Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 21, 2021)
When it launched in the fall of 1975, Saturday Night Live quickly became a pop culture sensation. Its cast of “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” established an audience, and Chevy Chase easily turned into the most popular of the bunch.
Indeed, Chase’s success led him to become the first Player to leave the show – well, the first to depart due to potentially greener pastures, that is. George Coe – then 46 and substantially older than his castmates – only made it one season before he got the boot.
Chase popped up for a few episodes early in Season Two but then split for Hollywood. However, he didn’t show up on the big screen right away, so Chase’s initial post-SNL leading role came via summer 1978’s Foul Play.
Set in San Francisco, librarian Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) leads a fairly solitary life after the end of her marriage. Her friends want her to re-enter the dating pool, but she resists this encouragement.
Matters change when Gloria assists a stranded motorist named Bob 'Scotty' Scott (Bruce Solomon). The pair hit it off and plan a date.
This ends badly, as someone kills Scotty. He leaves Gloria with an important piece of microfilm that others will gladly kill her to obtain. Gloria pairs with police detective Lieutenant Tony Carlson (Chase) as they attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery – and keep her alive, too.
I was eight when SNL started and I know I watched it during its first season, though probably more in the “summer reruns” frame when I was the advanced age of nine and my parents allowed me to stay up late on weekends. I certainly was well aware of Chase by the time Foul Play rolled around in the summer after my 11th birthday.
And yet I never saw the film back then, for reasons I can’t recall. Mediocre reviews, maybe? Too busy watching Jaws 2 and Grease half a dozen times each?
I don’t know, but 43 years later, this becomes my first screening of Foul Play. I can’t claim I missed anything special over all that time, as this becomes a forgettable mix of comedy, thriller and romance.
Director Colin Higgins went into Play fresh off of 1976’s Silver Streak, a hit for which he wrote the screenplay. Higgins also penned the script for Play and it represented his directorial debut.
Perhaps Higgins needed someone else to adapt his work, as he showed little flair behind the camera for Play. The movie progresses at a snail’s pace and rarely threatens to become especially interesting.
Some of this stems from the way Play often feels more like a series of semi-connected scenes more than an actual narrative. For the most part, Gloria leaps from one outrageous and threatening scenario to another, without much fluidity along the way.
Higgins clearly took Hitchcock as his main inspiration, an interesting theme given that it followed closely behind 1977’s High Anxiety, Mel Brooks’ take on Hitch. Anxiety boasted much more obvious connections, as it openly spoofed flicks like Psycho and Vertigo, whereas Play goes more for the genre’s themes than film-related specifics.
Unsurprisingly, Brooks aimed entirely for laughs, whereas Higgins wants a broader tale. He combines suspense, comedy and romance in semi-equal measure, so he never really leans one way or the other.
Unfortunately, Higgins never manages to pull off any of these well. As noted, Play tends to come across as a loose connection of scenes more than as a coherent narrative, and that disjointed impression spreads to the blend of genres.
In other words, the film’s comedy fails to become especially funny, its mystery lacks tension, and its love interests don’t connect. Hawn and Chase exhibit virtually no chemistry, partly because they feel like they’re acting in different movies.
Some of this may seem unfair to Chase, as this did represent his first feature, whereas Hawn had a decent number of movie roles under her belt by 1978 – and even won an Oscar for 1969’s Cactus Flower. It seems unsurprising that her acting talents outstrip his.
Nonetheless, I get the impression Chase didn’t even attempt a real dramatic performance. He tends to play the nascent “Chevy Chase character” and can’t pull off anything behind his usual shtick.
Hawn manages to turn Gloria into a semi-real character, and that becomes a weird negative given her lack of connection with Chase. If Play delivered two one-dimensional leads, the discrepancy wouldn’t stand out, but the mix of a three-dimensional actor with one who can’t do anything more than broad comedy creates a problem.
Even with a better link between its leads, I don’t think Play would’ve worked, though. The movie’s inherent sluggishness and lack of narrative drive make it a limp stab at a comedic thriller.