Born Yesterday

1993, Movie, PG, 100 mins

Review

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This new adaptation of Garson Kanin's mildly political stage comedy is moderately agreeable in its few good scenes. The rest of the time it suffers from an odd listlessness that stops it from taking off, much less posing a threat to George Cukor's smooth, sharp 1950 film starring Judy Holliday.

Harry Brock (John Goodman) is a gruff self-made real estate millionaire who lands in Washington D.C. to call in markers from senators to whom he contributed. A proposed defense base closing threatens his newest multi-million dollar development, and he needs the decision reversed to avoid bankruptcy. Accompanying him is his dim-witted Vegas showgirl paramour Billie Dawn (Melanie Griffith). After enduring some embarrassing public faux pas from Billie, Brock hires Paul Verrall (Don Johnson), an investigative reporter writing a story on him, to educate Dawn. Meanwhile Brock applies muscle behind the scenes to get what he wants, primarily from Senator Hedges (Fred Dalton Thompson). While teaching Billie, Verrall discovers that Brock has put most of his enterprises in her name to escape liability should his Washington power play fail and his empire collapse. Verrall and Billie are attracted to each other, and although he resists her advances, he eventually proposes marriage, which causes Billie to break up with Brock. Brock and his brow-beaten lieutenant (Edward Herrmann) scramble to remove Billie's influence over Brock's businesses only to find that the relevant documents have been stolen by Billie and Verrall. When Verrall yields to Billie's plea not to publish the damning documents, she accepts his proposal and uses the documents to keep a tight rein on Harry's future financial and political shenanigans.

The original BORN YESTERDAY still looks as good as ever and this new version, blandly scripted and flatly directed, is only intermittently entertaining in the few moments it's able to overcome the built-in torpor of reenacting a story that, whatever its relevance at the time of its release, looks positively prehistoric today. Other plot elements and characters seem barely thought out, much less developed. Making Verrall an investigative reporter taking a job with the person he's investigating would be something like Woodward and Bernstein taking a job with Richard Nixon's re-election committee while they were still ferreting out the facts behind Watergate. Cameo appearances by the Watergate duo's former editor, Ben Bradlee, somehow only underlines the irony. (By contrast, Verrall later sitting on his story out of love for Billie seems downright plausible.) What is retained from the original only heightens its creakiness. It's hard not to wonder what Brock is even doing in contemporary Washington when it's fairly common knowledge the rich and powerful hide behind highly-paid lobbyists.

Although Melanie Griffith may have looked an inspired choice on paper, she is somewhat less so on screen. She comes to life in her scenes with Johnson when she's attempting to seduce him, but she never develops chemistry of any kind with Goodman, making his beating of her late in the film seem more disturbing and brutal than was doubtless intended. Elsewhere she seems to be acting Billie Dawn where Holliday inhabited her. Goodman himself remains an indifferent leading man who tackles Brock (played by Broderick Crawford in the original) like an improbable ogre with a heart of gold. Johnson sleepwalks through most of the film, coming across as highly paid set decoration.

Altogether, the film has exactly one scene that clicks on a comic level and has no equivalent in the earlier film, when Billie unexpectedly enchants a dinner party of high-powered Washington types by leading them in a singalong rendition of the Bill of Rights to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." But it's a scene that exists in a vacuum. Under Luis (WHITE PALACE) Mandoki's slack direction, BORN YESTERDAY mostly proceeds in a mood of dead and deadly earnest, as if its story were ripped from today's headlines instead of being the sugar-coated civics lesson it originally was. Griffith almost makes it watchable. She is as charismatic a camera presence as ever, but her magic is mostly muted in this flat retread. (Profanity, violence.) leave a comment

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