In the 1930’s and 40’s the coupling of big names stars became a popular marketing ploy in Hollywood: finding the perfect pair, as it were, and re-marketing them in serialized or similarly themed movie franchises: Tracy and Hepburn, Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, Gable and Crawford, and so on. The endurance of such winning teams was proof positive to the movie moguls, that when it came to popular entertainments the best blend was richly achieved by an audience’s familiarity with these iconic couples. Charles Shyer’s spookily lit and deftly executed romantic comedy, I Love Trouble (1994) draws its parallel from another great screen team: William Powell and Myrna Loy. In the 1930’s and 40’s Powell and Loy were America’s great marrieds: Nick and Nora Charles – a pair of dapper dilettantes on a lark and a spree; he the debonair and marginally accomplished sleuth, she the wickedly satirical appendage who had some of the best one-liners in their ‘Thin Man’ franchise. In 1939’s Another Thin Man, as example, when asked on the telephone how their honeymoon vacation went, Loy quaintly replies, “It was wonderful. Nick was sober in Kansas City!”
Flash forward to I Love Trouble and another winning combo…well, at least on paper. By 1994, Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers had been scripting urbane and sophisticated comedy gems for more than a decade; their penchant for razor-sharp, shoot-from-the-hip dialogue augmenting such slickly packaged entertainments as Private Benjamin (1980), Irreconcilable Differences, and, Protocol (both released in 1984), and the superb remakes of Father of the Bride (1991 – 1995). I Love Trouble’s incubation and critical reception would hardly be as rewarding; perhaps because, by then, it had become painfully obvious to both partners their professional alliance had failed to morph into a happy marriage. Shyer and Meyers would divorce in 1999; proving to each other, as well as the rest of Hollywood, there was still life and profits to be derived separately.
I Love Trouble is very much a send up to the ‘Thin Man’ stylish and farce-laden detective stories from the late 1930’s; a sort of pre-marital Nick and Nora Charles romantic thriller, updated to accommodate the progressive social mores of the 1990’s (no separate beds here, although, interestingly, Shyer/Meyers have the couple marry – on the fly in Atlantic City, but hey…it’s still legal… before loveless copulation can take place). I Love Trouble also plays to the strengths of its two costars: Nick Nolte, looking craggily handsome, and at his arrogant best, with Julia Roberts at her most seductively charming and wittily playful. There’s a genuine chemistry at work between these two that harks all the way back to the infectious Tracy/Hepburn model for romantic couplings. The critics didn’t think much of I Love Trouble when it premiered…but what do the critics know that the audience does not? Still on a budget of $45 million, I Love Trouble’s return of $61,947,267 hardly made it a blockbuster.
Actually, in the U.S. it failed to recoup its initial outlay. Still, I can recall sitting in the theater back then and being held captive by the clever dialogue; the tangibly clicking chemistry between Nolte and Roberts from the get-go, as his established newspaper columnist, Peter Brackett hits on cub reporter, Sabrina Peterson (Roberts) only to be cruelly shot down for his efforts by this gal who only ‘thinks’ she’s holding all the cards in their competitive race against time – and each other. “Look,” Peterson pointedly explains, “I know every cub reporter in a skirt would probably go gaga over the great Peter Brackett but let me set you straight on a point. You have zero chance of scoring here. Trust me. Move on!” to which Nolte’s confident bon vivant merely reclines, rather than recoiling, adding “Where’d you say you were from…Bitch-ville?”
I Love Trouble’s saving grace remains this infectious – if mildly toxic – screen chemistry between Roberts and Nolte; he playing up a decade’s worth of solid work in the movies; Roberts’ still feeling her oats as an actress after the groundswell of mega-popularity foisted upon her by the success of Pretty Woman (1990). To some extent, the expectations for I Love Trouble, to produce another winning pair like Roberts and PW’s costar, Richard Gere, seems to have held the movie’s popularity back; this and Touchstone’s lackluster press and promotion, unceremoniously dumping it as a mid-summer release without much fanfare. To be pointedly clear, the central plot – that of a mysterious train derailment meant to cover up a far darker crime with political espionage concealing a potentially harmful chemical for the pasteurization of milk, is just a shay this side of kooky to wholly unbelievable. But actually, those expecting a sensational thriller are missing the point. For I Love Trouble is a romantic screwball and, perhaps, the last of its kind; the focus of Meyers/Shyer’s screenplay definitely on the Brackett/Peterson love affair, complicated by the fact these two just happen to be reporters vying for the same scoop on a murder mystery with more twists and turns than an amusement park dark ride.
And it’s a cleverly ambitious and mostly engaging film we get besides; the first act effortlessly spent on the sublime competition between Nolte’s arrogant womanizer and Roberts’ deliciously rigid girl-makes-good; each swatting the insults and attempting to outdo the other. At one point Brackett deliberately drops a hint of a clandestine meeting with the potential next link in the chain of discovery, sending Peterson on a ‘wild goose chase’ – literally: Peterson’s car stopped along a dirt country road by a gaggle of white-feathered fowl. Brackett also sends Peterson a feisty little bulldog to celebrate her scooping him out of his byline; the mutt (she later claims to have nicknamed after its previous owner as ‘Little Dick’) promptly urinating on a copy of her article. All of this revenge is sweetly played out; mildly endearing and drawing the couple closer into each other’s space until, at last, they agree to a truce, working together to unravel the mystery and thus, discover there might be more between them than just the printed word.
I Love Trouble immensely benefits from David Newman’s bombastic underscore; truly capturing the flavor of this passionate rivalry, but with a nostalgic nod to such pluperfect examples in the sub-genre as His Girl Friday (1940) and Woman of the Year (1942). Even better is John Lindley’s moody cinematography. Like the best of its ilk, I Love Trouble begins bright and breezy with an unassuming train trip juxtaposed next to an ever so slightly more ominous country funeral; the piece gradually growing darker as Lindley’s camerawork moves out of the natural light and into the darker recesses of lonely streets, eerily lit/abandoned movie houses and an experimental laboratory after hours at the monolithic uber-modern, though soulless corporate entity – Chess Chemical – serving as the penultimate setting for the last piece in Shyer/Meyers’ highly inventive narrative jigsaw puzzle.
I Love Trouble begins by crystalizing the duality in this light and shadow that will ultimately become the movie’s métier. Two children (Hallie Meyers-Shyer and Boone David Cates) witness the passing funeral cortege of retired scientist, Darryl Beekman, who died in a tragic house fire. The moment is interrupted by inserts of Darryl Beekman Jr. (Clark Gregg), forlorn as he stands over his father’s casket, then hurriedly packing a briefcase with some microfilm cleverly concealed in an ordinary writing pen as he nervously makes his way to the railway station. There, Beekman is deliberately bumped into on the platform by a trench-coated character, aptly nicknamed, Mando – the Thin Man – (James Rebhorn), whose veiled purpose is to do Beekman Jr. and the train some harm. We also catch a glimpse of newlyweds, Kevin (Kevin Breznahan) and Jenny (Heidi Huber) boarding the car ahead of Beekman’s; the beginnings of a life together torn asunder a few short hours after sundown, when the train derails while attempting a turn a corner near an isolated bridge, killing Jenny and Beekman.
Shift focus momentarily: to the Chicago Chronicle where its staff is about to put the late day edition to bed when news breaks of the derailment. The Chronicle’s curmudgeonly editor, Matt (Robert Logia) insists Peter Brackett cover the beat, something he hasn’t done since becoming a columnist for the paper. In fact, Brackett’s writing career has really taken off since the debut of his first novel, ‘White Lies’. With his own office, a personal secretary, Jeannie (Olympia Dukakis) and minions like Evans (Jane Adams) and Sully (Joseph D'Onofrio) to do his legwork, it’s safe to say Brackett is somewhat rusty on his probative/investigating skills). After all, the good life can make a guy soft – physically, but also in the head. Hence, when Brackett arrives at the scene of the tragedy, he instantly becomes more interested in chasing after the long legged Sabrina Peterson than the scoop; covering the basics, but attempting to make inroads into a first date. Much to Brackett’s dismay, Peterson is wholly unreceptive to the idea. The camera cuts away briefly for a bit of integral exposition. We see a pair of teenage thieves, Danny Brown (Kimo Wills) and Dixon (Chad Einbinder) swipe a few pieces of luggage already recovered from the wreck; Mando shielding himself from being discovered at the scene while jotting down the license plate of the pair’s getaway car.
While Brackett hurries off to dictate his findings, before attending his own book-signing party, Peterson gets busy tailing Midrail employee, Ray Boggs (Kurt V. Hulett), who is suspected of having mismanaged the maintenance of the car’s coupling, thus, inadvertently creating the right circumstances for the crash. Spending all night telephoning every Boggs in the telephone directory, Peterson eventually winds up in contact with Ray’s mother, who suggests her son’s former drinking problem may have returned to cloud his judgment. Thus, the next day, while the Chronicle’s story about the crash is decidedly light on details, the rival Globe newspaper has an inside exclusive interview with Bogg’s mother, written by Peterson. It isn’t long before a friendly rivalry is sparked between Peterson and Brackett; each attempting to outdo the other; Peterson holding her own against the more seasoned Brackett, despite the fact she falls for a few of his ploys, like the aforementioned ‘wild goose chase’.
The two meet ‘cute’ at an annual newspaperman’s ball, Shyer/Meyers slickly introducing us to yet another character integral to the plot; oily politico, Sam Smotherman (Saul Rubinek), working for Senator Gayle Robins (Marsha Mason) and who has the uncanny knack of dating Brackett’s sloppy seconds. Smotherman’s current flame, Nadia (Laura Maye Tate) is, in fact, Brackett’s latest castoff. Peterson isn’t about to put herself in this queue. Besides, neither reporter seems to have the Midrail derailment story right: Ray Bogg’s having professed his innocence and escaped becoming someone’s scapegoat by passing a polygraph with flying colors. Oh, no: back to square one for Peterson and Brackett; the latter getting his hands on Kevin and Jenny’s videotape shot by their parents at the station shortly before the train departed; Brackett observing the half-concealed body of someone disguised as a Midrail worker, toying with the train’s coupling in the background.
In the meantime, Peterson is contacted by Danny. It seems the kid has discovered ‘something’ that might be of importance to her investigation, and buoyed by the prospect of collecting a reward for his efforts, agrees to meet her at the old abandoned theater; the upstairs balcony he and Dixon call their home. Alas, someone gets to the boys first, murdering both and leaving Peterson to discover the corpses. She takes notice of the letters ‘L’ and ‘D’ scribbled in ink on Danny’s palm, jotting them down with a pen pilfered from a nearby desk. Inadvertently, this will turn out to be the same pen Darryl Beekman used to conceal the microfilm; although neither Peterson nor the audience is aware of this just yet. Hurrying back to her car, Peterson is briefly startled by the sudden appearance of Mando; her fitful escape followed by Mando hiring another assassin, Pecos (Nestor Serrano) to trail Peterson and recover the microfilm. We momentarily shift to Brackett’s investigation; having come to the home of the late Darryl Beekman to ask a few questions, but persuaded by his widow, Delores (Megan Cavanagh) to meet much later at an office building downtown where she insists it will ‘be safer’. What no one yet realizes is the woman who answered Beekman’s door is not the real Delores!
After hours, Brackett arrives at the office building, only to discover Peterson already there; neither comprehending they’ve been set up until their elevator suddenly stalls between floors and is fired upon by yet another paid assassin (Patrick St. Esprit). In their ensuing escape from the hailstorm of bullets, Brackett manages to cause the assassin to slip and fall to his death down the elevator shaft; a slip of paper, with the words ‘Ext. 307’ scribbled on it, slipping out of his coat pocket. Returning to the Beekman home, Brackett discovers a family photo, realizing the woman he met at the front door earlier was not Dolores Beekman. He also finds a discarded, empty envelope addressed to Darryl Jr. from Spring Creek in the wastepaper basket with the number ‘307’ written in pen on one of its corners. At the same instance, Peterson, attending the family’s pet canary with a drink of water, discovers a piece of newsprint from the Spring Creek Clarion used to line the birdcage. Lying to Brackett, that the element of danger is too much for her to bear, Peterson pretends to back down from the race; Brackett confidently boarding a flight to Spring Creek later the next afternoon, only to discover Peterson in the seat next to his.
The two schemers decide to pool their resources and work together to solve the mystery. In Spring Creek, Peterson and Brackett learn of Darryl Beekman Sr.’s demise in a house fire; the obituary stating the elder Beekman was a retired geneticist from Chess Chemical, working on a new chemical compound referenced to only as L.D.F. Next, the pair attempt to contact Beekman’s coauthor on the research, Alan Hervey; arriving at his home only to learn from his wife, Virginia (Lisa Lu) Alan has since suffered a debilitating stroke that has left him in a permanent coma. Taking a hotel room for the night, Brackett and Peterson scope the local watering hole for potential employees who might know something – or at least get them past the front door of the company they so desperately want to search for clues. The two make plans to meet back at a local all-night coffee shop within the hour; Brackett latching on to Kim (Kelly Rutherford), a sexy scientist who openly admits being hot for him. Showing up hours later with Kim’s company swipe card in hand, Brackett becomes nervous when he spies Pecos drinking coffee in a booth on the left. Alas, Brackett’s intuition proves infallible when he hurries Peterson into his car, only to be held at gunpoint by Pecos, who has since hidden himself in the backseat. Realizing their only chance at escape is to put everyone in harm’s way, Brackett drives perilously close to an oncoming semi, averting disaster at the last possible moment by sending his car into a tailspin that knocks Pecos unconscious.
Escaping on foot into the forest in the middle of the night, Brackett and Peterson become lost. Old animosities are renewed; Peterson telling Brackett he’s gone soft. Alas, Brackett has the last laugh when Peterson decides to take an early morning skinny dip; the couple discovered by a troop of Cub Scouts. Promising to shield her nakedness from prying eyes, Brackett instead instructs the boys to pull out their cameras, darting off with Peterson’s clothes. A short while later, Peterson and Brackett turn up in Atlantic City, pursued by Pecos but sneaking into a Chapel of Love where they are inadvertently wed to escape detection. Brackett attempts to make the best of their situation. He even introduces Peterson to Smotherman, who sets up a meeting with Senator Robbins to discuss L.D.F. – the experimental pasteurization chemical, newly approved by the FDA, thanks to Robbin’s seal of approval. But Peterson is up to her old tricks, disguising herself as a Chess Chemical tour guide and using Kim’s stolen pass to sneak into the company’s restricted areas. She also has Brackett forcibly ejected from the company on a faux charge of harassment. Incensed, Brackett elects to take the next plane back to Chicago. He telephones Smotherman to inform him of these developments; also, to suggest he has had it with the story. No, Brackett’s going back to his old ‘new’ lifestyle; sipping champagne and ogling starlets at poolside.
Only, his own nagging conscience and curiosity will not leave well enough alone. Discovering too late that Smotherman’s extension at the state capital is ‘307’, thereby directly linking him to the various attempts on both their lives, Brackett hurries to Chess Chemical where he discovers Smotherman, along with the company’s CEO, Wilson Chess (Dan Butler) already taken Peterson hostage. She gets the men to confess about their elaborate scheme to defraud and poison the public using L.D.F. It seems Hervey and Beekman Sr.’s findings revealed the product’s cancer-causing properties. Beekman wanted no part of it. His forced retirement could not ensure his silence, so he was killed in a deliberately set house fire. The company could also not be certain of Hervey’s complicity; so, he was given something to bring on his stroke. Learning Beekman Sr. had sent his son the microfilm as proof of his findings beforehand, prompted Wilson to hire Mando to ‘take care’ of things on the train; the blood-letting leading directly to Beekman’s widow, and finally, the various attempts made on Brackett and Peterson’s lives.
Making his presence known merely to deflect attention away and against Smotherman putting a bullet in Peterson’s brain Brackett lures his one-time friend to a suspended catwalk high above the laboratory. Peterson reveals she has been carrying a concealed firearm – as she puts it “a must for a woman of the nineties.” Threatening to shoot Smotherman, he instead calls her bluff; Brackett instructing Peterson to hang tight as he loosens the wires holding the suspended catwalk in place. Clinging for dear life to its rickety handle rails, Brackett and Peterson are spared the plummet to ground level; Smotherman falling to his death. The next day, both the Globe and Chronicle’s headlines and accompanying stories champion the sort of Macy’s/Gimble’s detente leading to the successful resolution of this baffling case. In the final moments, we learn Brackett and Peterson have decided to give their sham marriage a sincere try; presumably having discovered common ground as rivals at long last; the friction generated from their professional competition creating like-minded sparks of sexual magic. However, only a moment or two later, Peterson is startled by the sound of an alarm going off at the bank across the street from their hotel room, attempting to take down particulars of the heist taking place; Brackett instead taking Peterson in his arms, turning her away from the open window and pulling down the shade.
I Love Trouble is delightfully effervescent. Few – if any – romantic comedies since have so cleverly wedded playful badinage to an almost credible action/adventure yarn, primarily spent in service to the lighthearted romp. Nick Nolte is a gentleman’s rogue; immaculately quaffed and dressed in some stylish suits, but reverting to a rumpled trench coat (a sort of Bogart gumshoe trademark) to do his best sleuthing in the picture. It’s rather obvious Julia Roberts isn’t quite as comfortable in her pavement-pounding patent leather pumps and power-brokering/shoulder padded ensembles. Her best scenes are with Nolte. Here, there seems to be a sort of anesthetizing chemistry at play; Nolte’s arrogant charm rubbing Roberts’ stiff scissor-legged vixen just the right way; the stultifying bloom of virgin-esque frigidity warming to his playful touch. Mercifully, after a bit of time spent apart in the film’s first act, the pair is together for the rest of its 123 minute runtime.
About this: as early as 1997 it was announced in the trades that I Love Trouble had been rather unceremoniously pruned to accommodate Buena Vista Distribution’s desire to have a more manageable length for its general theatrical release. I can recall the championing of a new 149 min. director’s cut, coming soon to LaserDisc in the fall of 1997. Regrettably, by then, DVD had debuted and with it, the obvious death knell for this larger disc format. As the Walt Disney Company scrambled to re-release its more popular catalog titles to DVD, plans for an extended cut of I Love Trouble were delayed, shelved and presumably, eventually, scrapped – never again to resurface on the home video radar. I’ll admit, at 123 minutes, I Love Trouble doesn’t seem rushed; although there were several minor holes (i.e. clarifications) in its narrative I would have preferred fleshed out. Perhaps such anomalies might have been ironed out in the restored cut, although it seems highly unlikely we’ll ever know.
Not long ago I wrote extensively about the abysmal quality of Touchstone Home Video’s DVD. In the foreign markets I Love Trouble has resurfaced in 1080p. Exciting news? Well…sort of. While the image quality takes a quantum leap ahead of its standard format counterpart (it wasn’t hard to do…the DVD wasn’t even enhanced for widescreen TVs!!!) we still don’t have a perfect rendering and this is, quite simply, a shame. The good news: the foreign market discs are ‘region free’ so you can play them anywhere. Better still: color reproduction is spectacular for the most part, showing off John Lindley’s slick and stylish cinematography to its best advantage. Fine detail pops as it should, although there are more than a handful of shots appearing softly focused.
Flesh tones look very accurate and contrast is bang on: deep, rich, velvety blacks and bright, though never blooming, whites. The bad: age-related artifacts – mostly light dirt, a few minimal scratches but a fair amount of white speckling throughout. The opening credits are in rougher shape than the rest of the film. There’s also some intermittent edge enhancement. When it’s present it annoys. The audio is DTS 5.1 but somehow unremarkable, even though it too is a huge improvement over the DVD. I ordered my copy from Amazon.u.k.; the actual disc coming from Poland, infinitely cheaper than the discs selling from Britain. For several years there have been promises I Love Trouble would resurface state’s side, either from Buena Vista or Mill Creek. Promises, promises! Neither company has stepped up to the plate as yet. So if you really want this movie, it’s currently available in hi-def. Loading the disc immediately defaults to a menu where ‘English’ is the primary option (other languages are available). Click ‘English’ and all of the menus, as well as the feature itself, remain in ‘English’. No fuss, muss, turning on or off subtitles, etc. Just click and go. Nicely done. Tragedy: still no extended cut of the film and NO extras either. It’s unlikely anything will be done to improve this transfer if and when it arrives on this side of the pond. So buy with confidence. But don’t expect perfection. You can, however, anticipate a much more film-like presentation. That’s a plus and the reason I recommend I Love Trouble on Blu-ray.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)