Control Nathan Rabin: Back by Midnight (2005)
The saddest thing about the late-period direct-to-video Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back by Midnight, which was finished in 2002 but only released in 2005, and there is a lot of competition, might just be how deeply emotionally invested Dangerfield seems to be in the whole sorry affair.
It’d almost be easier if the movie, which I paired with The 4th Tenor for Control Nathan Rabin—the column where I give the living Saints who pledge to this site's Patreon a choice between two films I must see, then write about— was clearly a cash-grab by a legend at the end of a steep professional and personal decline. But not only does Dangerfield lend his increasingly tragic presence to the lead role of Jake Puloski, the longtime warden at a ramshackle prison where he prides himself on being just one of the guys, he also co-wrote the screenplay with Harry Basil, a longtime friend and collaborator who previously collaborated with him on Meet Wally Sparks, My 5 Wives, The 4th Tenor and even TV’s Rodney Dangerfield’s 75 Birthday Toast.
Furthermore, the insanely over-qualified cast is overflowing with famous friends of Dangerfield, either in the form of quick cameos from folks like Michael Bolton or comedians that the famously generous Dangerfield helped give big breaks through his young comedian specials and nightclub Dangerfield’s, folks like Paul Rodriguez.
Pity seems to be the motivating factor behind Back by Midnight, to the point where I’m not entirely sure I didn’t watch it largely, if not exclusively, out of pity for Dangerfield, who attained such giddy creative heights with the likes of Caddyshack, Back to School and the No Respect album, which I’ll be covering for a “Great Moments in Comedy” column this month before plummeting to the sorry nadir that is Back by Midnight, and, I imagine, many of the other direct-to-video movies I’ll be writing about for No Respect January, Nathan Rabin's Happy Place's tribute to Rodney Dangerfield's most pitiful cinematic endeavors.
Pity, and a desire to work with a legend like Rodney Dangerfield while it was still possible to do so undoubtedly led to a supporting cast that includes such familiar names and famous faces as Randy Quaid, Kirstie Alley, Paul Rodriguez, Paul LaMarr, Louie Anderson, Ron Jeremy, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Bolton, Yeardley Smith, Gilbert Gottfried, Tony Cox, Harland Williams, Leo Rossi, Jeff Altman, Rance Howard, and Nell Carter more than anything in the abysmal screenplay.
In Back by Midnight, Rodney plays a slob with the decidedly snobbish job of running a prison for a corrupt businessman played by Randy Quaid, who delivers an almost disturbingly committed performance. Let’s just say that when you hire Quaid to be in a movie like this and the inevitable moment arises when a monkey has to urinate in his character’s face for a good twenty seconds, as happens here, he’s really going to commit with his whole body and soul. He’s not going to coast just because he’s an Oscar-nominated screen veteran with decades of experience in an almost inconceivably terrible direct-to-video movie that mostly just makes you feel sorry for everyone involved, Rodney most of all.
Back by Midnight clumsily establishes that its prisoners are fundamentally good-hearted dudes who do things like cracking safes and robbing cars and not the rapists, child-murderers and school shooters that give people in prison convicted of crimes a bad name. Back by Midnight goes big on the schmaltz, starting with Rodney’s Jake pleading with Quaid’s Eli Rockwell, a Southern-fried prison and supermarket mogul, to have a heart and remember his kindly parents, including a mother who would bake gingerbread cookies for the prison’s inmates every Christmas.
Eli, alas, is no humanitarian. On the contrary, he’s intent on cutting the cost per prisoner down to ten dollars per day, so the big-hearted Jake hatches a scheme as convoluted and impractical as it is unrealistic. Jake has the best criminals in his custody sneak out of prison and into Eli’s stores under cover of night so that they can steal things the prison needs, like athletic equipment, and then slip back into jail with the purloined goods before midnight.
It’s not a good sign that Back by Midnight doesn’t just begin with the moldiest of mothballed gags: it opens with some goddamn street jokes, the endlessly passed around and recycled garbage gags found in joke books from the 1970s and 1980s as well as Gallagher’s act today. We learn for example, that “Jack-Off”, one of the criminals picked for the naughty night-time field trips, is “not too smart”, in fact he’s so dumb “he picked a guy’s pocket on an airplane and then made a run for it!”
Sometimes Dangerfield’s lines don’t even meet the standard of “joke.” When he tells an inmate with an enormous gut, “Why don’t you stop telling jokes and lose some weight?” he’s being descriptive/insulting, not “funny.” Dangerfield also speaks witheringly of someone so comically overweight that when they went swimming, they quite literally left a ring around the entire lake and also someone so tough that when the teacher asked them what came after the end of a sentence they replied “an appeal” as opposed to what I imagine the correct answer would be, either a period or some other manner of punctuation depending on the nature of the sentence.
Like nearly all of Dangerfield’s vehicles, this functions largely, if not exclusively, as a one-liner delivery machine, and a very poor one at that. For example, Jake distracts what is apparently his only prison guard Smitty (Tony Cox) by taking him out for a very long dinner while the prisoners are out robbing during which Jake very conveniently orders a steak and tells Smitty, “I get my sex and my steaks the same way: very rare.”
Oh sure, Cox, ever the trooper, feigns laughter and surprise at the wisecrack, but the mirth seems forced because even casual Rodney Dangerfield fans have heard him deliver some minor variation of that joke over and over and over and over again. Why in “Rappin’ Rodney” he rhymes, “Steak and sex, my favorite pair: I have them both the same way: very rare.”
In the twenty-two years between “Rappin’ Rodney” hitting eighty three on the singles chart in 1983 and the “Rodney has sex and steak the same way: extremely rare” wisecrack being revived as dialogue in 2005’s Back by Midnight it did not get any fresher. Indeed, Smitty’s smile and semi-chuckle registers as a pity laugh in a film that doesn’t offer any other kind.
To be fair, being a movie made in 2002, it does contain its share of Viagra jokes, as well as dog boner jokes and jokes involving dogs having huge boners because they took too much Viagra! I’m fake pity-laughing just thinking about the treasure trove of scatological comedy gold that is Back by Midnight’s deep well of gags, jokes and bits involving animals either fucking or urinating.
Ah, but what of this monkey that urinates on Randy Quaid’s face? Surely there’s mirth and merriment to be derived from such a scenario! The monkey! The pee! Randy Quaid’s face! What’s not to love?
Back by Midnight has more plot than is necessary, on account of a movie like this really shouldn’t bother with a plot at all. The filmmakers inexplicably choose to explore the complicated private prison industry by having a Gloria Beaumont, a British sexual adventurer played by Kirstie Alley express an interest in buying Randy Quaid’s prison, and also in jumping his bones, but only in a prison-centric context.
Beaumont has a few relevant characteristics: she’s British, first and foremost, but she also has a sexual fetish for everything prison-related that causes her to experience orgasmic sensual pleasure from merely sitting in a wooden electric chair. Oh, and she has a monkey that pisses in Quaid’s face for what feels like a veritable eternity.
Gloria is not the only sexually obsessed character in the film. Half Baked cut-up Harland Williams, who I saw absolutely destroy at the Gathering of the Juggalos a few years back plays “The Sheriff”, a Southern-fried goober whose life changes when he happens to spy the enormous cock of his African-American high school friend Mile Away (Phil LaMarr) as an adult. Mile Away is part of the gang from the prison that escapes at night to steal things but the oblivious sheriff is too dense to know that.
As soon as the Southern-fried sheriff steals a glimpse at the rascally convict’s enormous penis all he can think about is worshipping and serving it with all of his being. He is, to use a phrase that I plan to use extensively here, if only to celebrate not having an editor to tell me to do otherwise, “dickmatized.” Oh, sure, he probably never thought of himself as gay, but that changes as soon as he spies Mile Away’s monster cock.
Thankfully, Mile Away seems to reciprocate his feelings, because the movie concludes with Mile Away and the Sheriff united both as co-workers in law enforcement and also as gay lovers. Oh, sure, within the context of the film the ending feels like the smutty pay-off to a subplot rooted in gay panic, but I prefer to think of the film as a secretly, if somewhat incoherently progressive movie about two men who find their true sexuality and each other in the unlikeliest of circumstances. I hope they enjoy a lifetime of enthusiastic, constant lovemaking.
In Back by Midnight, Dangerfield’s bug-eyed face is a mask of sadness and resignation, of tragedy and despair. Every wrinkle tells a story about a man the world loved but who could never love himself. At the very end of a film career that kicked off properly with such incredible promise with Caddyshack but had sunk to such amateurish lows, Dangerfield seemed helpless and overwhelmed, a clown who had lost sight of what made him funny and special.
In the end credits, Dangerfield croons a more or less straightforward song about crime that represents the comedy legend at his schmaltziest and most nakedly vaudevillian. It’s the kind of self-indulgent move you have to be an icon to get away with, and while there’s nothing remotely funny about this musical capper, there’s a queasy, squeamish personality to it that set it apart from the rest of this boondoggle.
If you love Rodney Dangerfield the way I love Rodney Dangerfield, if he was important to you as a child and as an adult, then do the honorable thing: take pity on him, and pretend Back by Midnight doesn’t exist, something I’m realizing I just made fairly difficult. Sorry bout that! Have pity on me. Like Rodney, I don’t always know what I’m doing.
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