With his muscled arms, deep-set eyes and wavy black hair, 2 days in the Valley writer-director John Herzfeld looks the part of Starsky's brother, a recurring role the actor-turned-filmmaker once played on the ultra-violent Seventies TV series Starsky and Hutch. But Herzfeld's early acting career, which included performances in two classic TV crime series -- Kojak and Baretta -- has long since been eclipsed by his work behind the camera. Herzfeld, who once studied drama at UM, wrote and directed the ABC After School Special "Stoned," which earned six Emmy nominations and won Herzfeld a Best Director statuette. He also directed and co-wrote several highly regarded topical telefilms such as The Ryan White Story, The Preppie Murder, and A Father's Revenge. But there is nothing in Herzfeld's background to prepare viewers for his theatrical feature film directing debut, a kinky, profane, and bloody caper flick. 2 days in the Valley takes viewers on a rollicking, twisted ride that draws on Herzfeld's Seventies cop show training but shoots it through with Nineties Southern California anomie and absurdism; imagine the cops from Adam-12 popping up in Robert Altman's Short Cuts.
It seems as if any indie auteur who combines dark humor and graphic violence in a crime thriller risks comparison to the king of the hot genre, that Tarantino fellow. Herzfeld is certainly no exception; 2 days in the Valley feels more like Pulp Fiction than anything Tarantino's done in the two years since that pop culture powerhouse premiered. Valley comes complete with an appearance by omnipresent indie-movie star Eric Stoltz, whose acting here is on a par with his Pulp performance.
But there are important distinctions between the two films as well. It's always nice to see Seventies stars Marsha Mason and Louise Fletcher -- The Goodbye Girl and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Nurse Ratched, respectively -- back in action, even if only for all-too-brief supporting turns. Yet, despite 2 days's offbeat and eclectic casting, in the aggregate the performances in Herzfeld's film fall short of the Pulp standard. Newcomer Charlize Theron scorches, and Teri Hatcher and Jeff Daniels tackle characters a few shades darker than their fans have come to expect. But Paul Mazursky, Glenne Headly, Greg Cruttwell, and Austin Pendleton don't fare nearly as well; Danny Aiello has a few nice moments but his work here doesn't approach the brilliance of Samuel L. Jackson or John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.
Herzfeld favors more tasteful and conventional music than Tarantino, working Lyle Lovett, Morphine, Morris Day, Willie Dixon, and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells onto the Valley soundtrack. Still, Valley's complex multicharacter story line, esoteric dialogue, off-color sex, gallows humor, existentialist hit men, wicked violence, gleeful mayhem, and central plot line about a hardboiled career criminal (Aiello) who finds redemption in the unlikeliest of circumstances pretty much guarantee that reviewers will be hard-pressed to analyze Herzfeld's film without mentioning Tarantino's.
The refreshingly down-to-earth and 'tude-less fledgling director confronts the inevitable comparison head-on. "2 days owes a tip of the hat to Pulp Fiction," Herzfeld readily allows. "The success of that film, The Usual Suspects, and other pictures that don't follow a straight linear path blew the doors open for movies like mine in Hollywood. Low-budget independent films that recoup their investments make Hollywood more apt to take risks. So in that respect, I owe a lot to Tarantino. But I completed my script prior to the opening [of Pulp Fiction]."
Still, a few bizarre similarities exist. Herzfeld's film features a character (Hatcher) who plays several scenes with blood and pieces of another character's bullet-exploded brain stuck to her hair, a la Samuel L. Jackson after Travolta's character accidentally blows away a colleague in the car Jackson's character drives in Pulp. And then there's the Stoltz connection. In Pulp Fiction Stoltz played a heroin dealer. In Valley Stoltz plays a vice cop. He's come full circle. In one of Valley's funniest bits, Stoltz goes undercover to bust a dirty massage parlor, but complications (as well as a certain part of Stoltz's anatomy) arise. The scene gives new meaning to the phrase "wooden acting."
"Eric is the workin'est man in Hollywood for two reasons," Herzfeld explains after declining to comment on Stoltz's apparent, um, enthusiasm in the massage parlor scene. "First, he has enormous range. Second, he's one of the most passionate actors you'll ever meet. That massage parlor scene was a risky scene. But Eric's a trouper. He showed up for screenings of all his dailies, and then when his part was done shooting, he continued to show up for other actors' dailies. He hung out with real vice cops to get a feel for the job. When he got his wardrobe three weeks prior to the start of shooting, he started wearing it immediately. He wore it to rehearsals, outside, everywhere. Even on days off. The costume designer came to me right before shooting started and complained, 'I'd like to clean Eric's costume but he won't take it off.'"
Scenes such as the massage parlor non-bust, Hatcher's wandering around with blood-matted hair, or Charlize Theron's S&M-shaded bedroom gambol with a ruthless killer played by James Spader suggest that over the course of several years directing TV movies, Herzfeld may have repressed quite a backlog of graphic imagery. "In features the margins aren't just wider; they're not there," Herzfeld observes. "It's great to be able to not have to worry about Standards and Practices [network censors] with regard to language, sexual content, or violence. But I learned my chops on TV -- how to tell a story with camera and characters, how to work on budget. It's a great place to learn. And it's not just a learning experience; TV allows you to do a kind of socially themed movie that people wouldn't go to a theater to see. Obviously, I could never have done [2 days] on TV. And if it ever runs on network TV, I won't be able to watch it because it'll be so heavily cut, trimmed, chopped, edited, sliced, and diced."
But while some of the individual scenes may be too graphic for prime time, 2 days in the Valley boasts an old-fashioned theme. "Redemption," the writer-director emphasizes. "This is a movie about redemption." In that regard Herzfeld compares his film to Spartacus, which, he gushes with scarcely contained enthusiasm, stands as one of his favorite movies of all time. "I saw it as a kid and was really affected by the writing. It was Dalton Trumbo's first job after the blacklist. Stanley Kubrick. Kirk Douglas. Just great."
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Herzfeld traces his desire to write and direct films to the impact Spartacus had on him as a child. He volunteers his top-five all-time list with a kid's glee. In addition to Spartacus Herzfeld picks On the Waterfront (there's that redemption theme again), East of Eden ("James Dean dying for the love and respect of his father"), Bread and Chocolate ("profoundly moving; pathos one minute, laughing your ass off the next"), and The Third Man ("unpredictability"). Not surprisingly, Herzfeld tries to squeeze many of those qualities into 2 days in the Valley.
"So many movies are really over way before they actually end," he laments. "The rest is all mop up. I hate being ahead of the filmmaker. I hate it when I can turn to my wife a third of the way into a film and say, 'Okay, this is going to happen next, and this is going to happen, and then this.' Too often you get exactly what you wait for." So Herzfeld deliberately left in some loose ends and added a few sharp turns just to defy expectations. On one hand he succeeds in making his film unpredictable. On the other hand, he makes it less satisfying because some compelling plot lines just dead-end when you really want to see them resolved. For example, Jeff Daniels plays a hot-headed, gung-ho cop -- Stoltz's character's partner. Estranged from his family and under fire from his superiors for several incidents of excessive force, the film appears to be setting Daniel's character up to play the hero and -- bearing in mind Herzfeld's favorite theme -- earn redemption.
"I did that deliberately," Herzfeld reveals. "I didn't want the Jeff Daniels character to save the day. Life is never neat. Some things don't have happy resolutions. In real life, some things just stop in the middle. That's why my movie takes a lot of right and left turns. I hope it turns out to be a mainstream success, but that's not why I made it. I wanted to build a ride that I would want to take."
2 days in the Valley.
Written and directed by John Herzfeld; with Danny Aiello, Teri Hatcher, Charlize Theron, James Spader, Eric Stoltz,Jeff Daniels, Paul Mazursky, Loiuse Fletcher, and Marsha Mason.