Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Big Fix (1978)

Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss), formerly a proper 60s radical, is now a divorced industrial detective (missions in this glamorous job include the counting of chickens, which is more depressing than hunting cheating spouses), with two kids living with his ex-wife (Bonnie Bedelia), and a minor case of depression, sadness and self-hatred all his own. Things change when his old protest buddy and flame Lila (Susan Anspach) steps back into his life.

Lila hasn’t given up as many of her dreams as Moses has, and while she’s arranged herself with elements of changing times, she has stayed alive in and engaged with the world around her in a way Moses has not. Right now, she’s working for a political candidate named Hawthorne. Hawthorne might very well be the most boring and uncharismatic man alive yet he is also not corrupt and no monster, the kind of compromise you bet on when all the alternatives are all sorts of terrible. Unfortunately, someone has taken it upon himself to print flyers carrying endorsements for Hawthorne by radical turned terrorist turned disappeared wanted man Eppis (F. Murray Abraham). That’s the sort of thing that can end a political career right quick, so the Hawthorne campaign has sent Lila to hire a private detective to find out who is responsible for these flyers. Who’d be a better candidate for that than Moses – a trustworthy guy who knows the circles Eppis once moved in?

At first, the investigation is very much fun and games for Moses. He’s spending time with Lila, falling back in her love with her – a feeling that’s clearly reciprocated – and enjoying a light-hearted investigative romp that awakens an optimism in him he hasn’t felt for a long time. However, things turn much more serious, a murder and a conspiracy (or more than one) pressuring Moses into sticking his nose in very dangerous corners.

Jeremy Kagan’s comedic mystery The Big Fix is a very pleasant surprise. It’s one of those late 70s films that seem to have fallen through the cracks nearly completely, and while it isn’t the sort of film that’ll rewrite movie history, it is certainly a hidden gem. With a script by Roger L. Simon based on his own novel, it is another of those late 70s movie concerned with the unfulfilled promises of the 60s, but it is a bit more hopeful than many of its brethren in its belief that some of the people who have seemingly given up on all those high ideals they espoused might step back into the body politic again. The film doesn’t use the dire consequences Moses’s return to life has for a character who really doesn’t deserve this at all to end on a cynical and bitter note – it rather treats this as the sort of injustice the Moseses of this world should help fix. It’s just not lying about fixing the world being easy for anyone involved.

The film’s tonal half-shift from light-hearted mystery to something a bit darker is handled very well, Kagan timing the moment when it happens excellently, and actually rather more subtly than it at first seems. After this point, the film rightly never quite gets regains the sense of whimsy it had before (when the Moses/Lila team basically capered through their investigation), but it still contains quite a few funny and satirical ideas, like the true fate of Eppis and the way hippie and yuppie collide in how he lives now (milked grandly by an Abraham who seems to have a very good time). All the while, the film steps merrily through the ruins of former radical politics in the US, visiting the groups that still fight, those that have given up, and those that have turned malevolent with sarcasm but without the sort of cynicism that could easily come with this territory. The film’s too interested in its characters’ humanity to ever become completely bitter about it, I think. It also has a great hand for memorable side characters, not just because it has some very memorable actors (John Lithgow, Fritz Weaver and Ron Rifkin are around too, for example) to work with, but because it so clearly enjoys spending time with figures like Moses’s staunchly socialist Russian Jewish émigré aunt (Rita Karin), even if they are only marginally pertinent to the plot. 

Along this way, the viewer is accompanying a lead in Dreyfuss who finds humanity and depth in a character that could have been a caricature through a plot that probably becomes a bit too complicated for its own good (but that’s par for the course for this sort of mystery) and is finished perhaps a bit too neatly.

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