Directed and written by Barry Levinson
With Richard Dreyfuss, Danny DeVito, and Barbara Hershey.
There aren’t too many outlets for releasing the frustrations and fury of being civilized. One way, vilifying crazy drivers from behind the protection of your own steering wheel, will always–barring a drastic change in human nature or in the nature of transportation–be with us. Another, passively watching heroes waste bad guys in action movies, from Rambo to Aliens, appears to be running out of gas. The point and appeal of the most recent outings in the vigilante genre have been dulled by repetition and inanity. More sophisticated movie forms–variations on the melodrama, the film noir, even the musical–have challenged the Stallone brand of crude but instant gratification.
Perhaps the strongest contender is also the subtlest and most literate of Hollywood forms: the screwball comedy. Undoubtedly the stunted studios of today will never spawn a tradition as rich as that of Hawks, Capra, and Cukor. But in recent years they have begrudged such excellent individual works as Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, as well as such flawed efforts as Nothing in Common, Ruthless People, and Outrageous Fortune. Fittingly, the most accomplished and troublesome installment in this fledgling generic renaissance, Barry Levinson’s Tin Men, deals directly with the primitive discontent that transforms people into would-be Rambos when they turn on the ignition and pull into a line of traffic.
The vigilante drivers in this case are Bill “BB” Babowsky (Richard Dreyfuss) and Ernest Tilley (Danny DeVito), two aluminum siding salesmen, “tin men,” who work the streets of 1963 Baltimore. Their paths begin the inexorable convergence as the camera caresses the glossy lines of the Cadillac Babowsky is about to buy, its cantilevered 22-foot length rotating on a showroom pedestal, its color the same vague blue-green as the writing on a wedding cake. Babowsky curtly closes a deal with the car salesman and backs his gas-guzzling treasure out of the lot. Tilley, meanwhile, shouted out of the house by his wife, Nora (Barbara Hershey), sails off in his own Caddy, a lemon-drop yellow extravaganza with scimitar fins. Tilley clips Babowsky in the backside just as the pristine car clears the dealership driveway, and what follows is the most hilarious and chilling fender-bender row since Robert Altman’s Nashville. The tiny Tilley and reptilian Babowsky fume, sputter, and thrust their ties at one another in an impotent and inexplicably excessive display of wrath that culminates with Babowsky plucking off Tilley’s side-view mirror and both vowing vengeance.
The dynamic of the screwball comedy, like that of most genre movies, is derived from the accidental collision and contrived resolution of irreconcilable differences. In Tin Men only a connoisseur of Cadillacs could see much difference between the baroque hulks the two heroes drive, and the characters themselves don’t seem in any way unlike. They sell the same product, employing the same outlandish scams; they eat at the same diner, drink at the same bar, bet at the same track, and identify with the same wisecracking, desperate, boastful, and moribund fraternity of tin men. That the two never met before their accident is, as one of Tilley’s pals repeats with irritating insistence, hard to believe. Hard to understand is their instant and utter antipathy.
Babowsky’s vandalism of Tilley’s mirror offers a clue to this mystery. The two men respond so drastically not to the superficial damage of their cars but to the dark reflections of their fears and desires that they glimpse in one another. They are mirror images of each other, opposite but identical, each embodies a life that the other openly despises but secretly longs for. The paradox posed in Demme’s Something Wild, the dilemma of anarchistic individuality and freedom in conflict with the confining security of social responsibility, is restated in Tin Men, but more darkly, subtly, and relentlessly. Both Tilley and Babowsky long for the mutually exclusive rewards of freedom and security, of individuality and civilization, and both have devised compromises that emphasize one extreme without entirely eliminating the other. Their frustration with these compromises and their longing for what they have denied is transformed into their mutual hostility.
Tilley, for example, has chosen an unorthodox domesticity. Though dwarfed by his big banana of an automobile, even the minute DeVito seems too big for his gimcrack-laden home, a skinny row house set like one more slice in a long brick loaf. It is a cluttered nest decked with canary curtains, lavender appliances, knickknacks, gewgaws, and Nora. His unutterably unhappy wife does crosswords, waiting until 3 AM for Tilley to come home, obtuse and uncomprehending of her need for escape and fulfillment. Babowsky, on the other hand, is unfettered by such cares: his apartment is a big undecorated box, its walls unfinished, its contents limited to the necessary bachelor comforts: a bed, a refrigerator, a phonograph, and a tacky abstract painting. Played by Dreyfuss with the seedy, ratlike charm of the early Jack Lemmon, Babowsky is admired by his fellow tin men for his natty taste in synthetic fabrics and gaudy ties, and his panache at sales and sexual conquest.
But Babowsky’s discontent is as great as Tilley’s. Though he flaunts his freedom, he desires the security of the home that Tilley chafes to shed. And for both men the semilegal larceny of peddling tin serves to stabilize their frustrations. As salesmen they are both desperadoes and working men, artists and common laborers. The suburban street stretches before them as a ripe wilderness blooming with plump frame houses and dumpy couples with checkbooks, a frontier that can yield gold to their initiative, hard work, imagination, cynicism, and deceit. But even this last bastion of free enterprise is doomed; looming in the background is the neophyte Maryland Housing Commission, staking its growth and success on bringing to justice the unscrupulous aluminum siding business.
For Babowsky and Tilley, though, the commission is an irrelevant annoyance. Having dented one another’s bloated bodywork they are intent on mutual destruction. Covert attacks are made against one another’s cars: headlights kicked out here, a windshield staved in there. After Babowsky discovers his car redesigned by Tilley’s crowbar, he decides to change tactics. “I’ve got to find out what’s really important to this guy,” he fumes to his pal Moe (John Mahoney) and adds ominously, “Does he have a wife?”
Bill Babowsky seduces Nora Tilley in the frozen food section of the grocery store with the greatest sales pitch of his life, a tale of bereavement, loneliness, and incapacity that is entirely fictitious in fact, but essentially true. Later after consummating his treachery he boasts of it in a phone call to Tilley, who replies by thanking him for freeing him of “an albatross around my neck.” He proceeds to carpet the front yard with Nora’s shoes, cosmetics, and assorted clutter, his bellowed “I’m a free man!” echoing emptily from the blank facades of his neighbors’ homes. Nora seeks shelter with Babowsky, and the two men are astonished to find themselves with exactly what they wanted all along–Tilley with unpropertied, unattached freedom and Babowsky with a home and someone to have to call when he is late coming home from work.
The screwball comedy is a schematic and conventional form like all genres, but it is based in relatively normal human affairs and shuns the violence and simplistic resolutions of more extravagant movie forms. Thus, of all genres it requires the most finesse, the most acuteness of observation, and the most literate scripts. In Tin Men Levinson re-creates the funky Baltimore of his debut film, Diner, complete with the latter’s titular greasy spoon, its palpable period atmosphere, and witty details of decor, costume, and music. His dialogue and supporting characters are all masterpieces of comic invention and compose a brilliantly cast gaggle of tics, social comment, throwaway lines, funny hats, ugly ties, and miscellaneous ironies, absurdities, and pathos. Even Levinson’s variations on the central motif of the Cadillac are precise and exuberant, ranging from a lyrical pan of a row of parked Caddies with their eldritch tails unfurled like so many birds of paradise, to an epic long shot of little Tilley bouncing behind the wheel of his vast yellow galleon, seeking vengeance to the tune of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In short, Levinson creates a world for his simple parable, a world of authentic and unique people, places, and things bound in common human need, hope, and tragedy.
Mostly though, Levinson avoids the temptation of stereotype, of resolving difficult questions with easy and familiar answers. Though the heroes of Tin Men at first seem like caricatures–Tilley the whining schlepp, Babowsky the sleazy conniver, Nora the frustrated shrew–we discover that they have human hearts even as they recognize one another’s humanity. As Tilley is stripped of his wife, his home, his job, and finally his car, he discloses a humble grandeur. Through infidelity Nora reveals tenderness, depth, and toughness, and Babowsky’s initial crustiness gives way to ambivalence and then childlike delight at the countless compromises involved in sharing a life. If nothing else, Tin Men will put a human face on the obsessive hatreds and dreads so blithely blown away in the unreflecting violence of recent cinema. It is a brilliant, touching, and hilarious reminder that the crazy jerk who just rear-ended us is only another confused soul trying to find his way home.