Whoopi’s post-The Color Purple blues: Fatal Beauty (Tom Holland, 1987)

Fatal Beauty is a messy, obnoxious, and really quite stupid movie. There’s something fascinating, though, about its tonal mishmash and sheer 80s loudness. Whoopi Goldberg plays Detective Rita Rizzoli, an LA cop who’s bent on cleaning drug dealers off the streets, any way she can. When a botched batch of coke lives up to its name, Fatal Beauty, and starts killing everyone who tries it, she has her sights set on meteoric businessman Conrad Kroll (Harris Yulin). Kroll sends his head of security, Mike Marshak (Sam Elliott), to keep her in line. Disbelieving Rizzoli’s suspicions about his boss, but quickly growing to like her anyway, Marshak takes his orders seriously and is a great help in her encounters with psycho dealer Leo Nova (Brad Dourif). Rizzoli hates Kroll enough, however, that she tries to stay resistant to Marshak’s charm.

Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.
Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.

Goldberg made several action comedies after her Oscar win for The Color Purple, none of them good. She’s given a raw deal with this script and barely manages to carry it. I want Rizzoli to be a tough, capable cop who’s devoted to protecting vulnerable women, but the movie quickly shows she can’t be both. Disguised as a hooker, Rizzoli blows a sting while defending one of her female informants from a beating. More than that, a guy kicks the crap out of her while using the N word with quite a bit of enthusiasm.

Charles Hallahan and M. C. Gainley onscreen at the same time? I’m freaking out!
M. C. Gainley and Charles Hallahan raise the film’s character actor quotient.

Fatal Beauty fails almost totally as a comedy, in no small part because Rizzoli faces constant, brutal misogyny and racism. The put-downs she deals out in return rely on lazy jokes about dick size, leaving me exasperated both at how she’s being treated and by the writers’ inability to make her a genuine wise-ass. The overwhelming majority of the movie’s jokes fall flat; a facial expression from Elliott that did make me chuckle was quickly followed up with a line that over-explained something he’d just capably expressed on his own. There’s also some racist jokes about Mexicans and the Japanese that show just how blind the writers are to what they’re doing.

Is this outfit supposed to impress me? I can’t tell.
Is this outfit supposed to look good? I can’t tell.

Fatal Beauty’s thoroughly dated style must be the first thing the viewer notices. The soundtrack has a typical 80s sound while having no distinctive songs whatsoever; it’s stock music with lyrics. The costumes, meanwhile, are a neverending cavalcade of neon, sparkles and spandex. The hair, of course, is big all round. You won’t be able to look away.

Despite the movie’s silliness, the subject matter gets quite bleak. Dozens of people are killed by drugs, and many more are gunned down. Rizzoli’s back story is as dark as it gets, even if the writers’ decision to have her reveal it all in one exposition-dump monologue makes it as hard to take seriously as Phoebe Cates’ famous scene in Gremlins. Fatal Beauty isn’t a gritty cop drama, and it isn’t a fun comedy. It wants to be both, and the conflict between them tugs the movie in too many directions.

A few actors in the movie seem to know what they’re doing. (Goldberg just about has the right attitude, but the aforementioned terrible jokes let her down; she does better in scenes that rely on tension instead.) Elliott in particular is giving his role far more credit than it deserves. Rizzoli treats Marshak worse than she needs to, but Elliott sells Marshak’s growing affections for her, as well as his moral conflict.

Checks and houndstooth? We're dealing with a madman.
Checks and houndstooth? We’re dealing with a madman.

The other actor of note in Fatal Beauty is Brad Dourif. One of the big problems with the movie is that there’s not enough of him, in fact. There’s too many needless characters in the script, and it’s not always clear which villain is the real threat. It’s got to be Dourif: he’s the one who manages to be funny and threatening, who fits best into this live-action cartoon of a movie. Kroll isn’t interesting at all, and the other villains can’t get the right goofy/nasty balance. If the subject matter was lightened up a bit, and the story was centred around Leo, Fatal Beauty would be much more coherent and enjoyable.

The writers seem to have some sort of grasp on the fact that Leo is the most arresting villain here; he’s the last one standing. His final line is undoubtedly the best thing about the whole movie. Seriously, go here and skip to 11:15. Creepy, crazy and hilarious. Rizzoli’s retort is pretty good, too.

Okay, I like this outfit.
An outfit with genuine style.

Dourif would have the last laugh. A year later, Tom Holland made Child’s Play, with Dourif in the role of Charles Lee Ray, or rather, Chucky. It was Holland’s experience with Dourif in making Fatal Beauty that led to this casting. With his obscenity screaming and running-while-shot acting, there are some similarities between what Dourif’s doing in both movies. There’s no puppet here, though.

Chucky became a horror icon, but who remembers Fatal Beauty? To its credit, it is entertaining. This is a movie where people don’t die without letting off a hail of bullets first, and where you can’t see the lead character near a swimming pool without intuiting that she’ll wind up punching someone into it. The romance involves her shooting out the guy’s tires, turning down his gift of a $5000 dress, and punching him in the crotch. Meanwhile, several of the actors do good work regardless of what’s going on around them, and of how well the script serves their characters. Fatal Beauty isn’t boring. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be but sure makes a lot of noise doing it.

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