a fat paycheck for playing a child's game.

Take a long look at Donald Sutherland's career, Gary. It ought to scare you.

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