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‘Amos & Andrew’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 05, 1993


E. Max Frye
Nicolas Cage;
Samuel L. Jackson;
Dabney Coleman;
Michael Lerner;
Margaret Colin;
Brad Dourif;
Chelcie Ross;
Giancarlo Esposito
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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When Phil and Judy Gillman walk up the front drive of their friends' New England resort island home, the last thing they expect to see is a black man standing in the front room with his arms full of stereo equipment. So what do they do? They make the logical assumption (for them) and freak. Considering what follows, they probably wish they hadn't.

That's how "Amos & Andrew" -- first-time director E. Max Frye's gently hysterical comedy about racial prejudice among the liberal elite -- begins, and from there matters spiral rapidly out of control. Within minutes the Gillmans (played with consummate aging yuppie angst by Michael Lerner and Margaret Colin) have summoned Chief Tolliver (Dabney Coleman, in peak sleaze form), the island's opportunistic top cop. And because Tolliver is running for reelection, he chooses to take decisive action against the intruder, call in reinforcements and place the house under siege.

Unfortunately, what Tolliver and the Gillmans don't know is that the black man with the stereo equipment is Andrew Sterling (a wire-rimmed Samuel L. Jackson), a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-producer-director and cultural hero, who over the winter bought the house from the Gillmans' friends.

In other words, the police are trying to drive Sterling out of his own house. And why? Because he's black.

This basic premise contains a wealth of crackerjack farcical opportunities; it's like dropping Spike Lee into an episode of "Andy of Mayberry." And Frye, who also wrote the script, doesn't let them go to waste. Spiritually, the movie harks back to the rambunctious social absurdism of films like Preston Sturges's "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "Sullivan's Travels." But Frye, who wrote the script for Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild," gives his comedy a softer, less frantic tone; the film's a farce, but a farce played in real time, with a more normal, more human range of reactions. It's like watching a string of firecrackers go off in slow motion.

Frye also made a brilliant choice in casting Nicolas Cage in the role of Amos, the petty crook with the gold-capped grin who gets a free pass out of jail to help Tolliver get off the hook. If the chief can prove that there was, in fact, a burglar on the premises, he can deflect some of the heat he's taking from the growing numbers of press people who have arrived to cover the story. And so, enter Amos, who is to pose as the thief, with the promise of anonymity and a ticket on the next bus out of town. But when Tolliver double-crosses Amos by giving his name to the press, he and Andrew begin an uneasy collaboration to shake down the system.

As it turns out, the system shakes down pretty easily. And Amos, in his own low-watt, haphazard way, manages to turn a little mess into a full-scale media circus, complete with network coverage and an army of Al Sharptons (led by the maniacally cartoonish Giancarlo Esposito as the Rev. Fenton Brunch) agitating against racism. It helps, of course, that Tolliver is only half as bright as he is corrupt, and that his deputy, Donnie (the ever-weird Brad Dourif), is from the Barney Fife school of law enforcement.

By this stage in his career, Cage can be counted on to find the very fatal edge of his character and go plunging over it. With movies like "Vampire's Kiss" and "Honeymoon in Vegas," Cage has established himself as one of the movies' most inspired crazy people, and as Amos he's like an upright snail, slow-moving and glassy-eyed, as if he'd just downed a thermos of Nyquil. It's safe to say that Amos is not one of America's finest, but Cage gives him so much loser's vitality that he's irresistible, even, eventually, to Andrew. He's sublimely goofy.

As the other half of this supremely odd couple, Jackson ("Jungle Fever" and "Loaded Weapon I") has the less showy role. He's the movie's straight man, and he plays the part of second banana to smooth perfection. The rest of the supporting cast is equally sturdy, especially Coleman (whose pencil-thin mustache makes him look like Johnny Carson's shifty matinee-movie host, Art Fern) and Dourif, whose jittery choreography becomes a kind of apoplectic dance of incompetence.

Though Frye touches on the social issues underlying his story, he does so lightly, with equal satire for all. The movie starts out small and, even as the insanity escalates, stays small. And that's one of its greatest strengths. Some filmmakers might push the situation for big effects, or lapse into a lecturing tone. But Frye keeps the film within itself; he's found just the right scale and he sticks with it. As a result, "Amos & Andrew" is a very funny little film with big pleasures, and a most promising debut.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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