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Why Pat O'Connor's 1989 Bomb, 'The January Man', Is Worth Watching Today

Kevin Kline as Nick Starkey in The January Man (1989) (IMDB)

Considered in relation to the postmodern explosion that would rock Hollywood during the second half of the '90s, The January Man registers as a pop culture curio that was ahead of its time.

Released in January of 1989, director Pat O'Connor's film, The January Man, went down as one of the biggest critical and commercial bombs of the year. Lavishly budgeted, the film grossed a paltry $4 million at the North American box-office and was savaged by critics.

Writing in her Washington Post review, critic Rita Kempley cheekily noted, "Eliot called April the cruelest month, but then he hadn't seen The January Man. Billed as a mystery with romance and comedy, it's a damp sock of a movie that makes you wish for a leap year." Even the normally charitable Roger Ebert aggressively gunned for the film in his Chicago Sun-Times review, terming it "worth study as a film that fails to find its tone."

Starring Kevin Kline (then fresh off Charles Crichton's 1988 hit, A Fish Called Wanda), Susan Sarandon, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, The January Man boasted some major stars of the late 1980s, in addition to featuring top Hollywood character actors in the form of Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Rod Steiger, and Alan Rickman. Featuring a screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the 1987 hit Moonstruck, The January Man was co-produced by Moonstruck's director and Hollywood legend, Norman Jewison. Billed under the tagline "Murder. Corruption. Comedy. What a way to start the year!" the film was marketed as an edgy fusion of different generic elements.

The story takes shape around the life of Nick Starkey (Kline), a former top-notch homicide investigator with the NYPD whose bohemian demeanor and unorthodox methods rendered him an outsider within the department's regimented, hierarchical structure. Dismissed from the police force in a bonfire of controversy that saw him falsely accused in a bribery scandal, Nick spends his working hours running into burning buildings as a New York City fireman.

Film Strip by joseph_alban (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Summoned back to the department by his estranged police Commissioner brother (Harvey Keitel) and the city's crass, opportunistic mayor (Steiger), Nick is tasked with capturing the so-called "blue-ribbon" killer, who has terrorized the city by strangling a series of women with blue cordons. Falling back into a world of social intrigue that he had thought he had escaped, Nick resumes interest in an old flame in the form of his brother's socialite wife (Sarandon), while simultaneously pursuing a liaison with the mayor's 23-year-old daughter. Adding to his stresses, he finds himself at constant loggerheads with his commanding officer (Danny Aiello), who is disdainful of him and his beatnik lifestyle.

In the process of delineating such goings on, the film prioritizes the relationships between its characters above that of the investigation itself. Indeed, by the time the murders are actually solved, it's all rather anti-climactic. Yet while critics of the era generally cited this as one of The January Man's major failings, I'd argue that it's possible to see this as one of the film's strengths. Without giving too much away, the film's haphazard narrative is, in many respects, true to the inherent randomness of life, whereas the killer's ordered, methodical approach to choosing his victims reflects his twisted desire to orchestrate a sense of control over existence.

Ultimately, what makes the film worth watching are the performances. Kline is fantastic as the eternal outsider Nick Starkey. Sarandon is pitch-perfect as the icy diva for whom Starkey still pines. And Mastrantonio – an underappreciated star of the '80s and early '90s – is charming as the free-spirited younger woman with whom Starkey becomes romantically entangled.

What really makes the film memorable, however, are not the leads, but rather the character actors. How many other films can you find where Keitel actually plays against type and delivers a restrained, understated performance, as he does here, in his role as Nick's sly, buttoned-down brother? By contrast, Steiger is wonderfully over-the-top as the city's corrupt, cigar-chomping, volcanically-tempered mayor, and Aiello is equally memorable as the hot-tempered yet principled Captain Alcoa.

Rod Steiger as Eamon Flynn (IMDB)

The standout performance in the film is that of Alan Rickman, who plays Ed, Nick's artist friend and neighbour, whom Nick enlists to assist in the investigation. That Rickman could give his bravura turn as slime sublime villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) and then do a complete about face as the eccentric, curmudgeonly, yet inherently lovable Ed is a testament to his remarkable skill as an actor.

So is The January Man a good film? Yes. A clue as to why it was so savaged by critics at the time of its release might reside in Ebert's review. Though highly critical of the film, Ebert seems to have discerned that the January Man was striving to provide audiences of the era with something different. He notes, "This is not the sort of movie that inspires books about how it was made, but I imagine a good book – and even a good movie – could be based on whatever in the world they thought they were doing when they made The January Man." To his credit, Ebert appears to have recognized that there may have been some method to the seeming madness of the film's narrative.

Admittedly, little has since been written about The January Man, though the film remains widely available via DVD, iTunes, and Netflix. In his autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, Jewison briefly alludes to producing the film before essentially disavowing responsibility for it, noting, "Producing, no matter how much you are involved in the script, casting, locations, and budget considerations, is still not the same function as directing the film. Movies are, in the final analysis, a director's medium" (210).

Yet if first-person accounts of working on The January Man are currently scarce, we can at least speculate about was happening in Hollywood at the time of the film's production. To this end, it's useful to turn to the work of film scholar Nick Lacey. Historicizing film's relationship to academic theories in his book An Introduction to Film (2005), Lacey alludes to the influence of postmodern theory on late 20th century Hollywood cinema and popular culture, noting, "By the end of the twentieth century, postmodernism had decreed that no theory could explain everything. The fecundity of film studies theories, particularly from the 1970s, was no doubt facilitated by the expansion of [Western] academia" (147).

Alan Rickman as Ed (IMDB)

Often conflated with poststructuralism, postmodernism challenges stable notions of meaning by stressing contingency, uncertainty, and randomness. Accordingly, postmodern works often combine a fusion of different generic elements, thereby resisting easy forms of classification. Construed as a mainstream cinematic effort at channeling postmodern energies, The January Man actually begins to make sense. Indeed, if considered in relation to the postmodern explosion that would rock Hollywood during the second half of the '90s via such polished postmodern films as Scream (1996), Pulp Fiction (1996), and Being John Malkovich (1999), The January Man registers as a pop culture curio that was somewhat ahead of its time.

Ultimately, while The January Man may not be a great film, it is an entertaining one that is filled with memorable characters, some good scenes, and some nice shots of pre-Giuliani era New York (though parts of the film were also shot in Toronto). Memorably cheeky as critic Rita Kempley's Eliot-referenced swipe at The January Man may be, there's another line from T.S. Eliot that pops into my mind when I watch the film. It comes from "East Coker", the second quartet in Eliot's Four Quartets (1943), and it reads as follows: "For us, there is only the trying." Simply put, while The January Man doesn't entirely work, it endures as a noble popular cinematic effort that tried to provide mainstream audiences of its era with something different.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. "The January Man". 13 January 1989. Web. 9 January 2020.

Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets. 1943. London: Faber and Faber, 1958. Print.

The January Man. Dir. Pat O'Connor. 1989. MGM, 2002. DVD.

Jewison, Norman. This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me: An Autobiography. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2004. Print.

Lacey, Nick. An Introduction to Film. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Kempley, Rita. "The January Man". Washington Post. 13 January 1989. Web. 9 January 2020.

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