Freaky Deaky, Charles Matthau’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Detroit-set crime novel of the same name, stays faithful to the book’s plot, but tilts things too far in the direction of broad comedy to capture the appropriate tone. Actors are indulged to the point of seeming affected and the 70s details in the production design make classic episodes of Soul Train look like Merchant-Ivory productions by comparison. Actor Michael Jai-White manages to stand above the fray, turning in a performance that is both humorous and evocative of a character that is constantly reassessing his options as he negotiates the twisty interlocking schemes initiated by the film’s characters. The film is presented on disc with standard definition video that exhibits compression artifacts during some of the more detailed scenes and a somewhat unbalanced audio mix that betrays the film’s low budget origins. Extras consist of a trailer and a brief featurette that is more promotional than informative.
Directed by: Charles Matthau
Starring: Billy Burke, Christian Slater, Michael Jai White, Crispin Glover, Roger Bart, Sabina Gadecki, Andy Dick, Breanne Racano
Studio: E One
Film Length: 93 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Subtitles: English SDH
Release Date: February 26th, 2012
The Film **
Freaky Deaky adapts the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name. Set in the 1970s, the film follows a few very strange days in the life of Detective Chris Mankowski (Burke). After several years of capable but harrowing service on the Bomb Squad of the Detroit Police Department, Mankowski is transferred to Sex Crimes. His first case is an aspiring actress named Greta Wyatt (Gadecki) who claims that she was raped by waste case trust fund millionaire Woody Ricks (Glover) at a party in his mansion. This inserts Mankowski in the center of a world including the perpetually stoned Ricks, his right hand man, Donnell (White) and Woody’s resentfully dependent brother Mark (Dick). After Chris arrests him, Woody’s bottomless pool of money and lawyers gets him off the hook and gets Chris suspended from active duty. Chris’ life is further complicated when a bomb goes off in front of Woody’s mansion. While his explosives expertise makes him a suspect, the real culprits are Robin Abbot (Racano) and Skip Gibbs (Slater), two former felons who believe Woody informed on them in the 60s when he was a hanger-on to their radical group of college friends.
The path to the screen was a long and winding one for Freaky Deaky, Elmore Leonard’s 1988 novel of bombs, extortion, and double crosses. The film rights were scooped up by Quentin Tarantino shortly after the success of Pulp Fiction. Tarantino considered adapting the screenplay and directing it himself, and at one point was discussing producing it with Monte Hellman directing in the late 90s. Neither option panned out. Shortly after that, John Malkovich’s name became attached to the project, but it continued to languish. Finally, writer/director Charles Matthau was attached to the project and was set to produce it in 2011 with a cast including William H. Macy as Woody Ricks, Matt Dillon as Chris Mankowski, Brendan Fraser as Skip Gibbs, and Craig Robinson as Donnell Lewis. Delays in financing and filming led to a new cast and much smaller budget, resulting in this film, completed in 2012, but never receiving a wide theatrical release.
The key to any Elmore Leonard adaptation is the characters. Like most of Leonard’s crime novels, the plot of Freaky Deaky is a variation on The Pardoner’s Tale with numerous characters flirting with their own demise as their greed drives them out of their depth. What makes them fun is how vividly those characters are drawn. Protagonist, antagonist, genius, or moron, every single character has a rich inner life that drives their actions and, in turn, the plot. Matthau’s adaptation stays very faithful to the plot of Leonard’s novel, wisely incorporating many of the best dialog exchanges. The screenplay’s most significant alteration is to change the setting from the late 1980s to the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, while Matthau’s adaptation seems to hit the notes, he does not capture the music of the source novel.
None of the characters in the film, with the exception of Michael Jai White’s Donnell, seem to have anything going on behind their eyes except the surface details of their dialog. In the critical role of Chris Mankowski, Billy Burke comes across as a slightly smarmy Jack Webb rather than the beaten down but competent police detective of the novel. Sabina Gadecki and Breanne Racano render flat performances that sound more like script run throughs than anything that should have made the final cut of the movie. Christian Slater is indulged by Matthau and allowed to take the character of Skip way over the top to the detriment of the movie. Crispin Glover is predictably competent at playing a never sober trust fund millionaire. With the notable exception of his scenes opposite Michael Jai White’s Donnell, he comes across as a gruesomely unpleasant cartoon, particularly in light of the rape accusation that kicks off the film’s plot.
The film’s production design pours on the 1970s details with reckless abandon, taking things to a cartoonish extreme that, along with the indulgent performances, tilts the film in the direction of a comedy about criminals rather than a crime story about people who do not know they are funny. This further undermines the charm of the source novel. The saving grace of the film, and the only real reason for fans of the novel to watch it, is the performance of Michael Jai White as Donnell. Donnell’s attempts to penetrate the fog of constant inebriation surrounding Glover’s Woody in order to manipulate him into actions to support his evolving ulterior motives is the stuff of classic comedy teams. White also sells the plot conceit of Donnell constantly stumbling across planted explosives with the proper mix of “why me?” frustration and practical concern for his own safety.
The film is presented on DVD with 16:9 video ever so slightly letterboxed to its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The garish 70s hues are conveyed accurately. Compression artifacts rear their head in the background of highly detailed scenes, particularly when they are shot with a moving or hand held camera.
The film’s original English language soundtrack is presented via either a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix or a 2.0 audio option. The audio mix betrays the film’s low budget origins as balance between dialog, music, and effects is uneven, frequently with dialog too high in the mix. Original music by Joe LoDuca is relayed with adequate fidelity and integrates seamlessly with the many bits of 70s music incorporated into the soundtrack. Like the production design and many of the performances, the music is laid on a bit too thick to the point that the filmmakers seem to be winking at the audience.
When the disc is first played, the viewer is greeted with the following series of promos presented in 16:9 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound:
[*]The Sweeney Trailer (2:27)
[*]Collaborator Trailer (2:27)
From the DVD Menu, viewers can access the following two features, presented in 4:3 letterboxed video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound:
Trailer (1:37) is a jaunty affair amusingly set to the tune of Buddy Stuart’s “99 Pounds of Dynamite”.
Making of Featurette (4:39) is a perfunctory talking heads electronic press kit piece with occasional film clips and behind the scenes images. Most of it consists of the interview participants praising their collaborators on the film, but there are a couple of behind the scenes insights into the film’s look and adaptation process. On camera comments are provided by Breanne Racano (“Robin”), Director of Photography John J. Connor, Sabina Gadecki (“Greta”), Director Charles Matthau, Michael Jai White (“Donnell”), Billy Burke (“Chris”), and Crispin Glover (“Woody”).
The DVD is packaged in a standard Amaray-style case with no inserts.