Vibes (1988)

As is often my wont, I was recently extolling to a friend about the virtues of our local library, and declared I would purchase said friend an inexpensive DVD player the next time I saw one at an estate sale (there’s a one-in-four chance there will be, in my experience) so that he could enjoy some of the more obscure picks that are available. This was perhaps days before the announcement that Netflix would be discontinuing its DVD-by-mail service, which was very close to my heart and which flung wide the doors for me to discover a plethora of movies and shows that had been out of my reach before. I couldn’t afford to have internet in my home when I was in college, but even at nineteen I could spare $8 a month for a constant stream of discs into my apartment, and although my local library can’t boast that it has a copy of everything (and for some reason doesn’t do interlibrary loans for media), there are thousands of things that are otherwise inaccessible now. My friend joked (I hope) that everything is streaming now, and that there’s no reason to own such a thing; I pointed out that I have been watching a lot of episodes of Ebert & Roeper at the Movies recently and that it’s opened my eyes to a huge number of movies that I never would have known existed otherwise. Every episode, the boys discuss 4-5 movies, with two of them usually being films that have remained in the public consciousness or otherwise has some kind of name brand recognition (your Top Gun, your Beauty and the Beast, a Silence of the Lambs), one or two movies that fall into the moderately obscure “oh, yeah,” category, (Uncle Buck, for instance, or She-Devil, or Major League: Back to the Minors; anything that you’d watch at a hotel when you’re on vacation and it’s raining on a Saturday afternoon), and then one or two movies that have, for all intents and purposes, vanished from the face of the earth. Is it worth listing those? We Think the World of You from 1988 and 1994’s BackBeat aren’t the kinds of titles you drop when you’re trying to impress someone. Buried among these episodes, I stumbled across their review of Vibes that sparked my interest and, having finally seen it (thanks, libraries!), has also stolen my heart. 

Ostentatious but insecure Sylvia (Cyndi Lauper – yes, really) meets staid museum curator Nick (Jeff Goldblum doing the platonic ideal of a Jeff Goldblum performance) under strange circumstances; they and several others are guests of Dr. Steele (Julian Sands), a parapsychologist. They’re both psychics; he’s a psychometrist, meaning that he can read the history of an object and even information about the people who have touched it, while she gained clairvoyance via a psychic guide named Louise, whom only she can see and hear. Louise, via Sylvia, warns Nick that his long-term girlfriend has been unfaithful while he’s been away, and although he doesn’t believe it, he’s confronted with the truth when his powers inadvertently reveal her deceit. Sylvia, meanwhile, meets her occasional flame Fred (Steve Buscemi) at the racetrack, where she is cajoled into using her powers to pick a winning horse on his behalf, only to be unceremoniously ditched for another woman moments later. Returning home, she finds a man named Harry (Peter Falk) in her kitchen, where he offers her $50K to help find his son, who has gone missing in Ecuador. Sylvia then enlists Nick to go along as well, since two psychics are better than one, and he opts to go rather than continue to spiral out and stew over the failure of his relationship. Once they arrive, Nick deduces with his powers that Harry has deceived them, and the older man admits that he’s actually seeking a fabled room of gold in the mountains, which was previously discovered by his business partner, but the latter man has since been hospitalized in a persistent vegetative state. The two psychics reluctantly agree to go, falling in love while being pursued the whole way by Steele, fellow psychic Ingo (Googy Gress), and a sexy assassin (Elizabeth Peña). 

I mentioned above that Gene and Roger reviewed this movie; I didn’t mention that they both hated it. Not hated hated hated it, but neither was very impressed. In fact, most critics seem to have felt this way, as it’s sitting at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve never considered that a perfect metric for a movie’s actual quality, but as a measurement of critical favor, it’s very telling. About halfway through this movie, my best friend, after several chuckles aloud, asked me how the film could have been reviewed so poorly, and neither of us could believe it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that long after this that the film’s quality dipped, to the point where I could understand how a general audience may have been turned off by the pacing issues in the film’s third act. We can’t really go any further without noting, however, that Lauper is incredibly charming here, and a delight to watch. 

I can’t remember the last time I watched one of these kinds of movies—you know, where a non-actor performer (or sports star) is trying to break into pictures—and the non-traditional actor really disappears into the role. She has great comedic timing for someone with no real background in that field, and she and Falk have amazing chemistry. She and Goldblum are a delight to watch together as well; according to her autobiography, they didn’t get along, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from how well they play off of each other here. Goldblum’s decision to go full Goldblum matches her energy perfectly, as even though Lauper’s hair, make-up, and sartorial choices are always completely over the top, her vibe (sorry) is much more subdued than the man standing next to her, eyes bugging and stams stammering. 

The first few scenes in Ecuador are fun, as the trio arrives there to head for the mountains, albeit there’s some All in the Family-era racism from Falk’s character that doesn’t pass the sniff test these days. At first, these seem like mannerisms of the character Harry is playing, of the terrified father of a missing boy, but he spouts off a few other Bunkerisms even after the reveal that are jarring in an otherwise very goofy movie. Travelogue scenes set prior to the cresting of the mountain are gorgeous, capturing the natural verdant beauty of the Ecuadorian mountains, like something out of a movie with a much higher budget. Unfortunately, once Sylvia, Nicky, and their pursuers get to the mountaintop where Harry’s partner found a small, glowing pyramid in the film’s cold open, the plot drags considerably. All of this takes place on a set, which is fine, but the effect of being at the top of a high peak with nothing in the background makes the whole thing feel like it’s taking place in a void. Right before they arrive, we’re treated to a gorgeously rendered matte painting, but once on the actual mountaintop set, characters move around and make choices that feel like shuffling the deck before the denouement. This goes some way to explain why contemporary critics may have turned on the movie when the third act trended toward boredom, but I’m more forgiving, especially when there’s so much charm and appreciable humor on display. 

The film manages to run the gamut of different comedic styles. When the trio first arrive in Ecuador, Sylvia teases Nick for bringing so much luggage, assuming that he’s overpacked. He reveals that one of the suitcases contains an entire month’s worth of dehydrated rations; when Sylvia points out that it’s normally the bacteria in the water that caused travellers of the time to become ill, Nick reveals that another suitcase is full of giant jugs of water, which he also brought along. Later, after Harry’s deception has been revealed, he and Sylvia find themselves at the tiki-themed hotel bar, where he is drinking directly from one of the jugs, which has a festive paper umbrella embellishment. It’s a good visual gag, one among many, including one in which the 5’3” Lauper and the 6’4″ Goldblum perform a tango that ends with her arms around his shoulders, essentially being carried, with her legs dangling back and forth. It all leads one to believe that the contemporary audiences and critics of the time may simply have misunderstood that the film understands that its zany, sometimes cartoony plot is intentional, not the result of poor writing or direction. 

The real crime here is that the public reaction pushed Lauper to abandon film business, albeit not completely. She’s effervescent here in a very real way, like she’s trying some things out. At one point, when Nick rejects her because he misunderstands the reasons that she’s expressing interest, Lauper shifts into an affected Transatlantic accent and mockingly blurts “I want you bad all right. I dream about you and me and a house in Long Island. I’m only half a woman until I make love to you.” For someone who’s not really part of the business, she’s making interesting acting choices that reveal a talent range that most people wouldn’t assume. Reportedly, Dan Aykroyd was first interested in the project (which makes sense, since he’s a big believer in the paranormal in real life) but left because he refused to be in a movie with Lauper, which is both absurd and for the best, since Goldblum’s take on Nick is a much more believable match for Sylvia than I could imagine Aykroyd providing. As a fun bit of fluff, this is one worth tracking down. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

One thought on “Vibes (1988)

  1. Pingback: Lagniappe Podcast: Yes, Madam! (1985) | Swampflix

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