Friday, May 21, 2021

A Flight to the Finish: The Late Charles Grodin in Midnight Run

I come from a family of accountants. In my experience, CPAs tend to be hard-working straight shooters who put in long hours on the job and wouldn’t dream of getting wild and crazy. That’s one of the reasons I got a kick out of Midnight Run, the 1988 film that was a career highlight for the late Charles Grodin. This action dramedy, also starring Robert De Niro in one of his earliest comedic roles, tells an intricately plotted tale of an ex-cop-turned-bounty-hunter hired to apprehend an accountant who has filched a mobster-client’s ill-gotten gains and donated them to charity. In order to get paid by a hot-tempered bail bondsman, De Niro’s Jack Walsh must transport nebbishy Jonathan Mardukas (Grodin) from New York to L.A. On the trail of the two men are some mobsters, a rival bounty-hunter, and the FBI, led by the towering, glowering Yaphet Kotto. All of whom want Mardukas for their own purposes.

 De Niro, of course, is adept at playing a tough guy with a soft center. At first the movie is all his, as he exercises his considerable skills at lock-picking as well as tracking down missing accountants. Once he finds Mardukas in NYC and plunks him onto an L.A.-bound 747, we’re slightly  disappointed that his quarry seems no more than a buttoned-down prig with a fear of flying. But in this film bland looks can be deceiving. As the two men travel together in trains, cars, and buses, we begin to suspect that Mardukas—so quick to trot out his financial opinions and persnickety health advice—is more complicated than he seems. That’s when Grodin’s apparently milquetoast character blossoms into someone with his own unexpected talent for larceny and much else. And it’s not giving much away to say that by the end of the film he and De Niro’s Jack have reached a meeting of the minds that is totally satisfactory.

 Charles Grodin’s long screen career began in the late 1950s with a lot of episodic television. He was a finalist in the search for the right young actor to play Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, and always clung to the story that he’d been offered the role but then, for some reason or other, turned it down. (When I was writing Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the film’s producer, Larry Turman, insisted to me that – despite Grodin’s outstanding reading in a casting session – he was never chosen for the role.) Personally, I suspect Grodin would not have been the right choice to play Benjamin, who behaves very badly in the course of the film but still must have the audience in his corner. As Mike Nichols himself has noted, there’s a sweetness about Dustin Hoffman’s screen persona that makes people root for him, no matter what. Grodin, though, is more off-putting, even when he’s hilarious to watch. His own breakthrough role was in 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, directed by Mike Nichols’ one-time artistic partner, Elaine May. Like Benjamin, the film’s Lenny Cantrow (Grodin) behaves outrageously once he’s fallen in love. But instead of succumbing to the charms of  someone innocent and pristine like Elaine Robinson, Lenny falls hard for a beautiful, worldly-wise WASP (Cybill Shepherd) while he’s on his honeymoon with a nice young woman from his own community (played by May’s actual daughter, Jeannie Berlin). Yes, it’s funny, but he’s VERY hard to like.

 Grodin’s whole career has been based on playing characters who are ambiguous in their appeal. One critic complimented the “inspired spinelessness” of his film roles, even in family movies like the Beethoven series. He’ll be sorely missed.




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