Monday, November 19, 2018

The Gauntlet and the Prostitutes

A group of talented people with a lot of creative freedom put together 1983's Doctor Detroit, but they apparently had no idea of how to exercise their talents. The result is a film that treads water, helplessly throwing one gag after another at the audience but without a goal in mind aside from being a comedy. It's not particularly funny but sometimes it's kind of intriguing.

Dan Aykroyd plays a literature professor named Clifford Skridlow, his absent mindedness and sartorial instincts making him seem like a missing member of Gary Cooper's clique from Ball of Fire. It's not just one showgirl that rocks his world, though, but four peculiarly dedicated call girls played by Lynn Whitfield, Jasmine Wu, Donna Dixon, and a young Fran Drescher already handily outshining her costars.

Their pimp, a peculiarly banal middle aged man played by Howard Hesseman, gets into trouble with a ganglord, a Ma Barker type called Mom (Kate Murtagh), and invents "Doctor Detroit" on the spot to divert her attention. He uses Clifford as a patsy after forcibly seducing him with food, drugs, and the call girls. When the pimp flees town, Clifford finds he has no choice but to wear a bright yellow overcoat, a grey wig, and a medieval gauntlet while doing a Truman Capote impression and confront Mom and her gang.

If you're thinking I left out some part of the logical chain of events I'm afraid I haven't. Hesseman's not in most of the film but the prostitutes and his driver (T.K. Carter) feel passionately compelled to prop up Clifford as a fake gang boss.

We now and then catch glimpses of a class Clifford is teaching on chivalry and throughout the film he makes references to Le Morte d'Arthur and Don Quixote. His sense of chivalry I guess is meant to explain why he's willing to lay down his life to fight Mom on behalf of the prostitutes after they drugged him before having sex with him.

At one point, Clifford gets one of them out of jail by doing a broad impression of a southern criminal defence lawyer, just one of the things that makes if feel more like watching Dan Aykroyd than a character Aykroyd is playing. Along with the arbitrary character motivations and the reticence for Chicago gangsters to use guns this makes the story feel altogether insubstantial. Sometimes it's interesting on a kind of dream logic level, though. Why do the girls spend so much time talking about Dan Aykroyd's legs? Why do they end up cooking Indian food for a university gathering?

James Brown appears in the film to perform "Get Up Offa That Thing" and Devo wrote the theme, making for a weird soundtrack pairing. Both may have thought they were working on something closer to The Blues Brothers but Doctor Detroit falls well short of that.

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