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‘Man Trouble’ (PG-13)

By Elaine Dutka
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 14, 1992


On paper, it looks great: a movie reuniting Jack Nicholson, director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman -- the team that brought you the groundbreaking classic "Five Easy Pieces" two decades ago. Add Ellen Barkin for some heavy-duty sizzle and it's a project a studio would kill for.

But there's trouble with "Man Trouble," which will be released by 20th Century Fox Friday with a notable lack of fanfare, an unusual move for a Nicholson film released during the prime moviegoing season.

The movie will not be screened in advance for critics, ensuring that no reviews will come out before the all-important opening weekend.

"It's a marketing decision," says Andrea Jaffe, president of domestic marketing for 20th Century Fox Corp. "That's all I'm prepared to say." Although Fox is distributing the film, it was produced by the independent production company PentAmerica.

"It's a pickup from Penta," says Fox Production chief Roger Birnbaum, taking pains to distance himself from the $30 million project. "I am in charge of acquisitions, but I haven't seen it yet."

"Man Trouble" is a romantic comedy about a classical singer (Barkin) who, having received a series of mysterious threats, seeks help from an attack dog trainer (Nicholson). Also featuring Beverly D'Angelo and Harry Dean Stanton, the film is the second in a three-picture deal between PentAmerica and Fox. The first, "Folks!," starring Tom Selleck and Don Ameche, was a box office flop. "House of Cards," a melodrama starring Kathleen Turner and Tommy Lee Jones, will be released in the fall.

The studio had the option of taking its name off "Man Trouble," but it opted to leave it on -- in small type. Alienating Nicholson, the closest thing Hollywood has to a sure shot, is bad business.

" 'Man Trouble' isn't a good movie," admits one Fox executive. "It hasn't played well. But we want to protect our relationship with Nicholson, who's also starring for us in 'Hoffa' {a Danny DeVito film about the life of the Teamsters boss}. That one, we think, will be gigantic."

Screenwriter and co-producer Carole Eastman first heard of the "no screening" policy through the grapevine. Not surprising, she says, given the fact that her sole contact with the studio was a phone call to Fox Executive Vice President Tom Sherak inquiring why "Man Trouble" was being released during the cutthroat summer period and one week before the Olympics.

"It seems to me, as to everyone else, that Fox is cutting its losses," says Eastman. "No one wants to be sliced up by the reviewers, but I prefer it to sweeping this under the rug."

Co-producer Bruce Gilbert ("Coming Home") insists that he is not upset about Fox's marketing strategy. "There's a very substantial campaign in terms of advertising, publicity and promotion," he says. "The movie will either find its audience or not -- and, frankly, I think it will."

Fox's decision was only the latest hurdle in the decade-long "Man Trouble" marathon -- a stop-and-start venture to which a number of directors (Jonathan Demme, Larry Kasdan), actresses (Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton) and actors (Robert De Niro and, possibly, Al Pacino) were once attached.

Eastman is vocal about her dissatisfaction with the film. On the set every day, she and co-producer Gilbert repeatedly locked horns with Rafelson, a longtime friend of hers and Nicholson's and a well-respected, if autocratic, director.

"There were four or five volatile personalities on the shoot," she recalls, "and knock-down, drag-out fights over certain issues. Maybe it was inevitable. A male director has a very different set of eyes and experiences, which lead to distortions in the translation.

"I learned a lot from the experience," Eastman adds. "Bob and I would kiss each other if we ran into each other on the street, but we probably shouldn't make a movie together again. He knows it, and I know it. We're not a very good cocktail."

Fox will release the film in 1,000 theaters as planned, hoping that star power will pack the houses for the first weekend at least.

"Of course, we're anxious," admits one PentAmerica insider. "What's at stake is less economics than pride. Fox liked the film, as far as we know. Anyhow, Nicholson's fans like him no matter what he's in. They'll come out just like Eddie Murphy's fans are for 'Boomerang,' despite the critical pans."

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