Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Noah Baumbach’s new film, Mistress America, is a modern farce. Gear up for it with five days of classic ones.
In 1987, a year before John McTiernan’s Die Hard would inspire much of his future casting as an action-movie personality, Bruce Willis played a flustered, soft-spoken worker bee in Blake Edwards’ Blind Date. At the time, Willis—giving his first major screen performance—was famous for ABC’s Moonlighting, in which the actor played a charismatic, confident private detective. But Edwards, as he so often did, upended the prevailing image of his leading performer: Blind Date begins with the blandly named Walter Davis (Willis), passed out on his home desk, waking up to the noise of a radio host. Panicked, Walter starts frantically dressing for work; in an emblematic image, which Edwards shoots from a distance, Willis tucks in his button-down with his right hand while applying a razor to his face with his left. This is a Bruce Willis who, despite his best efforts, finds himself flanked by constant discouragement: from his secretary (“You look like you’ve been in a plane crash”), from his boss (“You look like shit”), and from his co-worker pal Denny (Mark Blum), who greets Walter each morning with the details of his “sex stories.”
Walter appears to discover good fortune when, in need for a date to an important business dinner, his brother sets him up with the sweet, attractive Nadia Gates (Kim Basinger, outfitted in reds and pinks). But Nadia’s weakness for alcohol—which Walter is duly warned about—triggers a chain of chaotic events. After a few glasses of champagne, she takes to giggling, ripping cloth from men’s suit jackets, and inciting confrontations with a crew of unsavory characters (including a haughty waiter and horndog Denny). Nadia’s most persistent adversary, however, is her obsessed, bowtie-wearing ex-boyfriend, David (John Larroquette), who trails her all over Los Angeles and keeps popping up at the most absurd times. The fallout of one encounter on the city’s streets has David driving his car through a pair of storefronts: the first, a pet shop, sends animals scampering through his vehicle; the second, a paint shop, leaves him coated in yellow and blue.
Edwards, working from a screenplay by Dale Launer (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, My Cousin Vinny), executes the material with marvelously sustained momentum and a compositional complexity that maximizes every punch line. Par for the course: A dizzying, remarkable shot in a dance club that provides three clear planes of action—foreground: Walter saving face to a bouncer; middle: Nadia downing a drink that Walter ordered for himself; background: a befuddled bartender observing everything. Narratively, the movie delivers a pleasing symmetry, with Walter guiding drunk Nadia in the first half, and a sobered-up Nadia guiding a stir-crazy Walter in the second.
The heart of Blind Date hosts serious emotions and grievances, chief among them a furious revulsion at the surfaces of a material world. Edwards regularly introduces objects of value—fancy cars, fancy suits, fancy dinner-party spreads—and proceeds to allow characters to break them, throw them, or vomit on them. For Edwards, even the jilted, terrible David, who aims to confine Nadia to a marriage she doesn’t want, is worthy of more respect and attention than most other people in the movie. At least he knows he’s ridiculous, and doesn’t try to cover up that fact with a glistening swimming pool or a fresh set of golf clubs.
Availability: Blind Date is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, and possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.