Sunday, September 1, 2013

Leonard Part 6 (1987)... Jak's Pick for September


I've got a vague memory of my parents renting a Bill Cosby movie called Leonard Part 6 when I was eight, and wondering why I'd never heard of the first five parts. Of course, they don't exist, and from all that I've heard in the years since, that meta-joke is the only trace of comedy that supposedly exists in the whole movie. Bill Cosby himself discouraged people from seeing it leading up to its release. "Wow," I thought, "how bad could it be?"

I've tried to write this review a few times now, and each one reads like overly snarky exaggeration or hyperbolic bile - and the internet's got way more than enough of that already. So instead, I'm going to detail the plot below as objectively as possible, with no interjections of my opinions or thoughts until the end, because it really does need to speak for itself first. This may be difficult.

It starts with a CIA agent being killed in his swimming pool by a trained rainbow trout. The CIA chief, played by Joe Don Baker, lures back Leonard Parker, a retired agent who now runs a fancy L.A. restaurant, by sending one of their agents to try to kill Leonard by way of a shootout in the restaurant's kitchen. After taking out the agent, Leonard arrives at the CIA meeting and learns of a series of murders at the hands of several different trained animals (housecats, squirrels, and gophers). Apparently, Medusa, a vegetarian woman in charge of an evil organization, has gained a formula which can take control over all the animals of the world, and Leonard is tasked with stopping her. He refuses to and leaves, saying he is retired.

Leonard's daughter has arrived at his house with her new boyfriend, a play director who is 65 years old. Leonard isn't happy about this.

A CIA agent arrives at Medusa's compound and is killed by frogs who throw his car into the water, drowning him. Meanwhile, Leonard pines for his wife, who left him seven years ago. He calls her in the middle of the night to talk about their daughter's relationship, a conversation which ends with them setting up a dinner date the next day. A four minute montage of tailors sewing clothes, and Leonard working out and getting shaved and manicured follows. Leonard's workout tape is interrupted temporarily by Joe Don Baker, giving mission details to recover the animal control sphere from the compound's "B Room". Leonard ignores this and goes to his dinner date with his wife at her house down the block from him.

They appear to be reconciling at the beginning, until she starts spilling wine and sauce all over him, ending with her smashing a plate of rice into his face. She's still angry about catching him in the middle of what appeared to be an affair. Leonard leaves, instructing his butler to drive him to a fortune teller he would always see before he'd go on his missions.

The fortune teller speaks in gibberish and slaps his face as her children throw stuffed dolls at him and laugh. She hands him a pair of ballet slippers and a red jewelry box. He is ready to accept the mission the CIA has for him and is outfitted with numerous weapons and a set of hair clippers. His butler leads him to his tank gun-equipped, rocket-powered sports car and he goes speeding to the compound, attempting to blow up the gates. Medusa laughs, watching him on security cameras as he exhausts all his firepower. She finally lets him in by opening the gates.

She sends thirteen dancing vegetarian warriors dressed as birds out against him. They dance around Leonard, scratching him up and stripping him of his remaining weapons. All appears to be lost, until Leonard puts on the ballet shoes and starts ballet dancing, which lets him win the fight against the warriors. He uses the hair clippers to shave one of them bare. Medusa, now angry, sends her armed guards after Leonard as he proceeds further into the compound, hidden amidst a group of ostriches. He reaches the room with the sphere in it, which is filled with bees (because it's the "B Room"), and opens the red jewelry box which contains a magic queen bee who leads all the bees out of the room. Leonard makes off with the sphere as the guards are covered in bees.

Leonard arrives back at his house, where he performs drunken surgery on himself to extract a bullet from his arm. Later that night, he and his wife watch their daughter's play, where she ends up nude in her scene. After the play is over, one of Medusa's agents ties up the cast and kidnaps Leonard's wife, leaving a note telling him to return the sphere if he wants his wife back.

Leonard goes to the CIA to retrieve the sphere where they are attempting to use it to control animals and failing. Leonard instructs the rabbits to attack the CIA agents, and runs off with the sphere in the chaos.

Leonard and his butler replace the fluids inside the sphere with dishwasher liquid and head to the compound, though not before the fortune teller drives next to them and switches places with the butler in the passenger seat. She gives Leonard butter, meat patties, and a hot dog weenie before leaving.

Leonard returns the sphere to Medusa at the compound and, of course, they do not return his wife. Medusa knows they replaced the fluids and says that it doesn't matter because the liquids have nothing to do with the sphere's operation. In 15 minutes she will activate the machines that will allow her to control all the animals.

Leonard is thrown into a cell with his wife where lobsters approach them menacingly. One of the lobsters cuts the wires that attach him to the wall, and he threatens another with the butter to get it to cut his wife's wires. The lobsters retreat as both of them wield butter.

Leonard and his wife storm the rest of the compound on a horse, interrupting the activation with one second remaining, and grab the sphere. He fends off the vegetarian guards with the meat patties (which burns them on contact) as his wife frees all of the animals from the compound. Medusa's sidekick takes a bite of the hot dog and his head explodes.

Leonard throws meat at the machinery, which causes everything to burst into flames. He drops Alka-Seltzer into the vats of fluid, drowning the villains in a tide of goo. Leonard escapes on the back of an ostrich as the compound self destructs. Joe Don Baker and the CIA arrive and are incensed at the destruction of the sphere, and Leonard, not caring, heads back home with his wife as the goo gushes out of the compound.

Leonard and his wife celebrate at his restaurant by her pouring and smearing food all over him. The end.

And now here's the part where I'm supposed to present my own opinions and I'm still finding it hard to construct a sentence that can adequately represent them. This movie is proof that there are things money can't improve. The sets and special effects were fantastic for a 1987 film, yet it still managed to be the most tedious movie I've watched in a long time. It's obvious which segments somebody thought were supposed to be funny, making it that much more apparent when the jokes and gags fail to land. It reminds me of the stories my friends and I would write when we were very young, before we figured out that directionless randomness doesn't necessarily equal entertainment - which leads me to now wonder if I'd have enjoyed this movie when I was eight, or if I'd have also concluded back then that this is stupid.

Actually, yeah, there it is. That's what I'm going to go with. This is stupid.


My expectations for this film were exceedingly low. If you're going to watch a film that both the director and star admit is terrible, you can't really go into viewing it any other way. Given my recent track record with the films we've been picking for the Exchange, I was steeling myself for another film that I probably wouldn't enjoy. So imagine my surprise when I found out Leonard Part 6 really isn't that bad.

Now, saying it's not bad doesn't mean it's good, and this film isn't. I'm just saying that there are moments of amusement to be gained here, if you're in the right frame of mind for them. This is an incredibly silly film, a film that is quite intentionally stupid on purpose. It's clear that Cosby was going for a kind of absurd humor throughout, but the main problem is, 9 out of 10 times, that humor falls flat. I laughed hysterically when the gang of frogs surround the agent's vehicle and then literally hop as one into the water, carrying the car and drowning him. Shortly after he had been writing down "Gribbit" to record their words. It's stupid - so, so stupid - but for that moment, at least, it hit me perfectly.

However, plenty of other moments of humor don't do the same for me. Watching Leonard's estranged wife cover him with food, for instance, is probably the most painful of the attempts at humor, primarily because it's used twice. I feel like the ballet moment could have been funny, but the fact that we're told about it as the film opens, and then see the fortune teller give him the shoes, makes the scene largely expected and therefore less absurd and more tedious. Though I do find Medusa's explanation of the dancers' origins pretty funny.

Speaking of Medusa, Gloria Foster is fantastic. I recognized her voice as the Oracle from The Matrix the moment she spoke, and I love watching her play over the top here. She really deserved a larger career than she got, and she's definitely too good for this film. It's also worth mentioning that Cosby is still Cosby here. While a little more subdued than the character most of us are used to seeing him play on his show, he's still charming and makes wonderfully expressive faces. It's just that the story and the jokes are so weak that just having him here isn't enough.

The story with his wife and daughter are pretty well done, and you can certainly see similarities in there with both his sitcoms and his comedy routines, but they take up far too much time in what is supposed to be a zany parody of James Bond. I suppose you could see it as an attempt to make the audience feel something more when the hero's ex-wife is captured, since you've witnessed so much of their broken relationship up until now, but it's truly not necessary at all and, frankly, the extra time still doesn't make their reunion any more believable. Helping him save the world doesn't mean she will automatically forgive him for cheating on her, after all.

I don't regret watching it, but I'll probably never watch it again. For a movie so badly regarded, I think that's giving it a fairly decent compliment.


Jak, I'm left in much the same position as you. I watched the first half of this movie at my dad's place, where he and I quickly fell into expressions of stupor as we stared at the screen, occasionally turning those stuporous looks at one another to confirm that, yes, we were both indeed left just as lost by this film. He gave up after half an hour, so I packed it up and finished it at home. I was left in the same state by myself, occasionally pausing the film so I could turn off my television and stare into the eyes of my reflection as I pondered how this film manages to exist in the state it does. And when the film was over, and the credits had played out in full, I realized I'd been staring at the main menu for five minutes as perceptions of the regular world slowly dawned on me. It's a mesmerizing experience, in a way, but instead of leaving me in a state of peaceful complacency, it left me empty and hollow, and chilled at the abyss I now found in myself. I'm left with unanswerable questions of "how" and "why", and an experience that can only enlighten through repetition, but when a second viewing is likely to be the same numbing hell as the first, it leaves me finally excepting the truth that some questions aren't meant to be answered.

But a lack of definite answers does not require a dismissal of the art of theories, so in order to try to purge this from my system, let me see if I can speculate about how a cinematic foreskin boil like Leonard Part 6 came into existence.

It's long forgotten now, but there was a time when Bill Cosby was both a sex symbol and a dashing male lead. Shortly before the first of his three domestic sitcoms, he starred in I, Spy with Robert Culp, where the two played a pair of dashing international sleuths who frequently saved the world, and looked sharp while doing it. In the 80s, with the rise of the summer action movie, I could imagine Cos looking at Beverly Hills Cop and saying, "Y'know, I used to be able to do that stuff. That used to be me." Thus, an idea came into his head, that of a now retired spy - with Leonard Parker resembling, but not officially his old role of Alexander Scott - who is forced back into the game while also dealing with family issues which get mixed up in events. If you look at Beverly Hills Cop, it's not impossible to have a gritty crime drama play out within comical shenanigans, and you could imagine Cosby's resolve, "We'll dooooooo that! But cleaner, so the kiddies can come see!"

So this was passed to a writer, but something was lost in the translation and, forgetting to do his researched, he mistook his old memories of I, Spy with those of Get Smart, and penned a gag-laden script filled with under-arm missiles, Jane Fonda training montages, and people being killed in silly ways by cute animals. And since the studios heard the word "Kiddies!" echoing from the direction of Bill Cosby's mouth, they mistook that to mean the little tots were the intended audience, and signed off on the script lickety split. By this point, the script had found its way back into the pudding sticky hands of Bill, who was storming about the house, reading it out loud, interspersed with cries of "How could they! How dare they! This doesn't represent my art!" but then he stopped when he heard the laughter of those metaphorical kiddies and realized it might be worth it to play along. Maybe even sell some more Jell-O. But he still had his fond memories of Alexander Scott and tried to take it a little seriously, mostly approaching the role with a buttoned-up charm... until he got to the setpiece with the vegetarian bird dancers, ostriches, and vats of dishwasher fluid brought to roiling life by Alka Seltzer, and by then his dignity was pretty much thrown out the window.

For a director, they went to a British newcomer named Paul Weilland, who apparently has actual comedy chops, as he built a decent career after Leonard when television direction brought him in touch with Rowan Atkinson, with whom he collaborated on a number of Mr. Bean episodes and a Blackadder film. He also did City Slickers 2, a sequel I don't hate. Granted, with all of these, he was working with actors at the tops of their comedic games, who not only got the jokes in the script, but helped to hone them. Here, he had a Bill Cosby who was trying to play his secret agent as either a straight, dashing lead, or as his exasperated sitcom dad, and instead of really digging into and selling the jokes of the script, Cos seemed to be embarrassed, a feeling which became infectious as nobody but the two villains even really tried to give the material on the page a chance and instead either deadpanned it or went off in directions that had nothing to do with anything. I'm thinking the butler and the psychic here.

Oh, and have I mentioned Jan de Bont yet? Jan is most famous as the director of Speed and Twister, a great pair of 90s action movies. Before taking his own seat in the directorial chair, he honed his skills as one of the top Hollywood cinematographers of the late 80s/early 90s. He did Cujo, Die Hard, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October, and Basic Instinct. If you look at his work on Leonard, it's admirable as every shot is lovingly framed and lit. Just look at the sequence where the frogs gather under a car and hop it into a river. There's a genuine layer of tension to the buildup as you first have one, then more, then dozens of frogs and the spy in the car doesn't realize their sounds are what he's jotting down in his wiretap notes as they all suddenly leap as one and... the scene is awful. It's not awful because it's poorly done, no. It's masterfully done, it's just entirely wrong for the movie. Too much of this film is shot with the slick seriousness of a Ridley Scott movie, and this not only kills the joke, but creates a massive clash where intent and execution grind against one another, creating the mesmerizing tone which bore into my skull like an eggbeater in a metal pail full of delicious jelly beans.

And I don't understand how this happened. These are people who should know better. The director went onto better things, yet so little of the comedic filmmaker he came to be is on display here. The writer, Jonathan Reynolds, penned a pair of comedies - Switching Channels and My Stepmother Is An Alien - which, while not great, are competent works I mostly enjoy. Bill Cosby is an excellent comedian, a great sitcom lead, and even used to cut quite a slick figure in his I, Spy days, so why has it always been so hard for him to make the transition to film? Even Jan de Bont can't be accused of not getting the humor, as before this, he'd shot Ruthless People, one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time.

On paper, this is a film that should work. These are talented people, and even the stupid, nonsensical storyline, and the jokes it's filled with, aren't all that bad. Yes, they're stupid, but a stupid laugh is still a laugh, and there's nothing any stupider here than you'd find in the classic Pink Panther movies, or Austin Powers, or even Zoolander. Yes, I'm going there. Zoolander is a masterpiece, but look at that and this side-by-side and tell me, on paper, how they're any different? What isn't working here is not the conception, but the execution, as everything in the film, from the performances, to the direction and editing, to even the lack of any score in most scenes, ends up leaving it all a collection of interesting pieces that should fit, but are instead repelling one another like the same polarized ends of a magnet.

This is exactly the type of film I should enjoy, exactly the type of humor that should have me rolling in my seat with giddiness as I defend a forgotten little gem that nobody understands. Instead, I'm left with a hollow ringing in my soul, an echo of this... this... thing, I don't know, I can't come up with anything else to call it. It's a failure, yes, but one of the most bizarre and incomprehensible failures around. The basic story at its core isn't awful. The script written from it is stupid, but still serviceable and occasionally a hair clever. It could work if delivered right, but it isn't. And yet, despite not clicking with the material, nobody changed it. Instead of just playing his performance mostly straight, why didn't Cosby insist on a rewrite? Why didn't the director? Why didn't somebody sit down and say, "Fellas, this isn't working. What can we do about that?" After the movie was put together, Cos instantly came out against it, publicly tearing it a new one as a horrible film. But why was it a horrible film, Bill? Aren't you the leading star with the pull to reshape it? Aren't you the sole producer, without a gaggle of other cooks in the kitchen to blame for everything going wrong? Aren't you the guy credited with the original story, who could have taken a look at the script that was handed to you and said "No no no, this isn't what I was going for."?

Bill, who's fault is it for this film being what it is? Who's fault is it, really?



Angie, I really wish I could have found some kind of positive experience in this film like you did, as I'd have less of this bad taste in my mouth. And once again, Noel and I agree on a picture. This is beginning to become an unexpected trend. Next thing you know, I'll be watching Gunhed again and finding new layers of depth. (Don't get too excited, Noel, that was a joke.)

I went into this knowing it would be bad and was genuinely surprised that the bad movie I had in mind was so much better than the pile of awful choices that I ended up watching. I only thought I knew what failed execution looked like. We've reached a new shade of low and I think my contributions to this blog over the next few months are going to be more glowing (relatively speaking) than they would have been otherwise, just because of how much lower the bar for "bad" has been set now.

I'm not fishing for overstatement laughs here, I mean it. Ed Wood's films and Manos rank higher than this because those are at least honestly bad - there was a drive and a vision, however flawed it may have been, which was pursued, and missed its mark for one or more reasons, usually more. Leonard Part 6, though - it's some kind of cinematic poo golem, a bad movie without a soul. Whereas most soulless Hollywood fluff has at least a few laughs and thrills here and there, Leonard has this subtly shallow, cynical core that shines through its high production values, which I can't quite pinpoint beyond the lingering shots of Coke products and the overly random gags and story elements that seem to scream "the rubes oughta laugh at this."

We didn't.

We'll be back on the 1st of October with a pick from Angie: Freaked (1993)

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

Honestly, the Cos needs to lighten up a bit. Is Leonard Part 6 any more embarrassing than those rainbow colored Rorschach tests he called sweaters back in his Cosby Show days?

I've never seen Leonard Part 6 (which probably shocks Noel). My one memory of it is going to see Where The River Runs Black on a school field trip and seeing the poster for LP6 in the lobby and my friend Steve saying, "Man, I wish we were going to see that instead.".