After Hours: The 53-Cent Movie

There’s two types of Martin Scorsese films: the ones about gangsters and then all the rest of them.

In After Hours, Scorsese exercises his comedic chops and there’s nary a gangster, nor mention of one, to be seen in the film. Instead, it’s one of those films set in a single time frame, in this case, one long night for an average word processor named Paul (Griffin Dunne). Paul has only one thing on his mind: women. Specifically, having sex with one of them.

He meets a woman in a coffee shop (Rosanna Arquette) and they discover that they share a love for Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The woman, Marcy, gives Paul a phone number. It’s not her phone number; it’s the number of her friend, the artist Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), with whom Marcy is staying the night. Kiki makes plaster of Paris paperweights that look like “bagels with cream cheese” and Marcy encourages Paul to call her if he is interested in buying one. He does call, later, after scrambling in the coffee shop to find a pen and pacing around his apartment debating whether he should pick up the phone or not. He dresses smartly in a casual suit, brings only $20 of cash with him (this was set in 1985 when the dollar had not become as inflated as it is today), and hails a taxi to take him to Marcy. The complications begin immediately.

I don’t want to spoil much, but After Hours is one of those domino-effect type films where one thing happens that sets off a chain of events with each event linked to, or influenced by, the one prior to it. As such, this is a very un-Scorsese-like film, at least in what we’ve come to expect of what a Scorsese-like film should be like (sprawling intricate narratives, bursts of violence, Robert De Niro….or Leonardo DiCaprio after 2002). I’m sure there must be some sequences in the movie that reflect Scorsese’s auteur status,  although I’m at a loss to discern which scene that would be.

The crux of the film occurs when Paul loses his $20 bill and only has a handful of change in his pocket. For one reason or other Paul decides that he’d rather go home than try and sleep with Marcy (it may perhaps have something to do with her roommate Kiki, whom Paul attempts to seduce while waiting for Marcy to come home, until Kiki falls asleep). He gets to the subway station and gives the attendant the ninety-seven cents in his pocket. The attendant taps on the glass and Paul sees the sign: Fare – $1.50. He’s 53 cents short. He’s turned away by the attendant and the rest of the film becomes a simple, although through the film’s logic – Sisyphusean – task.

I love movies like this. A simple commonplace object becomes of the utmost importance to a character and to the plot of a film. It’s generally quite valueless but the protagonist has to go great lengths – and at great difficulty – to attain it. Another example of this would be the scene in Memento where Leonard (Guy Pearce) is trying to write down an important piece of information except for one problem – he can’t find a pen. Now, that’s a 53-cent scene, not an entire 53-cent movie. It’s difficult to build an entire film around something so innocuous as a small pile of loose change, even moreso when it is the catalyst that drives all the action and is the protagonist’s only motivation. Somehow After Hours manages to accomplish that and keep it generally believable over the 96-minute running time (Paul does have the opportunity to ask some other people for the 53-cents in change over the course of the film but arguably the subway may have closed by this point and his new “53-cents” object is a telephone so he can call a friend to pick him up).

Paul (Griffin Dunne) spots some strange graffiti during the longest night of his life.

Where After Hours succeeds where other films of this ilk fail is that it makes Paul a flawed human being. “Real” would probably be the best word to describe his character. He has an insignificant job yet he’s narcissistic. He has the faintest unibrow (or his eyebrows are just teasing one another) but he’s incredibly shallow. And his manners are less than desirable (a late-night waitress hits on him and he sits at another table). In fact, most of the laughs from the film come from the position that Paul actually deserves what’s happening to him. Whether you agree with that or not there’s one thing you can’t deny: the film’s funny.


Side Note: Will Patton (the coach…other than Denzel…from Remember the Titans) makes a cameo as a German punk named Horst. He wears an appropriately tight black muscle shirt and dark eyeliner. Familiar faces like John Heard, Catherine O’Hara, Cheech Marin (Tommy Chong too), and Dick Miller also make appearances.


One Response to After Hours: The 53-Cent Movie

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Underrated gem from Scorsese and perfectly captures the night life of New York in the 1980s. I wish more people actually did see this though. Good Review!

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