After Hours

After Hours ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Do you ever find yourself consuming content at a joyless pace? Just thing after thing where you’re on your phone half the time, even though you’re pretty sure you enjoyed the thing? And you recite your own opinion of it to yourself a couple times, so when someone asks how it was, you can say “it was good” with the proper noncommittal pitch of “it was a solidly competent use of my time that I do not wish to oversell or undersell in this boilerplate smalltalk about it?”

Then, once in a while, you watch something that you just LOVE, start to finish, and become revitalized, thinking “OH YEAH! I CAN still really enjoy things! I haven’t become fully jaded and incapable of joy or stimulation! It’s just that most things happen to be ‘fine!’” After Hours was one of those for me.

I was fully on board with this film from the moment the set of keys goes flying towards our protagonist’s head and he steps out of the way -- the film wrings menacing tension out of the most banal little act, and completely sets up what’s about to happen way more sharply than we realize at the time. I later learned that shot was initially attempted by dropping a camera towards the actor Griffin Dunne’s head and stopping it at the last second with ropes. They eventually accomplished it with a fast crane shot, but for at least several takes, they literally could’ve split the lead actor’s head open to get a POV shot from keys. AND those takes produced unusable footage. All of this feels oddly fitting.

The film builds up to madcap, actual life-or-death ferocity so gradually and so organically, you never get to have that arm’s-length distancing moment as a viewer where you’re yelling “why did you do that?? Just do this other thing instead!!!” Everything Paul tries seems to make sense in the moment and just gets impossibly worse and worse, like some unholy precursor to the Planes, Trains And Automobiles and Meet The Parents masochistic-comedy genre. Or a less yelly Uncut Gems (although Paul does everything he can to escape the cycle, while Adam Sandler’s character extremely brings everything upon himself.)

The world is a hilarious, barely-exaggerated 80’s SoHo, populated with characters that are definitely odd and Bohemian but not in any stock, caricature-ish way where we can feel the film telling us how we’re supposed to feel about them. The artists aren’t the ‘transparently full of shit’ overly-caricaturistic ‘modern artist’ types. The hopeless romantics aren’t unselfaware or incapable of reading body language. There’s multiple gay couples whose sexuality isn’t a plot point or played for laughs (was that even legal in 80s movies?) The neighborhood residents aren’t incapable of listening to reason for the convenience of the plot.

Some details connect to other things in incredible ways. Other details are meaningless, but not in a deliberate ‘red herring way,’ just in the way that some details you notice in life don’t mean anything. Even the strangest aspects of the film are handled with such a deft, believable, three dimensional respect for the characters and the viewer, that when the stakes escalate, we’re right there with Paul feeling the dread, not laughing at him from afar, knowing it’ll be ok. Or that if it’s not, that he deserved it somehow.

The film has a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments, too, despite never really feeling like there’s “jokes.” I laughed a lot at the bartender (in a great John Heard performance) just unloading on a cash register super loudly and awkwardly. And at the diner owner bringing Paul the burger he lied about wanting. It’s one of those films where I suspect everyone who watches will laugh at different parts, even if it’s a biological self-preservation tactic of our brains convincing us some parts MUST be funny so we can release tension and prevent a full-on panic attack.

The film also fills an amusing role in the greater context of the Scorsese timeline. After the gritty ultraviolence of ‘70s New York portrayed in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, we flip over to the warped, frivolous inhabitants of ‘80s New York, then STILL end up in an endgame where we’re fearing for our lives. There’s a sympathetic portrayal of an 80s punk club, there’s a young Catherine O’Hara in an ice cream truck (both Home Alone parents make appearances - gotta be the same universe), there’s Cheech and Chong weaving in and out of the timeline -- just every single thing in this film 100% works for me.

After Hours doesn’t maintain its “weirdness” by withholding information or deliberately confusing the viewer -- the events occur linearly and the characters truthfully react to one another. The events never break reality or get *too* slapsticky to the point where we stop feeling the danger is real. And even at the end, after all that utterly unreplicable chaos, the night Paul experiences feels like nights we’ve all had. Not literally taping up “dead girl → ” signs, obviously, but just the disorienting dread of ending up in some weird place you don’t feel like you belong, or your night taking multiple crazy turns that feel out of your control, then ending up back at the sobering security of your day-to-day routine, instantly questioning how everything that just happened actually happened.

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