The Finally Screenings: I Just Saw Beetlejuice For the First Time

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In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.

Spoiler alert: there isn’t a lot of meat on the ol’ comedy bone in Beetlejuice. It is clearly to be filed under “comedy,” it stars a few comedians and a few non-comedians with good chops, and has a great premise for comedy. But – and I say this without judgement – it’s not funny, per se. It’s more a comedy by Shakespeare’s definition – happy ending, no real stakes, harmless villain. Defined as much by it’s lack of tragedy as its presence of yuks. But I have a sworn duty to uphold: watch and review. So does Beetlejuice hold up? Totally. It just isn’t very funny. And I’m not sure if it was ever meant to be.

But there is a lot to dissect here. I’ve noticed a lot of patterns in the last couple months – where trends and influences come from, how they evolve, and the shapes the careers of actors and directors can take over time. Tim Burton’s no exception.

I generally think of Tim Burton as a director known for being dark and quirky, but as I watch more of his work, I realize that isn’t really an objective assessment. Burton is the kind of director who really pushed the envelope during the peak of his career with Beetlejuice, A Nightmare Before Christmas, and Edward Scissorhands, but his tone and style has remained so consistent that his movies seem to be getting gradually less edgy because he’s standing still. By today’s standards Beetlejuice is pretty benign – all the darkness is painted in broad strokes and the quirkiness in bright colors. It’s a level of weird that required such heavy-handedness in 1988, but like a lot of strange movies, its expiration date has passed. This isn’t to say Beetlejuice isn’t effective, but it’s interesting to see what a young, hip director could and couldn’t get away with in a commercially viable film at that time. And the sad part is that what made Burton’s films exciting in in 1988 – melodramatic, zany characters in harmless, Gorey-esque settings – is what makes them a little precious and cloying now. What made Burton famous hasn’t faded, but rather has – just as tragically – remained stagnant.

I’m not referring to comedy when I write that, but it’s a powerful problem which also affects the funny business, as it does all art: the inevitable dilemma between keeping one’s original artistic vision and changing it to stay in the same relative place over time.

But perhaps that’s the subject of a different column. The point is that Beetlejuice plays like a time capsule, its renown as a dark comedy feeling like a dated misnomer now.

That’s not to say it isn’t immensely enjoyable now. I’d just be more tempted to call it quirky family fare than “the perfect balance of bizarreness, comedy and horror,” as The Washington Post’s Desson Howe described it.

The premise for Beetlejuice is a classic example of the 1980s “concept comedy;” there just aren’t enough movies made today that have such fat, juicy premises. Seeing a Poltergeist-style haunted house flick from both sides of the grave is a killer idea, and in 2010, where the predominant comedy plot is “best friends do a thing,” it’s like finding a ripe peach in a pile of tennis balls (or like finding a tennis ball in a crate of peaches, depending on whether you’re into food or sports).

I’ve long been under the impression that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter influenced Burton somehow, that Burton made films for a while until he found ingredients that worked, then stuck with them. But after seeing Beetlejuice, I think I’m wrong. The frizzy-haired, sallow, innocent goth of Helena Bonham Carter was in Burton’s mind long before he first cast her, split into two parts in this film and played by Geena Davis and Winona Rider. They each look like half of Carter. It’s actually sort of romantic; of course Burton and Carter make a good couple - she’s been his fantasy girl since before they met. And if this movie was made today, Johnny Depp would be a no-brainer for the titular role.

It’s a great role for Keaton, though, a really talented guy in comedy and otherwise. I’m sure I’m not the first to notice this, but what I couldn’t shake about the character of Betelgeuse is how similar he is to Heath Ledger’s Joker. The mannerisms, the cadence, the hair – it’s honestly so close it’s hilarious. Before filming The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger reportedly spent a month living alone in an apartment working on the character and writing in a journal as the Joker. I don’t buy it. I think he was just watching Beetlejuice over and over.

Betelgeuse is a weird character, though, and like Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack, sticks out more often in the wrong way than the right. What is meant as an irreverent, zany dose of comic relief feels like a character from a different draft – a better draft, maybe – Keaton’s the only guy given the chance to improvise or say anything that still plays as dark or edgy, and with Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara in the cast, that seems like a wasted opportunity.

Because the rest of the film falls into the trap of many of the best and most promising ‘80s comedies with great concepts: the formula. It’s like people were worried about taking more than one liberty at a time. The weirder the concept, the more predictable the resolution. Now we have the opposite problem – comedies aren’t afraid to be surprising with their arcs or characters, but their premises are generally bland.

I don’t blame Burton, of course. It’s obvious that this is an ambitious film from a talented director, and he probably took more liberties than most people expected at the time. Beetlejuice was and still is a great movie. But it raises an interesting question: they had the actors on set playing ghosts, eating bugs, hanging out with dismembered corpses and traversing the halls of the afterlife. What were they afraid of?

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.