My whole “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column got its start when I wrote an analysis of The King of Comedy, which I considered to be Martin Scorsese’s most underrated film. However, the film he made right after that one is definitely a close second. His 1985 black comedy, After Hours, is one of the most unconventional entries in Scorsese’s filmography and like The King of Comedy, I’m sure many viewers didn’t know what to make of it. King of Comedy was also a really dark comedy, but it did have its own twisted logic to it, and it actually seems like a model of normalcy next to After Hours, which often takes on the form of a Kafkaesque nightmare. This was originally going to be Tim Burton’s feature-length directorial debut and it does definitely feel more like a Tim Burton film than a Martin Scorsese one. After Hours was made during the period when Scorsese kept trying to get The Last Temptation of Christ made, but every possible thing kept going wrong for him that prevented the production from getting off the ground. It’s possible that one of the reasons Scorsese took on this project is because, at the time, he could strongly identify with the protagonist, a man who suffers every possible stroke of bad luck.
The hero of After Hours is Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), an ordinary man who lives a mundane, unexciting life working as a word processor in New York City. One night, he meets a unique woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop and they seem to make a connection. Marcy’s roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) is a sculptor who makes “Plaster of Paris bagel-and-cream-cheese paperweights”, so Marcy gives Paul her phone number, in case he should ever be interesting in buying one. Paul eventually does call her and she invites him to instantly come visit her apartment in Manhattan’s downtown Soho district, even though it is already 11:30 at night. Paul may find the idea a little strange, but his mundane existence has made him anxious for any sort of unpredictable adventure and, boy, is he about to experience one! He hops into a taxi to travel to Soho and his troubles start when the only $20 bill he is carrying blows out the cab window and he can’t pay the fare. This is just the beginning of an unfortunate series of events for him that don’t seem to have any logic to them, yet are somehow all linked together. Sure enough, Paul finds Marcy to be an awfully strange and scary woman and starts to regret his decision.
Paul eventually gets weirded out enough to walk out on Marcy and head home. His luck gets even worse when he tries to board the subway and finds out that the fare just rose at midnight and he is now 50 cents short. The basic storyliine for After Hours is pretty simple. All Paul wants to do is get out of Soho and go home, but every possible obstacle gets in his way. The problem is that Paul Hackett is the only normal character in the movie and every person he encounters, no matter how nice and helpful they may seem, is completely weird and insane. Every time another character tries to offer sanctuary to Paul and let him stay in their apartment, it isn’t long before he’s anxious to get the hell out of there. All the females Paul encounters in the course of his adventure are so bizarre that it’s probably enough to make him swear off women forever. He just has one of the more horrible rounds of bad luck of any character in cinema history. For example, in this hilarious clip, after finally getting some money again, Paul winds up hailing down the same cab driver whom he ripped off when he took the ride downtown. He tries to seek assistance from a deranged ice cream truck driver named Gail (Catherine O’Hara), who pretty much does every annoying thing that a person could possibly do.
I really couldn’t tell you what the point of After Hours is or why it works so well. I think Roger Ebert said it best when he wrote: “After Hours approaches the notion of pure filmmaking; it’s a nearly flawless example of — itself”. After Hours is nothing more than a very dark screwball comedy, but like many screwball comedies, it doesn’t really matter how much substance it has, as long as it’s very well-made and is genuinely funny. After Hours is often very funny and offers the unique brand of uncomfortable humour that Martin Scorsese delivers so well. Even though Scorsese’s films almost always have dark subject matter, they do contain a lot of black humour, which often succeeds at making you feel uneasy even while you’re laughing at the same time. Despite being a comedy, After Hours is genuinely suspenseful at times because the nightmarish situation Paul Hackett finds himself caught in would be pretty terrifying to experience if you were in his position. The script by Joseph Minion is extremely clever in that even though it presents a lot of moments that seem completely random and bizarre, they all serve a purpose and lead to a payoff. You may wonder what the hell Cheech & Chong are doing in this movie when you first see them, but they do wind up serving a very important role in the plot! Even though it’s unlikely that any person could really encounter the amount of coincidences and bad luck that Paul Hackett does, it all seems to fit together in the world of this movie. This random out-of-left-field moment from late in the film sums up After Hours in a nutshell.
This was the first movie that Martin Scorsese had made in quite some time that didn’t star Robert De Niro as he instead chose to fill the lead role with Griffin Dunne, who was best been known for his turn in An American Werewolf in London. While he’s never been given too many starring roles in his career, Dunne is an ideal choice to fill the shoes of the ordinary, unassuming Paul Hackett. He has the very difficult job at playing everything completely straight while all the other actors go nutty and over-the-top, but he pulls it off well. After Hours would probably not work if the audience couldn’t identify with Paul, but Dunne makes sure to keep him grounded and human. All in all, After Hours is just one of those movies you have to see for yourself because describing it just doesn’t do it justice. The film has a wonderful air of unpredictability about it because you’re never quite sure where it’s going and many of its developments are just impossible to predict. Like The King of Comedy, After Hours has never been recognized as one of Martin Scorsese’s all-time greatest films, likely because it’s such an acquired taste. However, it’s definitely one of the most darkly funny screwball comedies of the past 25 years and is well worth a look for Scorsese fans, who should enjoy the opportunity to see the director work outside his comfort zone and be pleasantly surprised about how well he does it.