"Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs and Blockbusters" is a feel-good movie about failure. With a cast of all-star hitmakers frankly and humorously recalling where they've gone wrong -- offset by lyrical, superbly cut montages of film clips which demonstrate where they've gotten it very right -- "Boffo" moves with the wit and speed of a musical number. Clip for clip, the film, targeted for movie-lovers, plays delightfully on the bigscreen, but, its strongest long-range prospects would seem to be as an evergreen on Pay TV and homevid.
Full disclosure: Variety assigned this review to an impartial non-staffer since editor-in-chief Peter Bart co-wrote and co-produced "Boffo," inspired by his own forthcoming book.
That duly confessed, this critic's job was made easy by the film's sharp-witted swiftness under the direction of Bill Couturie, and by Bart's own implicit candor. Variety even becomes a target of the film's humor: Pic highlights "Titanic Watch," a feature run in Variety throughout 1996 and '97 predicting failure for James Cameron's film, and urging readers to man the lifeboats while the future mega-hit was still only in production.
But there has certainly always been a snide, low-fever of malice at work in the industry, as "Boffo" acknowledges and reiterates. "People want you to flop," Peter Bogdanovich wryly confides in "Boffo." "And you oblige."
Every player consulted here has either felt that ill-will directed at him, or felt it welling up within. Brian Grazer is wickedly honest about his own impulses, telling about the angry envy he felt when his production, "Apollo 13," lost the Oscar for best picture in 1995 to dark-horse winner "Braveheart." Astronaut Jim Lovell, pilot of the actual Apollo 13, consoled him, saying, "I didn't get to the moon, either."
Out-of-the-box, unforeseen success -- that holy grail hidden in the very title, "Boffo" -- is of course the other, far greater mystery plumbed here. "There are no rules," as Peter Guber jokes, "But you break them at your peril."
When the big rubber shark in "Jaws" refused to function, director Steven Spielberg was forced to film around it. As a result, the monster wasn't seen for most of the film. As "Jaws" veterans Richard Dreyfuss, David Brown and Richard Zanuck all relate, this proved a piece of luck which terrified audiences far more than even the best CGI would have.
Similarly, Morgan Freeman -- who wrings big laughs out of his eloquent silences and baleful stares, especially when the topic is "Bonfire of the Vanities" -- can only marvel at how utterly unforeseen the huge success of his Oscar-winning "Driving Miss Daisy" was, triply so for a little narration gig he accepted after some resistance, "The March of the Penguins."
Alan Horn makes an important point about the industry's less visible economics. "Training Day," which won Denzel Washington an Oscar, made $70 million in the U.S. but only $3 million abroad. On the other hand, "Troy" under-performed at $130 million in the U.S., but raked in $360 million everywhere else.
Long-range success -- such as that experienced by late-blooming classics "It's a Wonderful Life," "Blade Runner" and "The Right Stuff" -- sadly isn't remarked on here. "Boffo" deliberately limits its perspective (and inevitably sacrifices some depth) to the unforgiving parameters of a film's first release.
William Goldman's infamous maxim, "Nobody knows anything" about making movies, bubbles to the lips of nearly every speaker. Sydney Pollack and Sherry Lansing shrewdly call it into question.
To insist nobody knows anything can invite superstition to explain success or failure. There is an awful lot of talk here about appeasing "the movie god," as if the box office were a species of volcano. But, to its credit, "Boffo" playfully belies this idea.
One particularly beautiful bit of crosscutting (typical of Couturie's fine work with editor Mark H. Brewer) soars from a tall extra-terrestrial opening his arms in welcome at the end of "Close Encounters" to iconic nymphet Mina Suvari offering demonic fulfillment amid showering rose-petals in "American Beauty," to Julie Andrews twirling in an all-inclusive embrace in "The Sound of Music." Such cleverly rhymed exuberance argues that somebody, somewhere, knows something.
Perhaps we just don't "know" what we know. "There are so many ways to screw up," says George Clooney. "When it does go right, and a movie is actually good, you've got to regard it as a miracle."
This gives the unknown due credit, while making the case for everybody to try harder. "Boffo" stands squarely, and charmingly, in alliance with that idea.
Camera (color/B&W), Stephen Lighthill; editor, Mark H. Brewer; music, Todd Boekelheide; supervising producer, John Hoffman; associate producer, Alexis Ercoli. Reviewed at Clarity Screening Room, Beverly Hills, May 12, 2006. (In Cannes Film Festival--noncompeting.) Running time: 75 MIN.