20 August 2011

Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988) - Too Much of Too Many Good Things

I saw Beetlejuice once when I was about ten years old. Coupled with a few remembered wisps of plot threads from the short-lived animated series (something about a mall parking lot, another thing about Girl Scout cookies), all that I really remembered about it was the scene where they dance to the song from the Bon Marche commercials. Only recently, while IMDB-ing Alec Baldwin did I even realize he was in the movie.

The only scene I could recall

So it seems kind of ironic that Betelgeuse, titular star of the film and my memories, hardly features into this movie's story at all. The film really focuses on Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), recently deceased newlyweds, and their struggles to acclimate to the world of the dead, and to exorcise the big city Deetz family (Catherine O'Hara, Jeffrey Jones, and Winona Ryder) from their home. That realization of the afterlife is where Beetlejuice really succeeds, envisioning the world of the dead as a nightmarish bureaucracy, replete with dense rule books, interminable queues, and unhelpful caseworkers—like one hellish trip to the DMV. The late 80s claymation, model, and wire effects add a level of "realism" to this environment that CGI just can't (see: Casper); I want to stay in this movie, with these quaint ghosts who make miniature towns and have the same taste in clothing, furniture, and wallpaper as me forever. However, once the character Betelgeuse is added, everything gets a bit muddled.

Post-mortem Betelgeuse, as a "freelance bio-exorcist," is the answer the Maitland's think they need to have a peaceful, Deetz-free afterlife. They summon him, but he creeps them out, so they send him back, then he comes again, and etc. etc. The Betelgeuse plotline drags on for three quarters of the movie, ostensibly building tension but really just staying stagnant: the Maitland's think this Betelgeuse guy can help him, but it ends up he's bad news. Okay, we've got it. Let's get back to cutting some of that blood-red tape. But as Betelgeuse is posited as the antagonist, the film can't really go anywhere without him. Suddenly, in the third act, he wreaks havoc—abruptly forcing young Lydia Deetz to marry him (some regulation that was never previously mentioned), shooting some of Charles Deetz' wealthy business prospects through the ceiling, and yet all that is needed to stop him is someone to utter his name three times, which the characters seem to find impossibly hard. These conflicts feel intensely manufactured, for as soon as Betelgeuse leaves, the Maitlands and Deetzes find a way to cohabitate in harmony. Michael Keaton's energetic, hilarious performance distracts from this central plotting issue, but Betelgeuse, ironically enough, feels like he belongs in another movie. There is enough of a story with the Maitlands adjusting to the administration of the afterlife and their artsy new housemates, and the Betelgeuse-related plotlines trap this movie in a dramatic purgatory from which a crazy third act cannot wholly let it escape.

I love all the ideas that went into this movie: poltergeist caseworkers, ghosts cutting holes in sheets, sandworms, a bio-exorcist—but there are just a few too many floating around to make a truly great film.