I once had a Twitter user get hostile with me when I mentioned that I had read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep three times. His point-of-view was that we should only watch or read things once because the time would be better spent with new material. While his point is valid, there are times when revisiting content has its advantages such as something that may have been brushed off or misunderstood at the time of release. With that in mind, I love to mix my new film viewing with random titles from the past that I may have forgotten, or feel the need for a re-evaluation.
Warning: SPOIILERS ahead.
Punchline is a picture that would not come to mind as film that must be re-seen, and indeed, upon revisiting that assessment is dead on. I first saw it in 1988 or 89 (whenever it was released on VHS) the only elements I remembered going in were that Sally Field is a housewife who wants to be a comic, she befriends Tom Hanks, the truly funny regular at the Gastown comedy club (in the movie) and a big sequence where Hanks has a massive emotional breakdown on stage and ends begging for someone to come on stage and save him from sinking himself even further. The scene screams NOMINATE ME PLEASE, THIS IS AN IMPORTANT PICTURE, and indeed in 1988, Tom Hanks was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Big. Big went on to be a modern classic and launched Hanks’ career into superstardom. Field was already there career-wise. The two stars would later reteam for Forrest Gump, a picture that went on to win the second of back-to-back Oscars for Tom Hanks (while not consecutive, Sally Field is also a double award winner – for Places in the Heart and Norma Rae). Punchline by comparison has gone relatively forgotten with the passage of time. It is the pedigree of the performers and where they are at in their careers at this time that makes this a picture that I wanted to revisit.
The picture begins with a very “movie” opening. You can even see the mechanics of “clever” screenwriting occurring as Sally Field meets Paul Mazursky (a director carrying out actor-only duties here) in a diner for a clandestine transaction that plays like an illegal drug deal, but actually she spending her cookie jar money on bad jokes. That is how we’re introduced to Field the housewife/stand-up comic at a sad comedy club where a group of misfits regularly perform, which includes the very talented character played by Hanks who clearly deserves better exposure. The owner of the club is Romeo played by Mark Rydell (another director taking on acting-only duties here), a surrogate father figure to this sad group, but one who believes that Hanks has what’s got to shoot to the top, and asks to be remembered who got him there unlike others in the past.
At first glance, Punchline has all the makings of an interesting picture. You have a mousey, bourgeois housewife who loves her family, but also sneaks out nightly to perform comedy much to the chagrin of her uptight yet loving husband. Great! There’s Hanks, a talented yet struggling comic who has just been thrown out of Medical School, a fact he is hiding from his apparently strict father and is on the verge of being homeless unless he hits his stride soon. Great! She comes out of her shell and discovers her funny while he hits an emotional roadblock and begins to fall apart. Great! It all culminates with a contest at the club where one of the performers will land a spot on the Carson show (this is 1988 after all). Not great per say, but typical movie third act material, and works to keep an audience connected with the characters and their journey.
All of the above beats get lost in a muddled narrative that seems to focus more attention on Hanks’ struggling comic rather than the housewife out-of-her-element. Field is the more interesting character of the two, but the picture never really delves deep enough into her reasons for risking her marriage with her extracurricular activities, not to mention we really never see her doing any stand-up – outside of a few snippets (the lion share of this goes to Hanks) until an hour in when it is way too late to get invested in her passion. That is if it even is passion. Field never really sells the idea that she loves doing this. She seems more afraid of displeasing her disapproving husband (John Goodman) who starts off as an overbearing bore then seems to instantly transform into an understanding and loving man when she gets a bad haircut. I won’t get into the fact that he would prefer her to remain a stay-at-home wife which in 2016 really doesn’t fly. In this case it dates the picture badly, even if unintentional.
The real misstep of the picture though is when Hanks has his breakdown on stage when his father shows up at the club (instead of a talent scout he had been expecting). Hanks doesn’t even try his routine, he just loses it by relaying childhood trauma and begins crying like a baby while his angry Patriarch looks on. This is where Punchline takes on the pretension of being an important film and gets lost completely. The focus on Hanks, which may have come out of the fact that he was really coming into his own at this point, and may have directed the focus of a picture that probably was intended to be more of a Sally Field spotlight during the development stage. The problem is of course that we only get to see Sally be funny briefly, and then when she and Hanks get romantically complicated, well let’s just say that they are both so overly nice and the chemistry is just not there. They are better suited as friends than lovers, and the idea that he is falling for her never goes beyond an awkward exploratory stage, yet we’re led to believe that his infatuation goes deeper.
Re-visiting Punchline it was easy to see why I had forgotten it, and while viewing it, it seemed just that, forgettable. Hanks’ talent is on display, and thankfully he got some more serious roles down the line that launched him into the stratosphere. You can feel Field really trying to do something different here, but not clicking with the material at all. If anything, Hanks seems more comfortable in his role while she feels completely out-of-her-element. If anything, take a look at the one-sheet above. The tagline "it only hurts when you laugh" is punctuated with the word LAUGH larger than the title. If the marketing campaign has to tell you to not-so-subliminally laugh, you know you have a problem.
Next up for this column: Sidney Pollack’s Havana (1990) with Robert Redford, a near forgotten box-office dud.