Deal of the Century is often listed as William Friedkin’s worst film – and it’s not hard to see why. This was his first effort to direct a comedy since Good Times, but it’s far less assured than his debut, which is really saying something given that it comes on the heels of The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer and Cruising, which are generally taken as his golden period. The plot is so inconsequential that it’s difficult to even summarise – suffice to say that Chevy Chase plays Eddie Muntz, an arms dealer who starts to supply weapons to a Central American dictator, with the help of his partner Ray Kasternak, played by Gregory Hines, and the widow of a rival dealer, Catherine Devoto, played by Sigourney Weaver. Most of the film takes place in Central America, and most of it plays as a fairly limp satire of American media presenting the military-industrial complex as an outgrowth of the advertising and PR spheres.
Amazingly, the screenplay is written by Paul Brickman, who’s completely unrecognizable here as the writer and director of Risky Business. In fact, the film doesn’t feel written or directed at all – just assembled by committee – since there’s no real tone or momentum. At best, it has a hyperactive energy that gives it a pantomime quality, almost like a series of sketches, although even that is offset by the weird mildness of Chevy Chase’s delivery and performance. Chevy’s humour is always mild, but here it’s so mild that it’s hard to tell whether we’re actually supposed to take him seriously in this hardboiled guise, with many of his voiceovers recalls the faux-noir register of The Naked Gun films, but without any clear sense of comedy.
The story itself takes Friedkin’s trilogy of globe-trotting films – The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer – and replays it as farce, although all that really amounts to in practice is a smug, bemused vision of Central America that supposedly qualifies as comedy. During the late 70s and early 80s, Central America solidified as a scenario where Hollywood tended to double down on American military smugness and traffic in the stereotypes of an older kind of war film – Vietnam was still too traumatic, the Cold War too present – and that treatment finds its logical conclusion here. All Deal of the Century really has is smugness in lieu of humour – a constant, laborious wink at the audience that assures us we’re both better and smarter than the Central American characters whose paths picaresquely overlap with Eddie’s.
For the most part, Central Americans tend to be presented as unpredictable but ultimately harmless animals that the United States has to affectionately corral, much as Eddie’s main client, General Cordosa, played by William Marquez, holds court with chickens in his main office. This smugness is all the more astounding in that the film itself is so incompetent – although conversely, the film needs smugness as a defence mechanism against that same incompetence. The result is easily Friedkin’s worst film, at least relative to where it occurs in his body of work, but also his most irritating film – shot blandly, really difficult to follow, full of events that occur with no clear cause or effect. Scenes don’t end – they just stop – and often unfold without any of the three main characters, relying on random characters that go nowhere or else further the plot in really bland and ham-fisted ways. As a result, it’s hard to invest in either the comic or thriller components, while Chevy’s mildness quickly curdles to complacency, as he riffs and drifts from scene to scene without any apparent commitment.
That anomie is all the more unusual in that both Chevy Chase and Sigourney Weaver were at the height of their careers when the film was released, unless that very visibility meant that Friedkin was simply content to bask in their star image rather than trying to direct them in any tangible way. And, beyond a certain point, Deal of the Century does successfully riff on star power, coming up with the watchability of a certain kind of low-key, low-level 80s film that was destined for late night television reruns during the 90s. Inadvertently, and almost despite itself, the second act has a good live-in 80s mood, and a strong 80s sense of style, if only because so much of it takes place in tropical hotels and resorts shaped to the “exotic” tastes of American expatriates and tourists. During these scenes, I could almost just slip into the space between Chevy and Sigourney, and let the 80s mood and atmosphere do the rest.
That all changes, though, with the “high concept” third act, which revolves around Eddie’s belief in the power of drones to transform military combat. We’re used to drone shots today, but without decent visual effects this final focus on drones lags, since it means that all the action is remote, and everyone is passive, apathetic and largely disinterested in the roles. Perhaps appropriately for a comedy about the dawn of the drone age, every part feels acted by drones (especially since Muntz is always banging on about how they can do everything else), while the film as a whole feels like one of the pilotless devices Muntz hails as the future.
This all culminates with the climactic spectacle – the “Arms for Peace ‘84” expo, an arms show driven by Reagan’s insistence that “we’re not building missiles to fight a war, we’re building missiles to preserve the piece.” This arms show is a bit of a Robert Altman space – you could easily see his camera milling around here for a couple of hours like it does in HealtH, his most recent ensemble film at the time that Deal of the Century was released. Yet where Altman always trod a fine line between chaos and narrative, Friedkin jettisons both here in favour of a series of special effects and set pieces that must have felt dated the moment they screened.
Altman’s deft political satire is also totally missing, partly because the film seems made for Reagan voters who want just the slightest bit of edginess to make their conservatism seem more palpable. True to that demographic, the film ends with Eddie pimping out Catherine – or Catherine pimping herself out, as she confesses to Eddie that she always wanted to “finesse” someone for money. Selling Catherine’s body to a dictator is the film’s definition of edgy empowerment – and then promptly removing her from the action until Eddie asks her to marry him in the same suite where she pimped herself. This is the team work that the story ends with – marriage and pimping equated – and it’s a suitably silly ending for the worst work from about everybody involved, but especially Friedkin, whose next film, To Live and Die in LA, was one of his very best, and virtually unrecognizable as the work of the same director.