Written by: Richard Jefferies
Directed by: Chris Walas
Starring: Bill Paxton, Michael Ironside, and Marshall Bell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďYou had a boring job, girl and life. Look at you now!"
It frequently amazes me how quickly the 80s evaporated right into the 90s; typically, the difference between a film released in 1989 and 1992 can be pretty staggering. However, this is not true of The Vagrant, a paranoiac suburban farce suffering from a Me Generation hangover. Itís almost as if someoneís attempt to capitalize on The ĎBurbs and Society got caught up in the wash and came out just a little late. Even more amazing? The attempt came courtesy of a stunning array of talent that includes Mel Brooks, Chris Walas, Christopher Young, Bill Paxton, Michael Ironside, and Marshall Bell. But the most amazing thing? The Vagrant is a total misfire that spirals beyond the control of everyone involved.
The setup is a familiar but sturdy foundation: yuppie Graham Krakowski (Paxton) moves into a nice home in a picturesque Arizona suburb. His menial office job provides a chance at upward mobility. Heís got a girlfriend thatís planning to move into his house within the next couple of weeks. Thereís only one hitch: his house is haunted by the vagrant (Bell) from hell. Thereís something preternatural about this bum, as Graham is unable to shake him even in his dreams, and the intrusion quickly begins to wreck his perfect life.
For a brief moment, The Vagrant is not only quite tolerable but also sort of brilliant; while it isnít the first film to satirize yuppie life and office politics, it has a decided mean streak that calls out this subcultureís ignorance and xenophobia. When confronted with this underprivileged Other, Graham reacts with abject horror even though the vagrant seems rather harmless. As the interactions continue, Grahamís reactions grow more absurd, with his final solution involving the construction of an elaborate security system to keep his yuppie kingdom hermetically sealed. Between this and his kiss-ass work routine, heís the obvious bad guy, and Paxton rightly plays him as a broad, oblivious dope who canít understand why his girlfriend would invite a total stranger in and feed him out of compassion.
But the film quickly loses its way once it forgets to condemn Graham, who soon finds himself caught up in a generally nightmarish world that sends his life circling down the drain. The local police force ignores his pleas for help (well, until he accuses the hobo of pissing in public, which might be an admittedly clever sendup of the sort of stuff society decides to be aghast over) and soon turn their sights on him when his sweet, elderly neighborís body turns up in a dumpster. Screenwriter Richard Jefferies hints at turning The Vagrant into a schizoid thriller that casts doubt on Grahamís sanity, but his screenplay has all the precision of a shotgun blast aimed at a variety of targets. Along the way, he attempts to satirize everything from media sensationalism (the filmís best, darkest gag occurs here as the corpse of Grahamís mother slides down some courthouse steps in front of an army of cameras) to pop psychology.
Unfortunately, itís not all that smart, nor is it particularly funny. While The Vagrant takes some bizarre twists and turns (the low point of Grahamís odyssey finds him sporting a mullet while supervising a trailer park), it never has a sense of direction beyond its quest to put its protagonist through a random series of hellish encounters. Its heightened, surreal vibe is potent but without much of a purpose once Graham is intended as a victim; if heís likeable at all, itís because Paxton has such a natural charm. Beyond that, though, itís hard to conjure up any sympathy for him, so The Vagrant feels like a satire without a real target, especially when it degenerates into a stock pulp mystery centered on the identity of the nigh-demonic vagrant (the answer is an out-of-left-field disappointment that takes the film even further from its initial focus).
Even though the 80s were firmly in the rearview mirror at this point, itís not like The Vagrant didnít attempt to tap into some timeless themes since yuppie douchebags span across generations. Its throwback nature might even indicate the nationís inability to truly rescue itself from the previous generationís ideals and excess, at least if it had any other brainy qualities that could give one enough confidence to make such a reading. Instead, itís empty-headed nonsense that challenges my lifelong assumption that anything involving Paxton and Ironside would be awesome by default. The script betrays both of them and Walas, one of the eraís best effects masters, here presumably looking to stretch his legs and do something a little different.
Itís an ill-fit and has rightfully become a footnote in the career of everyone involved. Some of the most damning evidence against it is the fact that no one has seemed too concerned to bring it to DVD, and itís just now making its way to the format as part of Scream Factoryís All-Night Horror Marathon. Despite being dumped on this budget release, the film does feature a nicely restored anamorphic transfer and a decent stereo track; there are no extras, which is sort of a shame because The Vagrant borders on being such a fascinating failure that itíd be fun to figure out just what everyone was thinking. I do admire the film for its weirdness (itís the type of movie that throws a nymphomaniac real estate agent out there within the first five minutes) and for its brief attempt to chew up the 80s and spit it out, but it might have been better suited as a Tales from the Crypt episode because it has nowhere to go once it reaches its halfway point (when you've reached the trailer park, you've gone too far). Rent it!
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