Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 14, 2016)
As the calendar changed to 1988, Michael Keaton's career had taken a notable downturn. Whatever spark he exhibited during his start in films like Night Shift and Mr. Mom seemed completely doused by the time he appeared in low-brow dreck such as Johnny Dangerously and Gung Ho. After only a few films, Keaton seemed doomed to suffer the fate of a comedic journeyman: year after year of mediocre comic piffle.
However, the events of 1988 were to alter that path, at least briefly. Keaton starred in two films that year - Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober. While these projects featured divergent subject matter, they coalesced in one respect: the near unanimous praise for Keaton's work in both pictures.
Via this one year and one National Society of Film Critics award as best actor - which was given to him as a result of his work in both movies - Keaton made it to "A"-list status. He jumped to a starring role in 1989’s mega-hit Batman, and it seems unlikely that he could have obtained that plum part as the Dark Knight had he not made such positive impressions with his 1988 output.
Of the two Keaton flicks in question, I find Beetlejuice to be the far more compelling film. 1988 proved that Tim Burton was the real creative force behind 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
I loved and continue to adore Big Adventure. Although many may dismiss it as piffle, few films have approach its level of creativity, wit, and manic energy, and it remains one of the funniest films ever made. I always assumed that this stemmed from Pee-Wee himself - I figured it had to be Paul Reubens' show, right?
How wrong I was! Within a few months of each other, we saw the follow-up efforts from both Reubens and Burton. As already discussed, Beetlejuice was a delight and it performed well at the box office.
On the other hand, Big Top Pee-Wee offered an absolute disaster. I saw it opening night, and not only did it fail to reignite the sparks caused by Pee-Wee, but also it couldn't even muster any giggles.
I didn't laugh once during the entire - mercifully brief - Big Top. In fact, I think the on-screen antics only provoked me to smile once or twice. Most of the time, I sat gape-jawed in horror at the putrid "comedy" shown before me.
Clearly, Burton was the real auteur behind the brilliant extravaganza that was Big Adventure , though it took his subsequent films to establish that fact even more clearly. While most view Beetlejuice as superior to Big Adventure, clearly I disagree. The former tries harder to be more of a coherent film - as magnificent as it was, Big Adventure essentially amounts to a series of loosely connected gags - but it simply lacks the bizarre creativity of the earlier effort.
Nonetheless, Beetlejuice remains a thoroughly entertaining little romp through the afterlife. Young married couple Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) die unexpectedly and find themselves trapped as ghosts in their own house.
This seems pleasant enough until the Deetz family moves into the abode. Faced with their intolerable intrusion, Adam and Barbara try to use their ghostly talents to scare away the Deetz clan – but fail because they’re too nice.
A possible solution presents itself when a self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” named Beetlejuice (Keaton) offers his services. This cure may be worse than the disease.
As noted, Keaton's work in Beetlejuice earned justifiable praise. Without his brash performance as the title character, the movie still would have worked well but it would have lacked the spark that took it to another level. Keaton pulls out all the stops in a tour de force.
Through a successful job of casting, the film also features a high percentage of actors who went on to varying degrees of fame and fortune. Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Alex Baldwin - all these actors were nearly unknowns when Beetlejuice hit screens. Only Davis had achieved any significant success with her minor role in 1982’s Tootsie. 1988 ended up as a career year for Davis: she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that year's Accidental Tourist.
Really, the most prominent actors in the film other than Keaton were Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones, and one wouldn't exactly have called them superstars. O'Hara was - and still is - best know for her consistently superlative work on the late, much lamented SCTV, though she also starred in 1990’s megahit Home Alone. Jones appeared in supporting roles in popular films like Amadeus and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
No matter what their previous or future successes may have been, all the actors acquit themselves well. To a degree, Keaton overshadows all of them, of course, but that seems virtually inevitable since most of his scenes force the others to act as straight men for him.
Nonetheless, all the other members of this amazing cast do well. I seriously doubt that the magnificent Catherine O'Hara could ever be less then delightful - though she couldn't save the first two Home Alone movies - and Ryder plays her role as Goth teen Lydia with a nice balance of spunk and misery. Jeffrey Jones supplies his usual level of low-key goofiness as well.
Actually, although it may seem otherwise, Keaton's really a supporting player in Beetlejuice. The film's mainly about the recently deceased Adam and Barbara and their difficult adjustment to the afterlife. Both Baldwin and Davis play their roles as the only normal people in the film with charm and fine comedic timing.
All of these factors lead to an enjoyable film. Beetlejuice doesn’t qualify as a classic, but it still stands as a fun, amusing little comedic romp.