NIGHT SHIFT, 1982
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring: Henry Winkler, Shelley Long, Michael Keaton
Review by Drew Greco
A nebbish of a morgue attendant gets shunted back to the night shift where he is shackled with an obnoxious neophyte partner who dreams of the “one great idea” for success. His life takes a bizarre turn when a prostitute neighbour complains about the loss of her pimp. His partner, upon hearing the situation, suggests that they fill that opening themselves using the morgue at night as their brothel. Against his better judgement, he gets talked into the idea, only to find that it’s more than his boss that has objections to this bit of entrepreneurship.
When most people think of Ron Howard as a director, they think of such dramas as The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon and A Beautiful Mind. When I think of Ron Howard, however, my first thoughts are of pimps and prostitutes. Allow me to explain.
Before Howard struck gold with the literal fish out of water comedy, Splash, he directed Night Shift, an overlooked and underrated classic about two aimless men running a prostitution ring out of the city morgue. While this might not sound like the basis for a comedy, Night Shift manages to make light of the illicit subject matter by focusing less on the bedroom and more on the unlikely friendships that develop between the three main characters.
Henry Winkler plays Chuck Lumley, recently demoted city morgue employee. You might think that having the coolest guy on television playing a pimp is a stroke of genius. And it is. But Winkler’s Chuck Lumley is the polar opposite of his Arthur Fonzarelli. Chuck is the type of guy who is content to watch life pass by as long as he doesn’t have to get involved. All he wants is to be left alone.
Enter Bill Blazejowski, a.k.a. Billy Blaze (Michael Keaton in a star-making performance). Chuck’s new partner can’t keep his mouth shut for more than a few seconds. He even carries a tape recorder with him at all times to catch such innovative ideas as edible paper and feeding mayonnaise to live tuna fish. It’s hard to believe that this is Keaton’s first feature film. His manic “idea man” walks away with every one of his scenes.
Shelly Long is Belinda Keaton, the hooker with the heart of gold. Her life is in disarray because her pimp has just been murdered and now there is no one to protect her and her friends. She has also recently moved next door to Chuck, who finds her slumped in the elevator after being attacked by a customer.
Feeling guilty about telling Bill to shut up and leave him alone, Chuck decides to open up and share some details about his life. He makes the mistake of telling Bill about Belinda’s plight. The idea man immediately jumps on the opportunity. He reminds Chuck how they have no supervision on the night shift, and utters two words that change their lives forever: Love Brokers.
Normally, Chuck would just ignore Bill’s latest scheme. But Bill has a new mission in life, to make Chuck a man. And Chuck is finally ready to stop being afraid of joining the rest of the human race. He also can’t stop thinking about his alluring next door neighbor.
Chuck and Bill become agents to Belinda and her friends. The ladies appreciate their new professional organization, which includes health, dental, and part ownership in a fast food restaurant. Business is booming until the men who murdered Belinda’s pimp go looking for the new guys who took over the business.
No, Night Shift is not the typical romantic comedy, and that’s exactly what makes it work. Most of us would never decide to get in over our heads and become pimps. But somehow, it seems like a good idea for our two morgue attendant heroes. As Billy Blaze puts it, “Well, we couldn’t be doctors.” It’s hard to argue with logic like that.
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