Plot: New York, 1968. Beautiful Chelsea Deardon is celebrating her 8th birthday with a swinging party in her father’s artist loft/studio in Soho. Chelsea’s old dad is a celebrated painter and he has dedicated a special picture to her with the thoughtful inscription “To Chelsea, my favourite artist, love, Sebastian Deardon.” The birthday party is packed with hippy adults digging the scene, including one very conspicuous man wearing what appears to be a brown long hair wig, one Victor Taft [Terrence Stamp]. Chelsea goes to bed with her prized painting propped up against her dolls house, the rest of the party still going strong downstairs. She drifts off to sleep. Later and without warning the loft/studio catches fire and Chelsea is rescued from the flames by Taft. As she is carried out she notices two things – a] her father’s painting has been taken from her room and b] that her father is being beaten to death by a mysterious stranger. Have you been paying attention? Many of these events will prove SIGNIFICANT later on. Roll opening credits – LEGAL EAGLES, directed by Ivan Reitman, Copyright Universal Pictures, 1986.
Eighteen years later and we find ourselves slap bang in the middle of New York’s go-go art scene circa 1986. Chelsea Deardon has grown up to become Daryl Hannah and she wants her painting back. It seems that Chelsea has worked out who took it and maybe even killed her father – the noted art collector and philanthropist Robert Forrester [John McMartin]. Forrester has the missing painting hanging in his apartment. Chelsea attempts to steal her father’s painting back when she is invited by Forrester’s wife to a party for young artists but is caught and arrested. [Chelsea: “His wife throws parties for young artists, so that way people think she knows art. She’s bored. She likes to wear earrings.”] In an effort to convince the world that the painting is hers, she at first hires feisty legal eagle lawyer Laura J. Kelly [Debra Winger] and when that doesn’t work out, Assistant District Attorney Tom Logan [Robert Redford]. Logan and Kelly team up, and after having dinner with the flirtatious and slightly mad Chelsea, they go to see Forrester. When it turns out Forrester has swapped the painting with Taft for a Picasso, they head downtown to Soho to see Taft, who is now an art dealer with an impressive multi-story gallery space complete with airy atrium and water feature.
It’s at this point that Legal Eagles heads off in several directions at once. One is the main plot – where is Chelsea’s painting and who killed her father? The second is the confusing back story of the relationship between Chelsea’s dad, Taft, Forrester and the mystery third man. Another plot strand is the romantic comedy relationship between Redford and Winger, the former an ambitious would-be District Attorney with political ambitions, the latter an ambulance chasing defense attorney with an hilarious late night binge-eating problem. Will Tom and Laura get it together, and further, will Chelsea stop flirting with Tom? The last strand of the plot, mixed in with lengthy court room scenes, [and nearly crowded out in a film less than 120 minutes long] – is Chelsea’s own art career.
The Timeless Appeal of Legal Eagles: Directed by Reitman straight after his success with Ghostbusters in 1984, Legal Eagles is a high gloss romp through a Hollywoodized version of the art world. Some serious and major galleries were credited including Mary Boone, Tony Schafrazi, Leo Castelli, Holly Solomon, Nancy Hoffman and the Pace Gallery and artists including David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Ad Reinhardt, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Jean Debuffet, Louise Nevelson, Tony Smith, Miro, Elsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder and many more providing real art to hang on the walls. The basic premise of the plot was based on the legal battles over the estate of Mark Rothko, but all of this reality is largely wasted. Legal Eagles does, however, feature one of the great screen artists of all time in the form of Chelsea Deardon, a “performance artist” partly based on Laurie Anderson. “A what?” asks Tom when told by Laura, who knows quite a lot about art. “A performance artist,” she repeats. “A what?” says Tom, squinting his eyes in a way only Redford can do when playing for laughs. It seems Tom doesn’t even know a Picasso when he sees one and needs help at every turn. Late one night, Chelsea turns up at Tom’s apartment and lures him downtown for an impromptu performance, but Laura isn’t there to help him.
Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Superman…
Danger, Performance Art Ahead: The main visual motif of Legal Eagles is fire – there are three major blazes, an explosion and lots of improbable gun play. Bu the piece de resistance is Chelsea’s sexy, provocative performance art. Accompanied by a soundtrack of sampled voices and beat boxing in an early 80s art world style, Chelsea slinks around her loft making the sorts of improbably banal statements one usually associates with Laurie Anderson – “I was driving down the highway…” she says in doomy reverb, the drum machine clicking away… “When I saw a woman, in a car, by the side of the road…” Boom chick, boom chick… On a series of screens with images of the artist done in the style of Robert Longo, Chelsea projects images of herself when she was 8, going “la la la” like kids do in movies. Then she sets fire to a birthday cake while saying “brush fire”, “old flame” etc… If you were ever thinking of doing a performance yourself, all you need is some bodgy symbolic renderings of things that have happened in your life. Thus, Chelsea uses a lot of fire, and the culmination of the performance after setting fire to a model of her dolls house [we told you you’d need to pay attention at the start], she sets fire to a photo of herself, which burns away to reveal – a mannequin. What do you think Chelsea asks a clearly gobsmacked Tom. “Interesting” he says.
The Rest of the Movie: The face reddening highlight of the movie occurs in the first 45 minutes leaving another 45 minutes of tedious plot to get through. The details of the story are far too boring to go into in detail, but in short, the art world is represented to be a bunch of lying, conniving thieves who wouldn’t stop at murder to keep a few paintings. And that’s just not accurate. Tom and Laura get together even though Tom slept with Chelsea [pre-AIDS, Laura isn’t bothered so long as Tom says she has nicer eyes than Chelsea]. And the missing painting? After a lot of detective work including just escaping the Taft Gallery Warehouse [it says on the door] when it explodes, Laura tracks down the missing painting to its secret location hidden inside a marquette by an artist called “Bertollini”. Just as they are about to retrieve it, the mystery third man arrives and its that guy who always plays duplicitous cops who turn out to be evil and it is in fact a cop who is in fact the evil third man. He destroys the “Bertollini”, grabs the painting, sets fire to the Taft Gallery while it’s full of people gathered for a memorial service for Taft [murdered earlier offscreen by someone or other], and makes a run for the exit. Tom meets him, they fight, arrrgh, the evil guy gets shot, and falls – aieeeeeeee – through the atrium into the water feature. The gallery ablaze, the crowd disperses and, in a fun moment of art world realism, the fleeing guests run from the fire while still holding their drinks. Tom rescues Laura and Chelsea and they escape the flames by shinnying down a Giacometti. As you do.
Overall art world realism: 1/10
Performance art embarrassment realism: 9.5/10
Performance artists madness realism: 7.5/10
Overall film fun factor: 5/10 [first 45 minutes] 2/10 after that.