Night Shift September 5, 2018
Bobby Di Cicco
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
he actor-turned-director Ron Howard spent nearly two decades grinding away in the confines of all-American sitcoms, so it only makes sense that one of his first filmmaking efforts, 1982’s Night Shift, released two years before Happy Days (1974-’84) came to an end, be a gag-heavy, but rather formulaic, comedy. After spending so much time in front of live studio audiences, and immersing oneself in the sort of environment where everyone is constantly acting all slapstick, what could come more naturally?
The film stars Henry Winkler, Howard’s Happy Days co-star, as Chuck, a
former stockbroker who has quit the ulcer-inducing rat race for a more low-maintenance gig as an attendant at a New York City-based morgue. He lives in a shabby apartment with his untrusting girlfriend (Gina Hecht), who is obsessed with her physical appearance. He lives next door to both a person who can’t keep their teeth-baring mutt in their room, and a cheerful sex worker named Belinda (Shelley Long). As the movie wears on, Chuck will develop feelings for her, and this will present a moral dilemma.
Chuck’s life is repetitious and cheerless, which is exacerbated when he is demoted to a night-shift position. His supervisor’s nephew, unfairly, will be getting his current, and obviously coveted, slot after the latter expressed job interest to his uncle. Normally, Chuck might be able to live with this, albeit with some understandable grumbling. But a new co-worker, a fast-talking, boundlessly energetic buffoon and get-rich-quick schemer named Billy — actually, his friends call him Blaze (Michael Keaton) — makes the transition difficult.
Partway through the movie, the tension is slightly relieved when Chuck’s business prowess, along with Blaze’s general enthusiasm for money-making, proves handy. After Belinda complains of the ills she regularly faces on the job, Chuck and Blaze (though mostly Blaze) both feel sympathy for her and see an opportunity: What if they were to turn the morgue, which is so empty it could echo in the evenings, into a makeshift prostitution ring?
This sounds like a more macabre version of Risky Business (1983), I know. And I suppose Night Shift, with its assemblage of cheerily delivered jokes and sight gags, never much with a sexy lining, though — sort of is. But even if the setting’s stranger, the characters older and therefore with less of an excuse to do something this misguided, the actors more inclined to enact this material with screwball-comedy delectation, the movie’s less delightful. Howard’s proficient when it comes to setting up spastic, silly comic scenarios. His actors — particularly Keaton, who reminds me of a cartoon squirrel — are evidently comfortable in a movie this quip-heavy and tonally scattershot.
But Night Shift is more busy and affable than it is smart and funny, and by its finale has most of the steam of its first and middle acts disappeared into the ether. Next, Howard would up the ante with the back-to-back hits Splash (1984) and Cocoon (1985), films which would be much more berthed and attention-grabbing. Still, Night Shift possesses noticeable behind-the-camera confidence that makes the feature watchable, even as it drags. C+