By Rod Lott.
Nancy Allen is always engaging to watch but is left to tread water since her screen partner lacks the comic spark the role requires”
In part due to her five-year marriage to Brian De Palma, actress Nancy Allen has had to do lots of humiliating and vulnerable things on camera. None of them, however, are as demeaning as the full song-and-dance number she performs while dressed in a pink lamb costume, in Paul Bartel’s 1984 comedy, Not for Publication.
The scene – with co-star David Naughton even hammier dressed as a duck – is a desperate cry for laughs from a maverick writer/director whose greatest works do not have to beg.
By night, Lois (Allen) is the dogged reporter for New York Informer, a two-bit tabloid specializing in covering celebrity sex diets and frog baby ax murders. As the daughter of the once-respected paper’s late founder, Lois longs to return its luster with hard-hitting investigative pieces.
By day, she’s a measly assistant to the popular city mayor (Laurence Luckinbill, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), whose re-election is all but assured.
By accident, her two worlds collide, as she dons trenchcoat to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong, with the mayor’s newly hired photographer, Barry (Naughton, forever An American Werewolf in London), in tow. Their sleuthing involves a ring of robberies and a supper club for sex orgies; it’s the latter they crash by donning the animal costumes to pass themselves off as the hired entertainment.
Working with co-writer John Meyer (who also serves as composer), Bartel swirls a soup of Crazy Ideas throughout the 88-minute running time without giving them the attention and time each needs or pausing to consider if they’re needed at all. For example, Lois pursues her stories from a mobile newsroom: a milk wagon pulled by a little person named Odo (Cork Hubbert, Under the Rainbow). For another, Barry lives with his batty, bird-obsessed mother (Alice Ghostley, Esmerelda of TV’s Bewitched), whom we meet ostensibly to justify an end-credit sight gag of her in bed with Odo. Ha?
As a writer-director, Bartel was not exactly prolific, but beloved for his ability to weave satire into the most inane concepts. When he was “on,” he nailed it, as in Death Race 2000 and Eating Raoul. When he wasn’t, well, you get Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and this film, ironically both new to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The grubby-looking Not for Publication sees him singing in the key of screwball, à la The Front Page, but the notes fall flat. It’s simply not funny, with more effort seemingly placed on conjuring silly-sounding names with a preponderance of the letter “O” – Troppogrosso, Wopperico, Signor Sooppi – than anything else.
The exception is the rather sly and promising prologue, in which Lois interviews a pimp as he flees a group of vengeful showgirls all dressed in slinky tiger prints. Now that’s the movie I was primed to see. Allen is always engaging to watch but is left to tread water since her screen partner lacks the comic spark the role requires; it is not a stretch to imagine his well-meaning, dim-bulb Barry as being transported straight from Naughton’s famous Dr Pepper commercials. Oddly, Naughton looks most comfortable when shuffling up an onstage storm in that godforsaken duck outfit.
If there’s a saving grace to Not for Publication – and to be clear, there is not – it would be Luckinbill’s go-for-broke take as the incumbent mayor. Not every performer would dare give a comic shower-masturbation sequence his or her all. At least he’s having fun.
Not for Publication is now available in a new edition from Kino Lorber.
Rod Lott runs the genre film website FlickAttack.com from Oklahoma City. A former professional journalist whose film criticism and features were named his state’s best for three years, he has written for Psychotronic Video, Something Weird Video and numerous books.