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HOT TOMORROWS (1978).

Years before he made a name in Hollywood with BEVERLY HILLS COP (and a quarter-century before directing GIGLI), Martin Brest's first feature was this b&w low-budget oddity produced by the American Film Institute. Aided by an amazing cast, it's a rambling, character-driven portrait of two pals bumming around Hollywood after dark, discovering the town's strangest niches and most unpredictable characters. It's an impressive debut, at times realistic -- capturing the tiniest nuances of crappy apartments and seedy dives -- but shifting to pitch black humor, tragedy or a surreal twist at a moment's notice. Ken Lerner stars as Bronx-bred Michael, who's attempting to make it as a writer in LA., while working on stories about his great-aunt's suicide. Fidgety Ray Sharkey co-stars as his streetwise childhood buddy Louis, who's visiting from the old neighborhood, and the two decide to spend their last couple bucks on a few Christmas Eve drinks. First stop is the (inaccurately-named) Paradise Ballroom, where they encounter an even odder pair -- displaced-New Yorker Tony (Victor Argo) and the increasingly-inebriated Alberict (Herve Villechaize), who drinks wine from a shot glass and has to be lugged around by Tony after he passes out. Meanwhile, the live band performs a smoking rendition of "St. James Infirmary," with vocals by Danny Elfman and former sister-in-law Marie-Pascal Elfman (FORBIDDEN ZONE's Frenchie). Louis and Michael's joyride also includes a stop at a mortuary serving hot coffee to drunks on their way home, with Orson Welles providing the voice for their hilarious radio commercial and George Memmoli (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE's Philbin) as an oddball who enjoys hanging out there. An accident spins the film into darker and (ultimately) more touching emotions as Xmas morning arrives, with movie-lover Michael's disorienting journey culminating in a gloriously ghoulish musical number that mixes Busby Berkeley with Dennis Potter. There's no real plot to speak of, but as each character spins their bizarre tales, Brest generously gives each actor (particularly Argo and Sharkey) unique moments of humor and humanity. Lerner, who often seems to be channeling Judd Hirsch, is at the story's core, but he's overshadowed by his eccentric co-stars, with Herve delivering the choicest, snidest remarks as he stumbles about the barroom. Beautifully photographed by fellow NYU Film School grad Jacques Haitkin (who also shot Brest's 1972 student short HOT DOGS FOR GAUGUIN), this small but remarkable film clocks in at a tight 72 minutes, back when Brest knew how to edit a damned movie (e.g. MEET JOE BLACK: 178 minutes. 'Nuff said).

© 2004 by Steven Puchalski.