The January Man (1989) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The January Man is a wacky slapstick comedy about serial murder. No, I'm not kidding.

The fundamental plot is the usual super-criminal stuff. In movies, bad guys often seem to act out their multiple murders with painstakingly complex patterns, ala the Riddler and The Joker in the Batman stories. In this case, the apartments of each murder victim, when highlighted on identically scaled photographs of the buildings, form musical notes on a treble clef, thus forming a song which is a clue to the killer's identity. The buildings themselves, when marked on an aerial photograph of New York, form the Constellation Virgo.

This obviously isn't a case for Joe Friday.

To catch such a complex movie-style criminal, the police can't rely on the kinds of detectives who solve real murders. To solve movie-style serial murders, we need guys who understand a Fibonacci series. Enter Kevin Kline, movie-style hippie genius.


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That could have been a lot of fun. It's always great to see a battle of wits between Holmes and Moriarty, or between Bond and his assortment of demented super-villains. Unfortunately, Kline's criminal nemesis, despite his intricate web of murders based upon calendars and prime numbers, turns out to be not a colorful wacko genius like The Riddler or Wo Fat or Dr Loveless, but rather a faceless non-entity. As Kline points out when they nab 'im, "He's a nobody."

Whatever deliciously evil overacting we were spared from the baddie, we were subjected to from the authority figures. Rod Steiger is particularly embarrassing . Could this be the same guy who did The Pawnbroker? Danny Aiello matches him for sheer over-the-top silliness. Wait until you see the scene with Steiger and Aiello shouting at each other at the top of their lungs in a tiny room. Steiger apparently caught Aiello by surprise on the first take with a completely unexpected outburst of blatant scenery-chewing, and the director inexplicably decided to leave Danny's dumbfounded reaction in the final cut. Harvey Keitel was also in that scene, and looked embarrassed to be there. Throughout the film, Keitel was not over the top at all. Quite to the contrary, he was coolly under the bottom, and apparently thought he was really supposed to be behaving like a police commissioner! He played his part completely straight, and seemed to be in a completely different film. I guess he never got the memo.  

If anybody had asked me about this in the development stage, I would have told him the following:

First - if you're going to do slapstick, don't mix it with mutilated women. As it is now, the film is often in quite bad taste. The detectives do plenty of Jerry Lewis shtick while looking at, talking about, or standing by, badly mutilated bodies. If you turn the serial killer into a serial bank robber who uses complex numerical patterns or computer code in the process of ripping off greedy rich fucks, then you can joke about it all you like, and nobody will care. Furthermore, the mathematical patterns might make sense in such a scenario. The criminal might need a certain pattern in order to make the code work, for example, if he is exploiting dated security loopholes in some software. In such a case, Kline could have figured out the next date when the exploit would work, and the exact code necessary on that day, blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda.

Second - make the villain match the crimes. If the crime has obviously been committed by a mathematical genius with a special eye for patterns, let's make the guy capable of such a thought process, and maybe spend some time with him.  Everyone knows a Bond film is only as good as its villain.

Third - either make all the authority figures realistic (ala Keitel), or broadly comical (Aiello and Steiger). Think about this question as well - why does the script require all three of those guys in the first place?

Fourth - don't hire Rod Steiger to be the mayor. I'd suggest Tom Wilkinson, or somebody who really behaves like a mayor. You can hire Aiello if you re-write the Captain role and make him speak real dialogue. (I don't blame Danny for the problems with this role. He didn't write this stuff, and nobody could have done anything with the part as it was written.)

Fifth - hey, I love Susan Sarandon, but write her part out of this film completely. It's completely irrelevant and time-wasting.

Sixth - watch The Zero Effect for a model of how to handle the exact same premise, with humor and mystery combined in a tale of a modern day Sherlock Holmes and his Watson.

Despite its problems, The January Man features plenty of pleasures along the way. There are three quite charming characterizations from the three principals (Kevin Kline, Alan Rickman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio). As I was watching January Man, thinking that I had never seen it before, and thinking that parts of it really were sorta cute in a way, I was struck with how familiar it all seemed. And then it dawned on me.

I once saw it in German when I lived in Austria, and I thought it completely stunk.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Full-screen format, and a widescreen 1.85:1 version

That realization gave me an analytical epiphany. The film is quite watchable In English, because Kline, Rickman, and Mastrontonio are charming, and all have a clever way with dialogue. In a German-language broadcast, those actors are replaced by dubbers. Oh, sure, their bodies and faces are still there, but someone else delivered their lines. If you stop and think about it, without those three and their verbal gifts, this is not much of a film. 

The Critics Vote

  • Ebert 1/4

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: it bombed ($4.6 million)
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, I don't know how to rate this film. It is quite poor in many ways, often completely awful, and yet the camaraderie among the three principals is enjoyable. I think of it as a film that could have been good, but really wasn't. Call it a C-.

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