Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990) is to John Hughes’ Oeuvre what Big Business (1988) is to Old Hollywood Comedies

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After my discovery that our February Movie of the Month, Big Business, was directed by one third of the ZAZ creative team behind classic genre parodies like Airplane!, Top Secret!, and The Naked Gun, I’ve been trying to make sense of the rest of Jim Abrahams’ catalog. What I found most interesting was that there were only three titles that didn’t fall in line with his genre-defining work in parody comedy. Big Business, as we know, is more of an homage than an outright spoof, but it could’ve easily undergone the typical ZAZ treatment with a couple re-writes. Ruthless People is a much more difficult film to understand in that context. A pitch black comedy inspired by the kidnapping of Patty Hearst (and starring Bette Midler, who steals the show in Big Business), it was made by the full ZAZ team, but never really threatens to be a parody or a spoof of the ransom-driven thriller as a genre. It’s by far the the furthest ZAZ outlier. Much closer in line to what Abrahams achieves in Big Business‘s Old Hollywood pastiche is the Winona Rider comedy Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, which feels palpably close to spoofing John Hughes’ work in teen comedies, but ends up functioning much more like a loving tribute.

A moody, gothy Winona Ryder headlines Roxy Carmichael as a fullblown version Aly Sheedy’s dour recluse in The Breakfast Club. Just like Sheedy, she looks like the world’s biggest Robert Smith fan, intentionally  isolates herself from peers, and treats the idea of personal hygiene like the exact kind of afflictions you might acquire if you completely disregarded personal hygiene. The movie pushes her high school “weird kid” attributes to an even more cartoonish degree, though, equipping her with an “ark” of abandoned animals that she adopts like a shanty farm, because that’s apparently what weirdo high schoolers do in their free time. The aching-for-a-boy-out-of-her-league growing pains, poor kid vs. the world class warfare, and uncaring parents all resemble characteristics of Molly Ringwald films like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, except that they’re all crammed into the same feature. The movie even ends in a Big Dance confrontation, which feels like classic Hughes, and Ryder’s protagonist’s name sounds exactly like what she’d be called if she were the Weird Kid archetype in Not Another 80s Teen Movie: Dinky. Much like with Big Business, the line between homage & spoof feels very thin here & with the right push, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael could’ve easily fallen in line with the rest of the ZAZ catalog.

There’s something about working in the John Hughes realm that brings out new territory in Abraham’s work that might’ve been missing in his spoof & pastiche films (and whatever you want to call Ruthless People): genuine heart. It takes an innate understanding of genre tropes to be able to understand how to make an homage or a spoof work as a feature film & here Abrahams recognizes that what distinguishes John Hughes’ brand of 80s teen comedies is their heart on the sleeve sentimentality. It’s possible in this case, though, that he might’ve outdone his source material in creating the homage. Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael has some brutal character moments, carried by both Winona Ryder & costar Jeff Daniels, who both play broken shells of people who feel cruelly rejected by both the ones they love & the world at large. And instead of bringing the drama to an everything-works-out-fine cinema magic climax, the film instead stages a huge emotional gut punch that feels a little rough for the genre that Abrahams was working in here. It was surprisingly powerful stuff.

It’s difficult to say whether or not a fan of Big Business would necessarily be floored by what’s offered in Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael. The films are both heavily rooted in 80s fashion & genre convention, so there’s at least a chance that fans would bleed over. What’s far more important, though, is what the two films reveal about Jim Abrahams as a comedy director. It’s tempting to think of the ZAZ team as a sarcastic group of pranksters who simply regurgitate tropes with silly gags added, especially after watching how their comedy style has lead to such creative voids as Fifty Shades of Black, Vampires Suck, and Superfast!. However, what Big Business & Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael reveal is that Abrahams & his Zucker brother collaborators had a genuine love for the movies they were parodying & a deep understanding of how their tropes could be picked apart, reproduced, and repurposed for a new effect. Whether or not Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael is just as good as the genuine John Hughes product is debatable (although it’d certainly be an easier case than arguing that Big Business is just as good as the Old Hollywood farces it emulates), but it’s undeniable that Abrahams understood how those films ticked & how they could be replicated for a new effect, a skill he presumably learned as a parody-happy prankster.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, 1988’s Big Business, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, a look at its borrowed gag from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, and a reflection on where the film sits in relation to the rest of the Jim Abrahams catalog.

-Brandon Ledet

If Released in Another Time, Big Business (1988) Could’ve Easily Been a ZAZ-Style Spoof of Old Hollywood Farces

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Somehow during our lengthy conversation surrounding our February Movie of the Month, the Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin swapped-twins comedy Big Business, I had foolishly overlooked who had actually directed the damned thing. Big Business‘s director, Jim Abrahams, is the “A” in the infamous comedic filmmaking team ZAZ. Along with brothers David & Jerry Zucker, Abrahams was responsible for popularizing the concept of the spoof comedy. As a collaborative trio ZAZ penned & directed Airplane!, Top Secret!, Hot Shots, Hot Shots Part Deux, and the Naked Gun trilogy, which pretty much covers the pillars of the medium. Flying solo, Abrahams also has screenwriting credits for Scary Movie 4, Kentucky Fried Movie, an some horrific-looking monster titled Jane Austen’s Mafia!. In isolation the name Jim Abrahams failed to ring any bells, but the team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker was a force to be reckoned with, one that changed the comedy cinema landscape if not for the better than at least for the sillier.

Although I feel foolish that I didn’t recognize Abrahams’ hand in Big Business sooner, it totally makes sense in retrospect. The most crucial aspect of the film that stuck out to me was its dedicated homage to Old Hollywood comedies. Viewing the film with Abrahams in mind now, I see a much different sort of half-formed homage lurking in Big Business. It’s basically just one gentle push away from an Old Hollywood spoof. The film’s swapped-twins contrivance, grand hotel setting, borrowed gag from Duck Soup, endless line of eligible bachelors waiting to marry its protagonists, narrow-minded depictions of the difference between wealth & poverty, and over-the-top lengths to keep its mismatched twins from ending the ruse all once played like a love letter to a bygone era in studio system filmmaking. Now they feel like seeds to what could’ve been a fullblown Old Hollywood spoof after a couple of joke-heavy rewrites. The framework for a ZAZ-style spoof is lurking just under the surface of Big Business, waiting, begging for a sea of juvenile gags to fill in the blanks.

I think the major reason why Big Business didn’t take that direction is a question of timing. The film was released during a time frame where Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker were still a functioning unit, but the timing was off for an Old Hollywood spoof in terms of box office potential. If you look at the trio’s M.O., they generally stuck to spoofing film genres that were active in the era in which they worked. Airplane! spoofed the large-cast disaster film genre (specifically parodying Airport 1975 most heavily) at the tail end of the decade when they were A Thing. Top Secret! spoofed spy movies, a genre that never dies. The Hot Shots! series spoofed 80s & 90s action cinema in a time when that would’ve still been a relevant target, focusing heavily on Top Gun & Rambo for inspiration. Seeing as how it would’ve been impossible for Abrahams to create an Old Hollywood spoof in the Old Hollywood era, given that he was a child in its heyday, he would have had to achieved that distinction sometime in the 2000s or 2010s, long after the dissolution of the ZAZ partnership & well into his old age. Why so recently? Nostalgia has been kind to homages & parodies to the genre, which made room for wonderful comedies like Forgotten Silver & Hail, Caesar! to exist (though not flourish financially, unfortunately). In the 1988 an Old Hollywood spoof might’ve been hard to pitch to financiers, but in 2016 it’d have a much easier time making it to the cinema.

As is, Big Business has no interest in being an Old Hollywood parody. It is instead a loving homage to a bygone era in filmmaking. What Abrahams does instead is update the era’s comedic farce conventions for a 1980s sensibility, which was much less of a commercial gamble. That’s not to say that his history in genre parody did not inform his work in Big Business, though. If nothing else, Abrahams’ films display a consistent, innate understanding of genre tropes & how they can be made effective, whether for a genuine or a sarcastic effect. And if there’s any question to whether or not Big Business‘s toying with the idea of Old Hollywood parody was intentional, just look to Abrahams’ directorial cameo in the film. He plays a homeless drunk who rubs his eyes & tosses his liquor bottle aside when he keeps seeing the two sets of twins separately, a gag that’s about as old as comedy cinema itself (if not older). At the very beat before the end credits the film reveals that a second, well-dressed, far-from-homeless character was also portrayed by Abrahams, a reveal that’s meant to play as a huge prank. That moment feels like it easily could’ve been at home in the theoretical spoof version of Big Business that sadly doesn’t exist, not only because it feels so hokily old-fashioned, but also because its “Gotcha!” sarcasm is such a classic ZAZ-style tactic.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, 1988’s Big Business, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at its borrowed gag from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

-Brandon Ledet