Directed by Martin Scorsese
Paul (Griffin Dunne) looks exhausted by his job as a word processor when we first meet him, but by the end of the movie he is elated to be right back in his office chair, ready for the new day. In between is some sort of nightmare in which Paul is stranded in a SoHo neighborhood of New York and chased by an angry mob.
Scorsese brings the intensity of films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and even The King of Comedy to this slapstick-ish comedy. The streets of New York feel dangerous, and every character Paul runs into feels like they might kill him. The music adds to this sense of terror, but combined with the humor it feels a little unsettling. I guess I’ll say now that I love this movie. It’s absurd, dark, twisted, funny and aggravating. It’s like a darker version of any number of 80s comedies in which characters find themselves in ridiculous and precarious situations. When you explain the plot of one of these movies, you can hear just out crazy and unlikely the series of events are. In After Hours, Paul tries to explain his rough night to a man who looks just as bored by him as Paul was by his coworker at the beginning of the movie.
The trouble begins when Paul goes to a diner to read his favorite book. He seems to be a bit of a lonely guy, and this is just a way to get out his apartment and his routine. There he meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), an attractive but strange creature who starts a conversation with him. He recognizes some attraction between the two of them, but she doesn’t seem to. Marcy leaves after giving him the phone number of her roommate who is selling paper weights she has sculpted. Paul calls up this number once he returns home, hoping to speak to Marcy. When she comes to the phone he gets his wish. Marcy is flirty and says she’s glad he called. He echoes this sentiment.
Now, already this movie is strange. Marcy seemed curious about Paul but uninterested in him at the diner. Suddenly she’s very interested in him, and as a viewer I had the feeling that he was about to enter a trap, which, he pretty much does. Marcy is gone when Paul arrives at her friend’s studio apartment, already with his pockets empty after losing a $20 bill during his wild cab ride. Marcy’s sculptor friend, Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) toys with him, and he finds himself giving her a massage. Paul is about to explain a story from his childhood hinting at his fear of fire (and burn wounds) when he’s interrupted by her falling asleep.
Marcy arrives, and she tells Paul how excited she is for the night. She thinks good things are going to happen. Now… this is all too good to be true, but Paul still believes it. This movie is like God testing Abraham, when he made him agree to sacrifice his son to test his faith. Paul really wants to meet this girl, and the movie god is saying “how badly do you want to meet her?” Later in the film, near the very end, an older woman will ask Paul what he wants. Paul, beaten, exhausted, filthy and with a bald spot, will say “I want to live,” as if every word spoken pains him. Early in the story, this goal suggests that he wants to break free of his own life and live a life he has only dreamed about. By the end, this sentence means he just doesn’t want to die. He’s finally okay with the life he had because he sees how much more excruciatingly worse it can be.
Anyways, Marcy engages Paul and suggests they go get coffee. Paul is forever stuck within this movie because the people he talks to are either not open enough with him or way too open with him. Kiki, for example, cut him off by falling asleep just as Marcy cut him off in the diner by pointing out another person, taking interest in him over Paul. But now Marcy is too open with Paul. He asks her what’s wrong (something is up with her), and with no real hesitation she tells him she was raped once. Paul, understandably, is shocked and unsure how to respond. He’s unsettled but still trying his best to stick with her. It’s not until, with her in the restroom, Paul sees a book of burn victims and is horrified. This is when he pulls himself from the situation, finally feeling the level of discomfort I was feeling, and he leaves.
The problem is he has only 97 cents and can’t pay the fare to board the train back to his apartment. He goes to a bar to escape the rain, and the bartender is nice enough to offer Paul some money for the fare. The next problem is that the bartender can’t open the jammed cash register. When he tells Paul that the cash register key is in his apartment, Paul agrees to go to his apartment and come back, giving the man his own set of keys as a deposit of faith. While at the man’s apartment, a couple neighbors harass Paul, accusing him of being the burglar who has been thieving from the neighborhood.
On his way back to the bar, Paul notices Kiki’s statue being stolen by two guys. He runs after them but they escape. Paul brings the statue to the apartment where Kiki and Marcy reside. Kiki encourages him to apologize to Marcy for abandoning her, and he tries to but finds her dead from a sleeping pill overdose. He calls the police but realizes he has to leave to get back to the bar to get his house keys. He leaves “dead person” signs in the house with arrows leading to Marcy’s room.
The bar is closed while the bartender looks for Paul, so Paul hangs out across the street at waitress Julie’s (Teri Garr) apartment. Julie works at the bar and hates her job. She comes on to Paul, but he resists her, only concerned with getting his key back.
…okay, I’m tired of recapping this already, and there’s a lot more to recap still. The point is, all Paul wants is to get back home, but he can’t for different reasons. It turns out Marcy is the bartender’s girlfriend and the neighborhood becomes convinced Paul is the burglar. Ultimately he escapes to a club where he is hidden downstairs when the angry mob comes after him. A woman hides him in a paper mache sculpture which is stolen by the two actual thieves. They drive too fast, and Paul spills out of the back of the car, the sculpture around him crashing apart so that he can walk free. He’s right outside work just as the building opens so he goes up to his desk and sits, relieved.
It’s funny, now that I think about it, that he never actually made it back home. One alternative ending Scorsese considered was to have Paul never escape the paper mache sculpture/prison, which I thought would happen. It would be an appropriately dark ending for this dark comedy.
The first act of this film involves Paul trying desperately to engage with the world around him, and the rest of the film is Paul trying to disengage from that world when he realizes how hostile it is. This felt like a zombie B movie in a lot of ways. The angry mob is cartoonish, like something out of The Simpsons, and there were several camera tricks that added to that cartoonish feel. When Paul is in the cab early on, the film is sped up to make it look like the cab driver is going faster than he really is. This gives the movement a choppier feel, like something out of stop-motion animation.
Every conversation in the story feels like a battle, even if both people are nice. At first Paul is sympathetic with the people around him, but they are so strange and unrestrained by social norms that each interaction feels like a tunnel from Indiana Jones, where spikes could fly out at any moment, impaling our hero. The more he talks to someone like Marcy, the further away he feels from her, at least from my viewing perspective. It’s like he’s talking to aliens. He has no way of relating to Marcy or Kiki or even Julie or June or the bartender. Hell, the bartender feels like a pretty normal guy, but when he learns that Marcy has died, he is completely, appropriately distraught. There’s nothing wrong with him, but there is something wrong with the situation. That news suddenly prevents Paul from getting close to the man, just like Marcy’s revelations and burn victim book prevent him from getting closer to her, just like Kiki falling asleep (and her bondage with her boyfriend) prevent him from getting close to her, just like June’s paper mache imprisonment prevents him from getting closer to her, and just like the mistaken belief that he is the burglar prevents Paul from getting close to a number of other people.
The only sane person in the film feels like Paul and the guy he ignored at work. If he saw that guy, who once bored him, at the end of the film, he would hug him and start sobbing. So this is a film about taking away what you have and making you realize what you had all along. But it goes about that journey in an insane way, painting a picture of this neighborhood and this time of night as if it’s an alien planet. There is an entire community where people know each other, people are all awake, and people rally together in the name of burning someone at the stake.
A later Scorsese film, 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead creates a similar environment, complete with fast edits, sped-up footage and a character losing his mind. Both films are shot almost completely at night, but that film, though occasionally funny, is very much a drama while this one is a comedy. But somehow the characters from both films feel like they live in the same, crazy world. It kind of makes sense to imagine a character losing his or her mind and seeing the world through the lens through which the audience sees this film (as well as Bringing Out the Dead).
Things don’t add up like they do in life. It’s the perspective of someone deeply paranoid who might notice patterns and coincidences that aren’t really there. If Paul approached you on the street, he would be full of stories and conspiracy theories, and you’re likely to believe none of them. This movie justifies his paranoia and feelings of victimization. I guess someone living a life like Paul at the beginning of the film does feel some victimization. This is despite living in an expensive city with a comfy (if boring) job.
But that kind of life is not one you choose but instead one that you’re told to choose. Paul seems like he has played it safe all his life. He went to the school they told him to go to, got the haircut they told him to get, got the job they told him to aim for and lives in an appropriate apartment for his age. And yet something is missing. The antagonism Paul faces in the second and third acts of this film are physical manifestations of the antagonism he has likely imagined himself to have faced in his adult life. He’s just too polite to get worked up about it until there’s an angry mob hunting him down.