This week I am not just reviewing an 80s film (although there really should not be a “just” in that sentence; watching and discussing 80s films truly is the loftiest of human endeavours.) Rather, this blog shall be a celebration of one of the true titans of 80s films, a man who helped to make that decade’s cinematic oeuvre as glorious as it is, an unsung and much missed champion. I speak of – but who else? – Rick Moranis.
Rick Moranis is as inextricably associated with 80s films as Andie MacDowell is with 90s ones. Like MacDowell, he never really made a successful transition out of his signature decade. Unlike MacDowell, he can actually act.
To my regret, I have yet to get hold of a copy of Strange Brew, Moranis’ debut cult film which he also co-directed. It is also, I’m pretty sure, the only movie in existence which features both Moranis and Max von Sydow.
After Strange Brew’s release, Moranis began to pop up in all manner of films throughout the decade, from the decent (Brewster’s Millions) to the bizarre (Club Paradise.) But I’m going to focus my appreciation on what I feel are his defining moments: Ghostbusters, Little Shop of Horrors, Spaceballs and Parenthood.
Moranis is, to my mind, the unexpected gem in Ghostbusters. It takes a lot to create a small side character so compelling that the audience always wants to go back to him, easily holding his own against the mighty triumvirate of Murray-Aykroyd-Ramis. There are tonnes of 80s films that feature a little comedy side character (think, for example, of the landlord in Coming to America, or the always welcome Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop) but Moranis makes Louis so hilarious and fully fledged that at times he hogs the screen, even from that sine non plus ultra screen hogger, Bill Murray. (Lucky Sigourney Weaver, being fought over by Murray AND Moranis in this film – that is some serious fantasy living there.) Louis feels like a genuine character in the film, right up alongside the Ghostbusters, and it would have been impossible to make the sequel without him (Ramis seems to acknowledge this in Ghostbusters 2 when he allows Louis to, in fact, be a Ghostbuster and seemingly save New York on his own.)
From his opening appearance when he talks to Weaver in the hall, all faux-confident walk and memorable comic rhythms (“So you wanna come in for a mineral water or something?”), he takes a character that could easily have been as forgettable and occasionally intrusive as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles (minus the terrible national stereotyping – oh John Hughes…) and makes him into one of the very best things about this film which is, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, my favourite film in the world. He – far more than poor underused Winston – is really the bridge between the Ghostbusters and us, the one who roots down the spooky happenings into the context of every day Manhattan, mainly because he is so every day and spooky happenings all happen to him (“OK, who brought the dog?” “I am the key master.”)
It’s strange to think that Louis is only in, really, a handful of scenes, but that’s because he makes each one so memorable. If pushed, I think my favourite Louis scene would have to be his house party thanks to the way he introduces his clients to one another (“Ted has a small carpet cleaning company in receivership…”) and his attempts at dancing with the sexy blond woman in his living room. With this film, an 80s star was born and he was established as the go-to actor for nerdy characters in that decade as firmly as Martin Short (a similarly underrated comic actor and also, coincidentally, Canadian) was the man for hyper weirdos in the 80s and 90s.
Playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors was the sensible next step for Moranis, consolidating his reputation as the only option for nerdy, often lovesick characters, and it must have been a ball for him to play opposite that hideous Jim Henson creation (even if the creation itself is sometimes too creepy to watch.) He also got to prove not only that he could bear up nicely alongside torch singer Ellen Greene, but that he can be the star and not just the sidekick.
Of course, the downside to that is that sidekicks are generally more fun than stars as Moranis’ frequent co-star Steve Martin proves in this movie by pretty much stealing it with one song. (And this, incidentally, is why I find Honey I Shrunk the Kids one of Moranis’ less interesting roles – sure he’s great in it but there’s not much for him to get his teeth into. Every time I see it, I regret that he’s not one of the kids who gets shrunk instead of the dad who does the shrinking. I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this, not least because the financial benefits to the Honey… franchise surely compensate for any gentle criticisms.)
But that is not Moranis’ fault but rather the design of the very funny original play. Purists will argue that the movie shouldn’t have changed the play’s original campier and more brutal ending but, really, how could the movie end with Moranis being eaten? One of Moranis’ great qualities is the audience always wants him to be well. If they’d kept the original ending, movie theatres would have been stormed. In fact, it is thanks to his unfailing likeability and watchability that he shines so much in a film that fails to make real use of his considerable gifts.
Now, not even I am going to try to argue that Spaceballs is a good film (although I will defend the stunt doubles joke to my dying day), but after watching it for the first time in, by my reckoning, 20 years I can confirm that Moranis is, by some measure, the funniest element in this film, out-funnying even more practised comedians such as John Candy in this film, and I love John Candy. While he could have just coasted on the one-note joke he was meant to provide (hahaha Dark Helmet is really a shrimpy nerd hahaha), he makes Dark Helmet easily one of the most fun to watch characters to watch in this ridiculous film.
Moranis was no coaster, and to prove it he followed up Spaceballs with his most un-Moranis role to date, as the nightmare father in Parenthood, a film I have endless amounts of time for.
This is pure speculation but I wonder if Steve Martin had a hand in convincing Ron Howard to cast Moranis as Nathan, partly because Martin and Moranis clearly enjoyed working together (by my count, they appeared in four films together, including the lovely LA Story and co-starring in the 1990 film My Blue Heaven) and also, as I said, it’s not necessarily an obvious Moranis role.
Whatever lay behind it, the choice paid off well for everyone: Moranis got an American Comedy Award (his only one, unjustly – Louis Tully deserved an accolade) and the film retains its balance because, without him, that plot strand about the highly pressured daughter and somewhat dull wife would have got lost beneath the other far more interesting tales about Joaquin (then Leaf) Phoenix’s compulsive masturbation, Tom Hulce’s gambling addiction, Dianne Wiest’s extraordinary haircut, the diarroeha song, Jason Robards being Jason Robards and Keanu Reeves and Martha Plimpton’s marathon sex seshes (like I said, I have a lot of time for this delightful film.)
Nonetheless, Moranis ably maintains the interest in his plot thread, which is not surprising. More surprising, perhaps, is that he is completely convincing as the nightmare father who is pushing his precocious daughter to an almost certain teenage eating disorder. Of course, the scene that he is most known for in that film is when he marches through his wife’s classroom, crooning the Carpenters to her, and that’s inevitable – it’s his most Moranis-esque scene, and the only one in which he is more Louis / Seymour than Nathan. And that’s OK – no movie ever suffered from a bit of Moranis. But my favourite parts are when he is being surprising, such as when he’s hectoring his wife and daughter, or coldly rebuffing the intimacies of his in-laws. As close to my heart Louis Tully will always be, Moranis was more than just Louis Tully.
So what happened to Moranis? Well, if you don’t adore the man already, you will now. In 1991, his wife Ann very sadly died from cancer and in 1997 Moranis officially retired from acting in order to look after their two children. Despite being repeatedly asked to make a return, Moranis has so far refused, saying simply he “really doesn’t miss” acting, even resisting Harold Ramis’ pleas to be in the ominous sounding Ghostbusters 3.
Instead, he has returned to his first love, music (Moranis was originally a DJ in Canada), releasing an album in 2005. But otherwise, he has pretty much kept his head down, utterly unaffected by his decade and a half of fame and completely uninterested in regaining his A-list status, preferring instead a quiet life with his kids. How very Moranis.
Next week: Say Anything