When considering director Martin Scorsese, rarely does the notion of humor arise, let alone existential angst. No, his expertise lies with gangsters – monosyllabic tough guys. Those films gave him awards. When he ventures too far from the New York City underworld, he tends to get lost.
Yes, After Hours (1985) is set in The Big Apple. Scorsese – then in-between King of Comedy and The Color of Money – wanted to stretch. How about an existential comedy? What could have been a miserable failure for him (see New York, New York) is among his best films. It works, in part, because of his limitations. We are never going to get light and breezy fare from Scorsese. Everything is refracted thru a glass darkly. It is truly a black comedy. The sets themselves are hermetically sealed by darkness.
New York City, by the way, is an impassive though sinister presence – never judging, never participating, just looking.
Griffin Dunne is Paul Hackett, a computer nerd who meets a young woman (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee house and goes back to her place in Soho. It turns out to be the worst night of his life. Pure, unadulterated Hell.
Welcome to my nightmare
The humor is the ‘humor of frustration’. There are no clever lines. There are no kooky props. It’s rooted in existential angst. All Paul Hackett wants is “to get home.” But he can’t. Something always stops him. He loses his money. He can’t get a cab. He meets more psycho chicks. His obstructions loom up out of the darkness as if part of a neon-lit phantasmagoria. This film has a nightmarish quality – you know those dreams where you’re being chased and for whatever reason can’t move.
It’s been said that Scorcese’s films deal with four core themes – macho posturing, bloody violence, Catholic guilt and redemption. They all exist in After Hours, but everything is inverted in an upside-down Wonderland world.
Buster Keaton mocks absurdity
And Scorsese never wanders from the dark tone. So we have a 1980s Buster Keaton (Buster – the greatest existential hero of them all) who never gives up though constantly battling absurdity with no end in sight. Buster always raises himself from a pratfall, dusts of his shabby suit, and with that expressionless face and heavy-lid eyes, once more faces Mr. Death toe-to-toe, mocking His absurdity, and never our own.