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Middlebrow Hero: Garry Marshall's cornball cubism

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Garry Marshall gives you what you came for. "A dollar's work for a dollar's pay," is how Marshall mainstay Hector Elizondo puts it in The Flamingo Kid. Director of such massive crowd-pleasers as Beaches and Pretty Woman, Marshall's an entertainer of the old school, still plugging away in Hollywood, hitting his marks and making the audience laugh or cry on cue. He's the ideal helmsman for last year's Valentine's Day and this week's New Year's Eve, and watching Marshall's late-career movies is like watching a jigsaw puzzle snap together, one cameo at a time. In that spirit, let's take a look at the pieces that make up a Garry Marshall Movie.

The King of Dramedy
Marshall's plan has always been to bundle comedy and drama into an all-purpose package. That these dramedies were often neither funny nor persuasive — the shampoo + conditioner of cinema — seemed less problematic in the 1980s, when character-based storytelling was still considered mainstream entertainment, and two stars, a few laughs and one fatal disease could amount to decent box office. Nothing in Common (1986), which starred the decade's dramedic boy wonder Tom Hanks as a hotshot ad man who's forced to tend to his philandering, ailing father (Jackie Gleason), toes a line between self-serious and ludicrous (witness Hanks and love interest Sela Ward get horny watching racehorses mate to a Richard Marx song); while non-steamy S&M potboiler Exit to Eden never decides if it's mocking or celebrating Rosie O'Donnell in leather and lace. But nothing in the Marshall oeuvre compares to Overboard (1987), a deconstructed dramedy and sub–Swept Away monument to misogyny in which a carpenter (Kurt Russell) makes a rich bitch suffering from amnesia (Goldie Hawn) into his personal slave...until Marshall swaps out the hillbilly banjo score for twinkling piano and sells his felonious gargoyles as morally upstanding romantics who fall in love. Fully segregating cynicism from schmaltz — the comedy from the drama — Marshall's left with two harrowing halves.

Rich Man, Poor Man
Overboard was uncommonly crass for a Marshall movie, but its exaggeration of upper-class entitlement has echoes in everything from Pretty Woman to The Princess Diaries. Every polo pitch, country club, tennis court, luxury yacht or marble-floored mansion is subject to fish-eyed ridicule and populated by people who learned diction from Mr. Belvedere. Conversely, Marshall makes a working-class hero of anyone with a union card. Elizondo, who has collected a check for every Marshall joint to date, often serves as the blue-collar conscience of the film, whether he's playing a benevolent hotel manager in Pretty Woman, a Slavic postal worker in Dear God, or a straight-talking limo driver in The Princess Diaries. (My favorite is the outlier: his turn as a cross-dressing gangster in Young Doctors in Love.) Yet Marshall's films always manage to reinforce the status quo, appreciating professionalism but not ambition (the latter's a bitter epithet in Beaches) and pitting career against family (Nothing in Common, Raising Helen). Excellence can be admired in small doses, but relatability is always paramount. It's like he has read our middle-American minds.

Thou Shalt Be Moved
Marshall's not much of a visual stylist, nor is he a particularly fluid storyteller; he's too eager to get to the really sappy stuff to enjoy the telling (in Beaches, Bette Midler meets, courts and leaves Spalding Gray in under three screen minutes; in New Year's Eve, Marshall shaves Sarah Jessica Parker's climactic rendezvous down to about twelve seconds). But he will make you feel something. Whether it's when Julia Roberts shows up in that red dress, when Al Pacino, in Frankie and Johnny, lets out a tender orgasmic roar during sex, when Bradley Cooper reveals his secret in Valentine's Day, or when a marching band plays a wedding at the end of the otherwise pandering The Other Sister, he will get to you, whether or not you trust, like or admit it. The hoarier Marshall's act becomes, the more his films feel like remnants of a lost form — risible, yes, but comforting.

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