Just a Regular Joe

We safely can assume that Hollywood will experience shortages of UV rays, earthquakes, and Porsche-driving studio executives before the town runs out of formulaic crap plots for pseudo-trash murder mysteries. Lately, however, a disproportionate share of the cinematic flotsam seems to flow from the prolific pen of a single writer: Joe Eszterhas.

Eszterhas is my new idol. After making a name for himself as a hard-charging investigative reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Rolling Stone magazine, Eszterhas quickly realized that writing screenplays was the ticket to real money. So he reinvented himself as a Hollywood character and, following the Clampetts' lead, moved to Beverly -- Hills that is. Swimming pools. Movie stars.

Well the first thing you know, old Joe's a millionaire. One day he's chasing down real-life mayhem on the streets of Cleveland for peanuts, the next he's concocting fictionalized accounts set in California for seven figures per script. In little more than a decade, he's established himself as one of movieland's premier shlock writers, the hack of all hacks. From chronicling the American dream to living it.

Eszterhas's neatest trick, however, may be his most recent one. Not content to churn out quasi-literate trash from scratch, lately Eszterhas has exploited a variation on the lazy-man's-way-to-riches theme -- ripping off his own work! After all, when you strip the nudity and the Vegas glitter away from Eszterhas's Showgirls, you're left with the bare essence of his Flashdance. But even that scam pales in comparison to the larceny Eszterhas commits with Jade, which boils down to a quickie rewrite of his Basic Instinct. Hire a different cast, slap on a new name, and voila! Payday.

Instead of Sharon Stone as the sexually uninhibited murder suspect, Linda Fiorentino does the honors in Jade. Michael Douglas's lovestruck homicide cop gives way to David Caruso's ambitious assistant district attorney. Neither of these Jade performances significantly improves upon its BI counterpart. And the new fun couple fails to generate a fraction of the heat of its predecessors. Additionally, whereas George Dzundza played Douglas's Instinctive sidekick, Chazz Palminteri shows up here as Caruso's best friend/adversary on the court (they play racquetball together), in the courtroom (Palminteri's a rich, sleazy defense lawyer), and at courting (Fiorentino's character is married to Palminteri's, but she wouldn't mind revisiting a torrid college romance with Caruso's).

William Friedkin directs; apparently Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven was too busy collaborating with Eszterhas on the vile Showgirls. Friedkin's choice of material of late -- in the past ten years he's directed such forgettable filler as C.A.T. Squad, Python Wolf, The Guardian, Rampage, and last year's penny-ante Blue Chips -- seems destined to destroy every last shred of artistic respectability he may have attained with his early-Seventies masterworks, The French Connection and The Exorcist.

At least San Francisco still plays San Francisco. Like Basic Instinct, Jade opens with the murder of a rich man who appears to have been killed in the act of having kinky sex. Eszterhas's subtle hand is apparent from the first line of dialogue: "No . . . no . . . Are you crazy? . . . Auggghhh!" Hack, hack, hack. (That's "hack" as in the sound of sharp metal chopping through flesh, not "hack" as in second-rate writer. But come to think of it, if the shoe fits . . .)

Like the oldest, tiredest whore in the bordello, Eszterhas lost his enthusiasm -- and his self-respect -- long ago, but he can't give up the money. So he competes with the younger, fresher hustlers by imagining vulgar new ways to debase himself. The advertising campaigns for both Showgirls and Jade sell sex (Showgirls: "Check your inhibitions at the door!" Jade: "Some fantasies go too far!"), yet neither film is particularly sexy -- unless you share Eszterhas's misogyny.

Eszterhas never wastes time building actual suspense or constructing even minimally original narrative when he can get away with stringing together a combination of obvious clues, cliched scenarios (oh, goody -- another automobile chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco!), tired plot devices, and weak jokes. That takes real talent. Eszterhas is nothing if not a master of the Hollywood machine. Rarely has a wordsmith gotten paid so handsomely for doing so little.

Just one minor quibble: Wouldn't a better title have been Jaded


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