Cage Examination #16: Amos & Andrew

Film: Amos & Andrew
Demeanor: That of a delightfully charming transient.
Hair Quality: If Peter Loew had bitchin’ sideburns.
Performance Quality: Six Cages Out of Ten.

The early ’90s are like a decade unto themselves. So much happened over the course of the years between 1990 and 1994 that you almost have to split the decade in half due to the wild cultural shifts that took place at the midway point. In the early ’90s, there was still something of an ’80s hangover permeating every element of popular culture. That specific era of culture can almost be tied beat-for-beat with the first Bush presidency, as the years between his 1988 election win and his exit in 1992 are so culturally hyperspecific that you almost want to blame him outright for the existence of Hammer pants and Spike Lee’s career.

Not that Spike Lee’s career is entirely worth dismissing, mind you. While I maintain that the director has made exactly one movie worth watching in the last decade and a half (the fantastic 25th Hour), his early works were incredible, searing portraits of race relations in the era. Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever helped galvanize a new brand of forthright conversation about how different ethnic cultures interact with one another during the post-’80s sorting out period. 

If pre-1992 was the time for earnest discussion of race relations via film, then post 1992 is when Hollywood decided it okay to start making fun of it again. How else do you explain the existence of Amos & Andrew, a slapstick buddy comedy that might as well be a giant “But see, black guys are like this! And white dudes, they’re like this" joke from some hack comedian’s stand-up routine on Evening at the Improv. Amos & Andrew is practically to Spike Lee’s filmography what Hot Shots is to Top Gun. It’s a movie in which idiotic white people harass a semi-militant, but generally well-meaning black man (Samuel L. Jackson), and no less than two actors, including Nicolas Cage, put on accidental blackface. It’s a parody of racial tensions of the era, and the very definition of “too soon.”

I’m saying this even in 2012, long past Amos & Andrew’s 1993 release date. It’s not that a perfectly timely comedy sending up the same politics that Amos & Andrew does couldn’t have existed, but this film is neither satirical enough, nor funny enough to really justify the fact that it’s basically 90 minutes of stump-dumb white folk accidentally being super racist with occasional buddy comedy tropes tossed in for good measure.

There are moments of almost-cleverness peppered throughout Amos & Andrew, most the result of the interaction between Jackson’s apparently super-famous playwright Andrew Sterling and Nicolas Cage’s drifter-for-hire Amos Odell. These two are legitimately kind of great together, even if the dialogue they’re given doesn’t amount to much more than Jackson spouting muted rage about society’s preconceptions of him, and Cage making cracks about him probably having a white wife.

Before they get together, however, they’re miles apart (not in literal distance, mind you). The movie opens with Jackson arriving on a small New England island community, where he’s evidently just purchased a new summer home. Within five minutes, his well-meaning but also supremely racist neighbors wander up to his new home, expecting to find the previous white residents. Instead they see Jackson hooking up his stereo, and immediately run home to call the police. Because black guys be stealin’ stereos, ya’ll.

A quick aside on this accidentally racist couple: this is more or less where the movie tries to shove all its satirical ideas about affluent white liberals who pretend to be totally socially aware. The couple, played by Michael Lerner and Margaret Colin (the mayor from the Godzilla remake and the ex-wife from Independence Day, respectively), are pot-smoking progressives who nonetheless freak out at the very sight of a black dude in someone’s house. They’re not really interesting characters, so much as they are self-serving assholes who are there to be comically dumped upon. That said, these actors do what they can with the material, and are aided by the presence of their white dog. Yes, they have a white dog. A white dog that looks eerily similar to the white dog from the movie White Dog. You know, the one about the white dog that was trained to hate black people? This dog doesn’t really hate black people, though. He’s actually a very good dog. Yes he is.

Elsewhere, Cage is incarcerated in the island’s jail, presumably because of his intense five o’clock shadow. Nobody with that much five o’clock shadow is every anything but a miscreant, or roustabout, or brigand, you see. He’s being questioned by the local Buford T. Justice, played almost inexplicably by Dabney Coleman. His rendition of a hard-ass, politically obsessed small-town sheriff is essentially an amalgam of every asshole Dabney Coleman role ever smooshed together into a single nefarious mustache. I don’t even know if I could call his performance funny, exactly. There are jokes, but he chews through them with such dagger-eyed menace that you don’t so much laugh as actively count the minutes until his eventual comeuppance. 

If Dabney Coleman is an altogether unlikely Buford T. Justice surrogate, then Brad Douriff has to be the most unlikely Junior Justice of all time. Douriff is the zanily inept right-hand man to Coleman’s sheriff. Yes, creepy ass character actor Brad Douriff, who looks more like a serial killer transient on his best day than Nicolas Cage could on his worst. He’s also the first actor in the movie to kick off the blackface gag. Brad Douriff bumbling around in blackface as wacky comic relief. That happened.

He dons the blackface when Coleman is alerted to the sudden black man situation at the house. He immediately assumes what the nice white couple assumes, and sends in his men to surround the place. It’s only after Douriff goes rogue and starts shooting at the poor man (who has come outside just to turn off his car alarm) that the sheriff begins to realize that hilarious misunderstandings have taken place. Now, all of the sudden, he’s got a situation on his hands where people will view this tiny island community as a bunch of backwood racists, and totally ruin his reelection campaign. What to do, what to do?

How about make a deal with the drifter you’ve got rotting in a cell to pretend to be a hostage taking crazy man in blackface, so the sheriff can pretend arrest him and be the one who saves the day? That should go swimmingly, right?

Intriguingly, this insipid sitcom plot masquerading as a movie is arguably the best thing Amos & Andrew could have done. The early goings with the racist white couple and all the people shooting at Jackson aren’t funny. They’re excruciating. The idiocy of the people involved is beyond insulting to any audience of any color, and there are barely any jokes contained within to try and offset the unpleasantness of it all. However, once Cage gets involved and sets off on the wacky hostage taking misunderstanding plot, things improve dramatically.

This is, again, because Cage and Jackson are very good together. Jackson’s character is barely written to the point where you wonder if writer/director E. Max Frye’s entire character description began and ended at “BLACK GUY WHO IS SORT OF LIKE WHITE GUYS.” Cage has a bit more backstory and motivation going on, which is why he’s kind of fun to watch. As soon as he’s double-crossed by the sheriff (because of course he is), the way he rolls with the punches is something damn near charming. The honest racial discussions that happen between them aren’t much more insightful than your average after-school special (don’t assume things about people based on their race, okay?), but the actors have chemistry and have some fun with what little they’re given to do.

This was Jackson’s first meaningful role after his brilliant supporting turn in Jungle Fever—unless, of course, you count Loaded Weapon 1 as a meaningful role. Things were going nowhere but up for him, what with Menace II Society, Jurassic Park, and the movie that launched him into the pop culture coolness stratosphere, Pulp Fiction, all coming within the next year of his career. Cage, on the other hand, had been mired in such a funk of weird, barely acknowledged films that his starring in back-to-back mainstream comedies like Honeymoon In Vegas and Amos & Andrew almost seemed more like a distress call to Hollywood to let everyone know that hey, Nicolas Cage is totally still alive and accepting acting work. 

It’s what he makes out of these dull mainstream roles that I think helped solidify Cage as an actor worth paying attention to in the decades that followed. In Honeymoon, on paper he looked like little more than a sad-sack idiot beset by oedipal anxieties. Here, he’s just another not-so-bad criminal character, a guy who is totally scum, but the kind of likable scum that really only exists in movies. In practice, Cage turned his Honeymoon character into a screaming, facial-expressing crazy person who became the sole reason to endure the film’s atrociously hokey plot. In Amos & Andrew, his sullen charm and constantly blown-out haircut turns Amos Odell into a character almost worth actually liking, and he and Jackson combine to wring a few laughs out of a mostly moribund script.

E. Max Frye never directed another movie after Amos & Andrew, though his screenwriting career continued. The movie tanked at the box office, earning less than $10 million during its theatrical run. Evidently its skewering of racial stereotyping just wasn’t what 1993 audiences were looking for, though it’s not like it’s done much better since. It’s not a movie much talked about when discussing either the careers of Cage nor Jackson. Hell, it’s not even generally brought up when you talk about Dabney Coleman. 

In this regard, perhaps “too soon” for Amos & Andrew is a misnomer. “Never” might be more reasonable.

Random Thoughts:

  • This movie has one of the worst titular lines of any movie ever. Jackson acknowledging that their names sound a little too close to Amos ‘n Andy is a little bit funny, though the dialogue itself is pretty forced.
  • The throwaway gag of the old racist white couple turning out to be BDSM enthusiasts feels very much of this movie’s time. Wasn’t this right around the same time Basic Instinct sort of introduced mainstream America to tying people up during sex (and then stabbing them, which is very optional)? It’s also around the same time Exit to Eden and the image of Rosie O’Donnell in domanatrix gear all but killed whatever boner America might have had for deviant sex for the better part of a decade.
  • Giancarlo Esposito plays a Jesse Jackson type character for absolutely no reason. None. Literally, all he does is show up on the island and begin shouting about how he wants to save Brother Sterling from his white captors, or something. Then he burns down Samuel L. Jackson’s house. 
  • Loretta Divine plays Esposito’s wife. I swear that woman has not aged in 20 years.

Next Week: Deadfall

  1. yearofthecage posted this
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