Monday, July 20, 2009

The Screengrab Library of Unproduced Screenplays: John Belushi's "Noble Rot"

It was twenty-seven years ago last month that John Belushi died, at the age of 33. At the time, Belushi's movie career was approaching a crossroads. At the end of 1981, he had released two films, Continental Divide, and Neighbors, that had an important place in the trajectory of his career--they were the first features he'd done in which he played a clearly defined starring role, rather than as a standout member of an ensemble cast (as in National Lampoon's Animal House and 1941), in a movie that (unlike The Blues Brothers) wasn't a pretested spin-off of something he'd done on Saturday Night Live. Taken individually, Continental Divide was a tepid comedy for which Belushi tried to stretch himself to play a romantic lead, and a flop, whereas Neighbors was a misplayed, sloppy travesty of Thomas Berger's darkly comic novel, which Belushi came to hate, and which actually made some money. Neither film capitalized on what Belushi might have been able to bring to movies, but between them, they seemed to sum up what Belushi (perhaps ill-advisedly) wanted to do, and what the studios, to his horror, thought he was good for.

That tug-of-war was going on as Belushi spent his last days mulling his choice of projects: a comedy based on (or at least yoked to the title of) The Joy of Sex that was being pushed on by the studio, and Moon Over Miami, which the director Louis Malle and the playwright John Guare, fresh from their upscale success with Atlantic City, wanted to tailor to Belushi and Akroyd's talents. (It would have starred Belushi as a small-time con artist employed to help Akroyd, as an uptight FBI agent, cook up an Abscam-like sting operation.) This time, though, Belushi had his own pet idea, a script called Noble Rot that he and Don Novello were adapting from a screenplay by Jay Sandrich called Sweet Deception. If Belushi was disgusted by what the bosses were offering him but nervous about jumping into the art-movie deep end with Malle and Guare, it must have made sense to him to try and work with Novello, a colleague from the SNL days (where Novello, a staff writer, used to pop up in the guise of Father Guido Sarducci), to shape something specifically to what he saw as the true nature of his gifts. Of course, it must have also seemed like a good idea one night to check into the Chateau Marmont hotel and send out for speedballs.

Noble Rot is about Johnny Glorioso, the 30-year-old son of a Northern California winemaker whose wastrel tendencies have made him the despair of his family, though even the cops who hand him over to his father in the opening scenes can't do enough to stress how well-liked he is by everyone and what a lovable rapscallion he is. (They pay tribute to the fighting prowess that made it necessary for four cops to bring him down.) Dad has his own problems. The big wine contest is coming up, and his other son, the responsible one, can't board the plane because he's had an allergic reaction to some seafood. "I can't believe it," he laments. "I got on son who can't eat lobster, and one son that can't drink." He sits Johnny down and tells him that he has to take his brother's place, explaining the importance of the occasion in a speech that also serves as an explanation for the script's less-than-selling title. It seems that every once in a great while, a special grey fungus known as Botrytis cinerea infects grapes which, if they are picked at just the right point, can in turn yield a spectacular wine. Just to make sure we get it, the old man tells Johnny, the black sheep, that he has undying faith in him because he is "my noble rot--my blessing in disguise."

Johnny heads out for the East Coast and finds himself sitting next to Christine on the plane. She is a looker, but when she fails to be dazzled by his line of patter--she asks the flight attendant to find him another seat while he's sneaking a joint in the can--the viewer is clearly supposed to think, "What's her problem?" instead of, "Jesus, if the attendant hadn't found another corner to shove him into, I'd have jumped out in mid-air and taken my chances." Right away, one may pick up on a certain disconnect between how charming Belushi thinks his alter ego would have come across and what's on the page, because Johnny's supposedly funny, seductive conversation peaks with his testimonial in praise of the scintillating quality of the in-flight magazine (he's disappointed to learn that he has to catch a plane whenever he wants to check out the latest issue) and then levels out when he discovers that the movie they're showing is The Deer Hunter. (He's seen it before and thought there'd be more deer hunting in it.)

It turns out that Christine is involved in a diamond smuggling operation. (Her boss is one of those guys whose lines--"I won't involve your young friend anymore. He's served his purposes."--that you can't read without hearing the "MWAAHAHA!" at the end.) She involves Johnny in an elaborate push-pull relationship that is designed to throw off the people on her trail but also seems to speak volumes about the star and co-writer's woman issues. It's also around this point that you begin to notice that, for what's largely a con-game comedy with a character who's supposed to be a wild man in the role of the fall guy, Noble Rot is very short on narrative invention; not a hell of a lot actually happens. Christine keeps pulling Johnny close to her to keep his distracting presence in the game, then pushing him away and vanishing only to reappear, while he stands around with a big question mark over his head. Belushi must have thought that he was making Jay Sandrich's material "his" and making it edgier by making his character cruddier and ruder, and maybe he also sensed that Novello, with his gentle satiric wit, was the right person to reign him back from the going too far over the top and lending the movie some charm. But neither Novello (who would go on to publish the Laszlo Letters series, write and produce for SCTV, and lend his affable presence to many film, TV, and radio roles, but never did get a real screenplay credit or publish anything else with a real plot) nor he had the story sense to replace the scaffolding they were tearing down with a workable replacement.

In place of a story developing, there are several moments where Belushi would have gotten to assert what a wild and crazy guy he was (such as a throwaway moment in which he shows off his idea of a promotional gimmick for his long-suffering dad's winery: T-shirts with the words "GLORIOSO VINEYARDS" surrounded by a skull and lightning bolts). And how hip he is: Christine may be smart and sexy and better able to function smoothly in society than this coarse brute, but she says things like, "This is the 1980s--all you need is money," and she needs reminding who Keith Richards is. ("Yes, of course. Of the music group?") Considering that the Rolling Stones once hosted SNL, and that Robert De Niro, the star of The Deer Hunter, was a friend of Belushi's on the L.A. party scene--he dropped by Belushi's hotel room the night he died--some of the cultural references come across as bits of name-dropping trying to pass for inside jokes. (There are also scripted appearances by Orson Welles and Marvin Hamlisch, who gets to tickle the ivories in a party scene while some lucky bit player tells another, "He wrote The Sting, you know.") As in much of The Blues Brothers, Belushi seemed to be trying to fit into the '80s by claiming to be keeping the spirit of the '60s alive while making something that felt a little as if he and his buddies were trying to become the new Rat Pack.

Noble Rot ends with a final twist that leaves Johnny on top and Christine out in the cold. It's a looking-out-for-number-one conclusion that betrays audience expectations that Johnny will either get something real going with the girl (or any girl) or that he'll come through and win his family's wine the recognition that it deserves, and the fact that Belushi apparently saw it as a crowd-pleasing happy ending shows that he actually fit into the "all you need is money" 1980s better than he wanted to admit to himself. In the whole picture, there's one climactic scene where he gets to really Belushi it up: at the wine-testing, where a French judge overrules the impressed reactions of his fellow judges and bad mouths the Glorioso wine. ("Perhaps 'skunky' isn't the right word. Actually, it tastes more like the fur of a wet dog.") Johnny, of course, goes nuts--you can bet that a glass of wine gets emptied over somebody's head--and delivering a detailed condemnation of the judge that does not neglect to mention France's outstanding war debt. This rhymes with an earlier scene in which Johnny delivers a lengthy monologue describing the horrors of a visit he once made to France, where wandered into an eatery in hopes of getting a hamburger and was grossed out with an offer of head cheese. I don't know what would have happened with John Belushi's movie career if he'd lived longer, but if he'd made Noble Rot, I'm pretty sure that he never would have won a LĂ©gion d'honneur medal to clink against Jerry Lewis's.

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