Control Nathan Rabin #48 Who's That Girl (1987)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the kind-hearted Happy Place patron an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars if you are a repeat customer like Todd in the Shadows.
Todd first had me re-examine one of the many nadirs from Madonna’s career in film, her hilariously histrionic historical romance directorial debut W.E, which juxtaposed the iconic star-crossed romance of brassy, sensual American divorcee Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII with the erotic emancipation of a horny young New Yorker at the rough yet sensual hands of a security guard played by Oscar Isaac.
Then I wrote about one of the highlights of Madonna’s career in motion pictures, her reasonably well-received turn as a smoky chanteuse and femme fatale in Warren Beatty’s blindingly pretty Dick Tracy. Now I am finishing up my trilogy of essays on the motion pictures of Madonna for Todd with 1987’s Who’s That Girl, a film whose title I feel I can now confidently answer, “Eh you don’t want to know.”
According to Madonna and our good friends over at Wikipedia, after her out of character turn as a missionary opposite funnyman Sean Penn in Shanghai Surprise Madonna "struggled to come to terms” with her character in Shanghai Surprise because “the innocence and repressed personality I was required to portray was so at variance with my own character.”
So Madonna decided that for her next project, a sassy comedy script cowritten by Grease 2/Airplane 2 scribe Ken Finkleman called Slammer, she would portray someone whose personality was not quite so at variance with her own.
Having just seen Who’s That Girl, I guess that means a sociopathic kleptomaniac lunatic convicted murderer with a big, brassy, in your face personality you just can’t help but dislike. As a vehicle for its red-hot, True Blue star Who’s That Girl is somewhat hamstrung by Madonna’s terrible performance as an obnoxious character.
The first thing Nikki Finn, the bleached-blonde, helium-voiced sexpot Madonna does upon leaving prison after a four year stint for killing her boyfriend is punch an African-American female bodyguard in the face. She gets away with it because the guards would rather literally take a punch to the face rather than risk having her end up in the same prison.
Look, now I’m one of those people who is a total violent Marxist revolutionary online. Judging by my social media presence, you would think I was perpetually assembling molotov cocktails and greasing up the guillotine in anticipation of kicking off the revolution with a billionaire bloodbath. I’m similarly unstinting in my rhetoric about pigs and the fascist lapdogs known as “the troops” online although whenever I pass one of our brave law officers IRL I discreetly nod my head in appreciation of their service. I do the same for our brave veterans.
But online? I fucking hate all them pigs as enemies of the revolution who need to be lined up against the wall and executed en masse. And if you defend the police (or “the pigs” as I refer to them in a social media context) or the military (or “the brainwashed foot soldiers of fascism, with blood on their hands and hate in their hearts” as I inevitably refer to them on Facebook) then, I’m sorry, but you will also be assassinated or targeted for re-education when the revolution comes.
And even a fake, pretend, online revolutionary like myself think it’s pretty fucked up that this criminal with Poochie-like “tude” would straight up punch someone hard in the face just for being a security guard. The woman deserves to make a living through her honest labor. I mean, all security guards will be killed or re-educated on the great day of reckoning.
Emboldened, Nikki then drives a Rolls Royce all over the road in frenzied disregard for the lives of her fellow motorists, shoplifts an Oingo Boingo cassette without giving a single thought to Danny Elfman’s rights regarding royalties and procures a gun on the black market from a dude so unhinged he looks like he makes love to his merchandise before showing it off to clients with the purpose of clearing her name.
With her non-stop patter, kooky shenanigans and irrepressible, life-loving wisecracking ways, Nikki would be a Reagan-era Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she wasn’t such a goddamn self-satisfied walking nightmare. Madonna’s performance here doesn’t just suffer terribly in comparison to Katherine Hepburn’s similar turn in Bringing up Baby; it suffers terribly in comparison to Cyndi Lauper’s similar performance in Vibes.
It’s a little strange that it has taken me this long to get around to seeing Who’s That Girl because one of my favorite films is Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and on paper and in actuality, Who’s That Girl looks like a cross between After Hours and Bringing Up Baby, but with Madonna and also terrible. I suppose the “and also terrible” part scared me away but who are we kidding? If anything, being egregiously terrible and a decided critical and commercial failure, a “flop” in the parlance of the industry, usually makes me more likely to want to see something.
Yet this was one instance where I let the terrible buzz and overwhelming stench of massive failure scare me away despite my love for Griffin “Git-R” Dunne and weird nouveau screwball comedies of the 1980s, like Trading Places.
Griffin Dunne is a lot of fun as Loudon Trott, a cross between the increasingly apoplectic neurotic he played in After Hours and Dan Aykroyd’s fancy businessman character in Trading Places.
Judging by his demeanor and sartorial style, Loudon Trott’s role model is Mr. Monopoly of the popular board game of the same name. He’s in the business of doing business with other businessmen in businessman ways and then, a day before his wedding his miserable father-in-law to be Mr. Worthington (John McMartin) gives him two rather unusual tasks.
Because comedy is a demanding and unforgiving God, Loudon must pick up one of only five of a rare jungle cat the size and temperament of a cougar AND he must transport recently released convicted murderer Nikki Finn (Madonna) from prison to a bus station, where he must then watch her go on a bus to Philadelphia to begin her new life.
At the risk of being deemed a “hater” I’m not sure that’s how rare, near-extinct wild animal conservation works. If an animal is beautiful and deadly and enormous and on the verge of extinction I do not think they would entrust its care to an uptight, distracted lawyer and a recently released murderer who have no idea they’re about to be entrusted with the care of a jungle cat in a tricky urban environment.
Who’s That Girl heaping two such preposterously off-brand assignments on one man on one day strains credibility. I know I would find it pretty odd if the day before my wedding instead of writing about ridiculous movies like Who’s That Girl I found myself assigned to both transport a wisecracking ex-convict to Nashville and move a rare, endangered breed of chimpanzee from the zoo to a boat due for Africa. I’d find that shit super-unrealistic, almost as if I was a in a terrible, implausible movie with an insultingly stupid, preposterous plot and not real life at all.
Yet Who’s That Girl puts both of these tasks on its milquetoast hero’s plate all the same and nevertheless expects us to believe that it could conceivably take place in this universe.
Who’s That Girl is like After Hours in that Dunne very ably plays an uptight man with an orderly life that is thrown into absolute chaos by a beautiful woman who introduces her to a whole world of trouble and chaos but where After Hours’ script is a thing of beauty and crackpot perfection, this is a mindless Rube Goldberg contraption that just keeps on sputtering along mindlessly and charmlessly.
We’re supposed to root against the woman Loudon is marrying because she is snooty and rich and also a nymphomaniac with a special fetish for having sex with older, dumpy cab drivers in their taxi. More than once, a rumpled taxi driver will proclaim that he had the soon to be Mrs. Trott in his taxi in a way that clumsily but incontrovertibly establishes that they fucked in the taxi instead of the usual scenario, the rare running gag that is at once slut-shaming, classist, misogynistic and rooted in corny wordplay.
But Nikki is no better and in seemingly every way, much, much worse. Yet we’re asked to believe that despite her sociopathic, abrasive ways, Loudon can’t help but fall in love with her all the same, or at least appreciate that unlike his wife-to-be, she does not seem to have had enthusiastic public sex with many of the cab-drivers in the area.
Who’s That Girl tries to fake chemistry between its leads by having Loudon spend much of the film’s third act staring appreciatively at Nikki in a way that betrays just how much he’s come to like, even love her now that’s she’s shaken up his uptight world and showed him how much fun life on the wild side can be.
But literally the only reason he seems remotely attracted to Nikki is because, being portrayed by Madonna in the mid nineteen eighties, she has a smoking hot bod and a whole lot of personality. But all of that personality is bad so when Loudon stares lovingly at a woman who is breaking down all his defenses he just seems to be acknowledging that despite her personality, she meets and exceeds the standards for being a beautiful woman of the time.
When she climactically bum-rushes Loudon’s wedding (of course) and tells him that he’s in love with her you want to cry out “No, he isn’t!” because Dunne and Madonna have zero chemistry and Who’s That Girl’s idiot script finds way too many excuses for Milton to show off the fencing skills he developed in college.
As for the big cat, he ends up serving as something of a Deux Ex Catina, popping up whenever the narrative needs an intimidating beast to show up and scare somebody.
In keeping with the times, Who’s That Girl is full of casual racism and sexism. It gives its romantic leads a fancy Rolls Royce exclusively so that it can be dismantled and robbed by the black people who lurked in the shadows of comedies like these, ever-ready to punish and rob any automobile driven by a rich, clueless white person for the sin of driving into the “hood.”
Who’s That Girl was supposed to showcase Madonna’s comic chops and gifts as a comedienne. Instead it once again ended up illustrating her shortcomings as an actor and personality. The camera fucking loved Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan but that love turned to hate in subsequent vehicles like this and the aforementioned Shanghai Surprise.
Madonna could be funny in the right role, and in real life, as evidenced by Desperately Seeking Susan, A League of Their Own and Truth or Dare but she could also be brutally unfunny and bracingly unlikable in the wrong part. Even worse, the incredible magnetism that defines Madonna as a pop star is largely absent here. She’s uncharacteristically commonplace, just another peroxide blonde with attitude, not the shape-shifting goddess she would become.
Who’s That Girl was yet another strong indication, after Shanghai Surprise, that big screen stardom didn’t necessarily play to Madonna’s strengths as a performer or icon. It would certainly not be the last.
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