For its first fifteen minutes, Barry Levinson’s Tin Men promises to be a rousing second-take on Robert Zemeckis’ cult item Used Cars (1980). It’s the same champs vs. chumps formula, as two rival “tin men” (aluminium siding salesmen), Bill and Ernest, played superlatively by (respectively) Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito, reveal to us every trick in their dirty book (like accidentally dropping money on the floor, and then offering it to their clients to prove they’re honest).
This is the sort of comedy that depends on making the audience identify with the central city-slick fast-talking tricksters – and definitely not with the workaday suckers who provide the butt of the laughs. Compassion is low and life is cheap – the old W.C. Fields ethos of “never give a sucker an even break”.
While it rockets along on such cruel fuel (the same fuel that ran masterpieces like Hawks’ His Girl Friday ), Tin Men has a fine way with detailed visual inventiveness. Normally redundant elements like street scene establishing shots or pans within the characters’ work spaces are transformed into great Tati-esque frescoes – and what wonderful body-talk from Dreyfuss and DeVito: crook necks, stiff shirts, slow burns, hysterical outbursts.
But Tin Men proves not brave enough to keep up the show. It drops cruelty and tries instead for some very badly judged pathos. This is more than a simple problem of poor dramatic gear-change; it is a question of Levinson’s ideology, his world-view. There was something brewing in his Diner (1982) – something we were all willing to overlook, since that was such an impressive debut film – which bubbles right over the top in Tin Men.
Levinson knows only one kind of pathos – masculine pathos, of a particularly indulgent sort. He is drawn to archetypal, crazy guys (tricksters, rebels, outsiders) who are also glory boys – victims of a world, or a history, that changes abruptly and leaves them behind. Tin Men asks us to feel sorry for men who are, in the first place, crooks (fair enough, if their pranks affirmed some life-force) and, more damagingly to the film’s case, absolute misogynists.
Ernest’s wife, Nora (Barbara Hershey), gets passed back and forth as an exchange taken between the twin heroes, and the film makes her ultimately accept the outcome of these dealings – Levinson is not terribly good at creating believable female characters!
Indeed, Nora’s passing liberal intolerance (the film is careful to cover its ideological tracks) at the antics of her wild-and-crazy guys is echoed, on a larger scale, by the McCarthy-like Commission hearings that outlaw the tin men from their vocation – the difference being that she gives in to their rough charm, while the Commission doesn’t (so she’s OK, dig?).
Levinson endeavours to further shield his heroes from internal criticism by covering them in a thick goo of early 1960s nostalgia – ah, those glory days! But, by the end, I was definitely on the Commission’s side: ban the bastards! For a film that starts out so funny, it’s sad (but indicative) that Tin Men should end up becoming this offensive.
© Adrian Martin April 1987