(I intend to spoil the shit out of this movie, but I actually thought it was pretty good—good enough to recommend—so if you have any interest in seeing it, don’t read this.)
So here’s the thing about Pacific Heights, John Schlesinger’s bizarre 1990 thriller: it shouldn’t work. At all. The opening scenes show us a nice, Reagan-era yuppie couple (played by Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) trying to figure out how to fudge their mortgage application so they can buy a house so comically enormous they can convert the entire thing into two apartments and live in the movie-huge attic. What I’m trying to say is, they didn’t need this house, and the fact that they paid $750,000—in 1990 dollars—should make them much less sympathetic. The entire plot hinges on the possibility of them losing their property, so if we can’t understand why this home means so much to them or why we should care if they lose a house when they’re spending waaaaay beyond their means, the ending won’t exactly satisfy.
Wisely, Schlesinger and writer Daniel Pyne avoid potential audience backlash by not apologizing for these characters. They’re portrayed as selfish and kind of vapid, and while it’s not fully explained why they feel they need such a gigantic house in such an expensive neighborhood in the most expensive city on the planet, they seem like the kind of couple who would dive headlong into an unwise investment like this. It’s a good thing, too, because a lot of the plot also hinges on their ignorance of both tenants’ rights and home ownership.
Initially, I felt like this was going to be some kind of comment on race relations. One of the first prospective tenants is a black man (played by Carl Lumbly, who doesn’t have much of a role here but kicked all kinds of ass as Dixon on Alias), and he assumes it’s a race issue when they’re a little uncomfortable with his financial situation. The movie goes out of their way to show the characters aren’t racist, which is probably good for the sake of sympathizing with them but bad because it leads to a too-convenient scene where he slips his application under the door…the night before some other tenants move in, and it inevitably gets trampled and discarded by a mover.
I’m not sure if it would have made a better movie if they had denied Lumbly because he was black, or hell, even if they had found another legitimate reason to deny him. I guess it would have given the story a “they had it coming” vibe that they probably wanted to avoid. I’m a big fan of ironies like that, though. Nonetheless, it’s pretty amazing the movie even got mad—there’s so much potential for it to go wrong. In order for the story to work, they have to be wealthy enough to afford a huge house with some minor paperwork-fudging but also poor enough that they’d lose the house if they couldn’t rent to tenants. Obviously, the size of the house matters—if they’re poor and all they can afford is a little saltine box in the suburbs, they won’t be able to rent rooms or convert chunks of it into apartments. (The movie doesn’t go into detail on how they can afford all this.)
The plot works like this: Michael Keaton shows up as a slick businessman who impresses Modine by driving a Porsche, talking big, and flashing wads of cash. We already know he’s shady because a scene that plays over the opening credits shows him in a weird apartment that’s empty except for a mattress, where he’s sexing up Beverly D’Angelo—but we don’t know why he’s shady. Based on the way he was looking around, and his apparent fixation on the bathroom, I thought Keaton was some kind of thief who somehow knew the house was loaded with money or valuables. I don’t know if they did that on purpose, but it made even more sense when Keaton’s first act of craziness involves refusing to open the door as his drilled and sawed and did all kinds of mysterious, unseen work in the apartment. When the door finally opens, it’s not Keaton—he has a creepy assistant, again leading to the theory that he’s a low-life criminal.
Turns out, his plans are even bigger. First, he uses the noise to drive out the other tenants. All the while, he hasn’t paid Modine a dime. Neither Modine nor Griffith have a clue what’s happening, and if Modine didn’t keep losing logic to rage, he’d be able to rationalize—where’d the 911 call come from? Keaton’s apartment? Yet the guy on the phone sounded very calm? It’s easy to consider something like that a flaw, but in this case it worked for me because it was grounded in Modine’s primary character flaw—that he’d rather yell at him and get into a fistfight than figure out the right way to handle him.
The cop who interrupts their scuffle explains to Modine that the tenant has all the power here, so he needs to talk to an attorney. He does, and she’s played by Jackie from Roseanne! I’m guessing this took place while she was actually filming Roseanne, because she has a very small role and has that same long, stringy hair Jackie had during the second and third seasons. (Usually when I see Laurie Metcalf in movies from this era, she does some kind of transformation to distance herself from Jackie.) It’s around this time that we get to the real heart of the movie: tenants have a shitload of rights that they can very, very easily abuse. It’s kind of weird to see a movie that sympathizes with the landlords and not the tenants, and again, that’s why it’s so surprising that this got made.
The rest of the movie gets really weird, as we discover (thanks to Modine sneaking under the house at a convenient time) Keaton’s plan all along is to make them not only lose the house—he wants it to escalate to a point where he can sue them and win their house. This is how he makes his living. Even though he discovers this, Modine continues to get taken in by Keaton’s passive antagonization. This results in him getting a major ass-beating and a couple of bullets.
While Modine is stuck recuperating, Metcalf’s eviction finally goes through and Keaton is forced out. Griffith discovers he destroyed the whole place—both trashing it and stealing all the appliances, including the toilet. (This is where Lumbly briefly reenters the story, in a meaningless scene where we learn he’s a police lieutenant. He says, “I bet you’re wishing you’d rented to the black man.” Griffith confidently says, “You never returned an application.” Lumbly says, “Uh-huh,” all sarcastic-like. That about sums it up. Like with the 911 call, neither of them take the time to think things through: gee, maybe Griffith lost the application; gee, maybe shoving it under the door in the middle of the night wasn’t the best way to do things. I mean, this is why people have mailboxes, right?)
I have a problem with what happens next. Certain events in the movie strike me as convenient, like the way Modine just happens to slither under the house to find out what Keaton’s up to just when he and his partner start to fight about it, so he finds out everything. But that works for me, under the guise of “time compression”—it’s unlikely that the first and only time Modine attempts to eavesdrop would result in such important, useful information, but that’s how movies work. If they show him trying to eavesdrop repeatedly, not hearing anything interesting, trying again later, it would be more realistic, but it would screw up the pacing. But the big twist, which leads us into the third act, doesn’t have a speck of plausibility to it.
Well, maybe a speck—once we learn more about Keaton, we learn the importance of family. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that the only thing he leaves behind is a childhood photograph that just happens to have his full, real name written on the back. But, again, if family’s so important to him—why did he leave it behind? Based on the briefcase o’ backstory Griffith later finds, it becomes evident that Keaton’s been doing this trick for decades, and we soon discover he does this to support his family. That tells me two things: (1) he would have some kind of old, nostalgic picture, and (2) he’s not that sloppy.
However, without this slip-up, we’d have no third act. Once she learns his real name, Griffith does an exceptional job of tracking him down—so good, in fact, that her character might make a decent living as a private investigator. This, too, is hard to believe, but it’s also the most intriguing and satisfying part of the movie. Not only does she uncover who Keaton really is—she gets her revenge.
I don’t know what to say. Despite the convenient moments and the implausibilities (especially finding the photograph), I enjoyed it. I’d like to know how much this changed as it went through the studio wringer, though. The stuff with Lumbly feels tacked-on, but it also feels like maybe the script was rewritten and rewritten until the racial angst was downplayed to the point of meaninglessness. On the other hand, it might have come so late in the game that Pyne didn’t have time to fully explore the possibilities of this character or the racial undercurrents in the story.
I’d also like to consider a more interesting method of discovering Keaton’s true identity. I honestly don’t have a clue of how to do it in a way that would be less convenient. If he hadn’t stolen all the appliances, I would’ve suggested maybe hitting REDIAL on his phone and seeing who answered, but if he left everything but the phone that’d be just as convenient (even though phones are cheap). Maybe she could have discovered the picture, but before he left. I don’t know—that would ruin the shock of the moment we discover what he’s done to the apartment.
So you can see why they stuck with this twist—it doesn’t exactly work, but I’m hard pressed to think of something better.