Erstwhile star of the beacon of TV Americana that was “Happy Days,” occasional actor, and now Oscar-winning director and major Hollywood power player, Ron Howard is, by every account you can find the length and breadth of the World Wide Web, a really nice guy. Almost every interview starts with a reference to his niceness, his approachability, his affability, his talent for not taking himself too seriously. Which kind of makes it okay for us not to take him too seriously either.
After all, Howard may be a peer-respected, skilled director of crowdpleasing mainstream fare, but the flipside of that is a reputation for occasionally oversincere blandness, for being a little whitebread and a little too, well, Richie Cunningham for snobbier cinephiles like us to wholly embrace. And yet he’s also one of those directors who, when we take a good hard look at his body of work, has a pretty high batting average for someone who’d never lay claim to the “auteur” label, and has made far more good Hollywood pictures than bad over his long career (which sounds like faint praise, but really isn’t). A bit like Monty Python and the Romans, we can dismiss Ron Howard as having not done a great deal for us, but then we actually start to remember that however many turgid ‘Da Vinci Code’s there are on his resume, there are a hell of a lot more solidly entertaining prestige pics, frothy comedies and well-made dramas. And his new film “Rush,” which opens wide this weekend, is right up there with his best work (read our review here).
“Rush” is the story of the fierce rivalry between Formula One stars Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). It’s also an interestingly off-kilter choice of subject matter, because as everyone’s repeatedly said, U.S. audiences aren’t really into the sport. That alone is one more strike against Howard’s rep for predictability and blandness, and it got us thinking about looking back over his career again, with a view to giving maybe a little more credit where it’s long overdue. There have been highs and lows and we’re hardly going to spearhead a “Ron Howard is the new Godard” movement, but, using this eight-film sample from across his catalogue, we’re going to try to tell the story of a directorial career that we, and we suspect many others, may have kind of undervalued up to now.
“Night Shift” (1982)
For those only familiar with Henry Winkler as the Fonz, his turn in “Arrested Development” as the shyster attorney Barry Zuckerkorn might have seemed a major change of pace, but in many ways it harkens back to “Night Shift,” Ron Howard’s second feature-length film (some TV movies came in between this and his debut “Grand Theft Auto”). Featuring excellent chemistry between its three leads, Winkler, Michael Keaton, and Shelley Long, “Night Shift” centers on a brilliant, but meek and nebbishy Wall Street guy (Winkler) who finds a job in a morgue in order to lead a quieter, less stressful life. During the titular night shift, he meets his wild, irresponsible get-rich-quick scheming co-worker (Keaton), falls under his charming spell and the two eventually front a prostitution ring after Winkler’s character learns that his escort neighbor’s (Long) pimp has died (and she’s being slapped around without a protector). Howard’s direction, and his movies, have been called nondescript and simple-minded, but for this comedy at least, the straightforward, workman-like approach to the material definitely works. With a bolder script that followed through on some of the edgier elements the film promised in its first half, “Night Shift” could have been Ron Howard’s version of Scorsese’s “After Hours.” Shame, then, that it takes potentially risky material and plays it safe, but that said, it’s still pretty damn enjoyable and funny, even if it’s congenial and unthreatening. The ridiculously implausible plot unravels rather hard in its last act, thanks to the sentimentally hokey notes and broad character arc cliches that define Ron Howard to some, but it’s still one of the most successful and charming collaborations between Howard and his longtime writing team Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (“Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” writers who also wrote “Splash,” “Parenthood,” “Gung Ho,” and “ED TV”). Featuring a score by Burt Bacharach (think his symphonic shmaltz, hilariously reduced to tinny-sounding ‘70s keyboards, which is both terrible and enjoyable), he even co-wrote many of the pop songs in the film by The Pointer Sisters, Rod Stewart, Quarterflash and Al Jarreau. Curiously enough, the tiny nebbish pimp genre would receive one more installment one year later with “Doctor Detroit,” but “Night Shift” is now largely regarded as the throat clearing before Howard’s first hit, that would come just two years after.
It’s fitting that Howard’s first real, bona fide smash hit also came off a script with frequent collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (kind of an 80s/90s writing superteam, who’d go on to count “City Slickers,” “Parenthood” and “A League of Their Own” among their credits), and out of his first teaming with go-to star of choice Tom Hanks. In fact as much as any one film launched Hanks and defined his everyman appeal, “Splash” did just that (it was his first proper feature lead after a mostly TV career to that point.) But what’s perhaps even more remarkable about the mermaid-in-Manhattan romance, is just how well it still holds up, especially if you compare it to some of its similarly themed peers: where 1987’s “Mannequin,” for example, is almost unwatchable today, “Splash” still feels fresh and funny, despite the inherent daftness of its premise. Howard’s unobtrusive directing style ages well and is already in evidence here in just his third theatrical feature. Of course by this stage he’d been in the industry for more than twenty-five years as an actor, so we can hazard that he had a perspective that gave him respect for aspects of the process that other neophyte directors might have overlooked. As a result he lets his stars Hanks and Daryl Hannah shine as well as giving generous time to the more slapstick antics of Eugene Levy and John Candy in support (we’re particularly fond of the smoking-while-playing-squash scene that the latter gets), while keeping the tone from ever getting too zany. In fact, as much as “Splash” starts out hokily, with Hannah’s naked, mute dream girl essentially fulfilling the most unenlightened of teen boy fantasies before discovering the joys of the American Way of consumerism and TV catchphrases. As the film goes on it gets weirder and more anti-establishment, before culminating in an ending that’s more or less the opposite of what you might predict. If it’s not quite subversive, then the subtext of the love-conquers-all finale where Allan abandons his family, his job, New York City, his biological dependence on air and his whole damn species, to live under the sea forever, comes pretty close. The film gave Hanks his career, coined “Madison” for use as a girl’s name and went on to make $70 million off an $8 million budget. Ron Howard’s gentle, unshowy ascension up the Hollywood ladder had begun in earnest.
If Howard’s career up until this point had largely been defined by juvenile situation comedies (“Gung-Ho” being one of our favorites, no matter how politically incorrect it is; it’s funny as shit, again with many thanks to Michael Keaton during his ‘80s comedy heyday), “Parenthood” was one of his early attempts at making something more mature and adult, with mixed, but somewhat admirable results. A family ensemble film, written again by Ganz and Mandell, the same kind of warm-hearted, sentimental and uplifting notes that made “Cocoon” such a divisive piece of work (reviled by some, it was still a big box office hit) are present here as well, but a few hard luck moments and some less saccharine performances make “Parenthood” not quite so safe-as-milk. Featuring varied subplots that revolve around the extended Buckman family, Steve Martin leads the charge as Gil, a neurotic salesman whose central worry is the universal concern of all parents wound up too tight: will my children grow up and inherit the flaws passed down to me from my parents? But Gil is overcompensating because of the strained relationship with his Dad (an excellent Jason Robards). Other members of the Buckman family include Gil’s divorced sister Helen (a great Dianne Wiest who scored a Supporting Oscar nomination for her turn), who is having trouble raising her moody, troubled son (a young Joaquin Phoenix) on her own, another sister Susan (Harley Jane Kozak), who’s having the joy squeezed out of her and her daughter’s life by her anally-retentive husband (Rick Moranis) and the black sheep Larry (Tom Hulce), who is in some serious financial troubles leaving his son in jeopardy. Feel-good and sweet, as you’d probably expect, it all wraps up too nicely in a bow (following the central criticism of Howard’s films is that the writing frequently veers into the banal and conventional). So yes, parenting is difficult and the characters all learn not to tug so hard and let their collective children fail, but along the way there are some well-observed, graceful, human notes. The likable Steve Martin never falters, a brooding Joaquin Phoenix is a terrifically believable angsty adolescent and every scene involving Hulce, Robards and Martin is genuinely painful stuff. Hardly perfect, conversely it’s too easy to just discard “Parenthood” as another homogenous Ron Howard movie if only because it features such strong performances and possesses genuinely likable, and occasionally insightful, heart.
“In order to kill a fire, you have to love it a little”—if we ever write a book of patently false movie wisdom, that Robert De Niro line from “Backdraft” may well be the first entry. But truthfulness doesn’t seem to have been something Howard was going for with his 1991 firefighter film, featuring some of the most dramatic, pretty, and totally smokeless fire effects (courtesy of ILM) that had even been done to that point. In fact, as much as we’ve banged on about Howard’s restraint (to the point of anonymity) behind the camera, “Backdraft” may be the closest he’s come, as an established director, to all-out schlock. But perhaps he can be excused a little excess; having confirmed his good eye for the fantastical (given fullest expression in the decent “Willow,” but also running through “Cocoon,” and “Splash”) and a light touch with comedy, Howard, coming off a huge, twice-TV-show-spawning hit with “Parenthood” seems to have wanted to establish some darker dramatic credentials too. So he may have overshot slightly with this potboiler melodrama featuring an ensemble cast of thesps, and Billy Baldwin and Kurt Russell, as a firefighting team on the trail of a serial arsonist. The funny thing is, though, that though everyone hams it up crazily (Donald Sutherland probably gets the ribbon in this regard) and Baldwin has sex with Jennifer Jason Leigh atop a fire engine, and lots of fraternal friction occurs between Baldwin and Russell’s characters, the film is still a well-made piece of pure popcorn escapism—by no means anyone’s finest hour, but a compelling guilty pleasure nonetheless. More definitively, it ushered in the middle period of Howard’s directorial career, as he spent the ’90s gradually sloughing off the more heavily comedy-based early part of his development and testing the waters of other genres. Of those, historical romance, thriller and kids’ movies may not have all yielded great results (with the awful Tom Cruise Oirish vehicle “Far and Away,” the so-so Mel Gibson film “Ransom” and the horrible Jim Carrey version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” respectively), but elsewhere he further honed his skills in the arena of measured human drama, which is probably what we most associate him with now, and which, in “Apollo 13” would soon spawn the best, and most exemplary, film of his career to that date.
“Apollo 13” (1995)
Coming off now relatively forgotten Michael Keaton-headed ensemble film “The Paper,” which had been a moderate hit mainly because it was a pretty low-budget outing in the first place, Howard went into space for his best film yet, and perhaps his best film, period, with the true-life story of the aborted Apollo 13 mission to the moon. It is of course also a testament to the script, by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinart, based off the book by astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger that the story is a gripping as it is, but while the actors (Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris) all got their due, and the excellent editing and sound design both won Oscars (the James Horner score was nominated too), Howard, to our mind, was rather overlooked when the laurels were being handed out for this one. In fact, it’s an incredibly difficult story to put together coherently and compellingly, quite aside from the technical challenges of period detailing and shooting in zero gravity. It’s largely three guys in a tin can who, get this, fail to land on the moon, and whose biggest achievement is coming home, aided by a bunch of NASA boffins armed with little more than thick spectacles and slide rules. It hardly sounds cinematic. Add to that the difficulty of getting across a basic understanding of the physics that underlies the challenges the mission faces, and surely “Apollo 13” ought to be a terribly dull, talky history lesson. Instead, never has Howard’s talent for getting out of the way of a great story been better employed, here he creates gripping drama and a real sense of peril and struggle, both on the ground and 200,000 miles up. Often we’re guilty of seeing the lack of overt authorial identity in Howard’s work as a deficiency, and in all fairness sometimes it can seem anodyne, but “Apollo 13” makes a persuasive case that it might on occasion be his best asset—as much skill and craftsmanship as it might take to tell the story of a series of math problems in such compulsive, thrilling fashion, there’s an immediacy to “Apollo 13” that totally belies its artistry. It’s Howard at his most technically proficient, and also his most humble, and seriously, we could watch this film again, like right now.
“A Beautiful Mind”
After the unadulterated critical and commercial success of “Apollo 13,” and a big hit in the shape of dour but well-made kidnap thriller “Ransom,” Howard stumbled over the next couple of films. To be fair, “Ed TV” is not bad, but was victim of unfortunate timing coming out the year after the similarly themed “The Truman Show” and feeling like an also-ran as a result. But he really fell flat on his face with “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the relentlessly lurid, grating and entirely uncharming Dr Seuss adaptation in 2000. But as he would do again, he came back from the worst critical drubbing of his career with one of his best-received films, the real-life drama “A Beautiful Mind,” starring Russell Crowe as troubled mathematician John Nash. The film itself is not at all our bag, let’s be honest, with its mawkish sentimentalization of mental illness and reductive, almost romantic portrayal of madness as the price of genius, but while its sober self-importance (not a trait that any of Howard’s films had really displayed till now) is our kryptonite, the Academy and audiences the world over, loved it, and the film won Howard his Best Director Oscar (as well as that year’s Best Picture, and Best Supporting actress for Jennifer Connolly). Leaving aside our issues, it’s undeniably a well-made film, handsomely mounted, lush in period detail and strong performances from all the cast. It also shows Howard stepping into the light a little more than he had done to date: where his style had been usually straightforward, almost prosaic, here in the madness and paranoia sections especially, there’s a more impressionistic and evocative tone than we’d seen from him before. It was certainly the most self-consciously “directorial” if that makes sense, that he’d ever been, and he was duly rewarded. It was a mode he’d stay in for while—the underrated Western “The Missing” and the solid if hardly groundbreaking boxing pic “Cinderella Man,” his second pairing with Crowe, also fit the mold of the sincere, handsomely mounted, well-acted prestige pic. To an extent these three films could support this newfound sense of self-importance. But then a certain globally bestselling book came his way.
“The Da Vinci Code” (2006)
So with this assessment/re-assessment, we’d love to be able to go against conventional wisdom and state with brio that in fact Howard’s 2005 adaptation of the Dan Brown phenomenon is a misunderstood masterpiece. But we can’t because it’s really, really bad. The sudden self-seriousness that had crept into Howard’s post-Oscar films just doesn’t work when applied to something as silly as “The Da Vinci Code” and makes us wonder what coulda been. If not an ‘Indiana Jones’ style adventure, then at least a “National Treasure”-style romp, but in Howard’s hands the thriller is a really super dull trudge through a dreary nightime Paris that goes on for two and half excruciating hours. Tom Hanks, usually so effortlessly watchable, looks deeply uncomfortable here in his bad wig, burdened with a role that mostly requires him to squint at things in passageways—even Hanks, who can create a sympathetic character out of a shipwrecked guy with a volleyball for a best friend, can’t find anything in Robert Langdon to make him an actual character. But with the book having found an audience even among people who make it a point of pride not to read books, the potential market for this thing was simply massive, and with “Cinderella Man” underperforming and “The Missing” a rare commercial flop for Howard, he was in need of a box office hit. Undeserving as it was, “The Da Vinci Code” proved just that, pulling in $758m worldwide, more than justifying Howard’s approach, his initial $125m budget and of course it prompted a sequel. “Angels & Demons” would come along three short years later, still pretty awful but the rare sequel that improves on the original, if only because the original was so poor. From the point of view of Howard’s career, however, far more interesting was the film that came in between…
Just when you think you can write Howard off as one particular thing, he turns around and does another. And so, sandwiched between soulless moneymakers “The Da Vinci Code” and sequel “Angels and Demons” came “Frost/Nixon,” a retelling of the famous interview between then-young gun British reporter David Frost and disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon. Maybe the only ever film to be based on a play which was itself based on a television interview, “Frost/Nixon” is scripted by the play’s author Peter Morgan and stars Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella in a terrifically bellicose performance as Nixon. The film lovingly recreates the period, as Howard has done so well on various occasions, and despite the potential worthiness of the subject, it feels like here Howard has more fun than he’s had in quite a while, nailing the breezier aspects of the story and doing a good job of expanding it to feel more filmic, abetted by a stacked supporting cast including Rebecca Hall, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, Matthew MacFayden, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell. It’s not a wholehearted home run—there is a slack portion in the middle when we should be ramping up to the finale, but mostly this is Howard taking on intelligent, but potentially unappealing material and making something compelling, fluid and entertaining out of it, without entirely dumbing it down. Nominated for five Oscars (and Hans Zimmer’s excellent but un-nominated score also deserves a shout out), the film really earns its stripes in the bravura final portion of the interview, where the verbal sparring escalates to an all-out, winner-takes-all boxing match, resulting in a total psychological K.O. If often Howard is accused of going for rather predictable dramatic beats in rather obvious vehicles, “Frost/Nixon” is among the best examples of his ability to find real, earned drama in less expected places too.
Howard has somewhat maintained that kind of see-saw rhythm since “Frost/Nixon” too, with “Angels & Demons” following the year after and then unappealing adultery comedy “The Dilemma” in 2011 proving less than illustrious efforts, but “Rush” bouncing the director back into our good books again. He’s also got music documentary “Made in America,” chronicling Jay-Z’s festival of the same name, due out next month, before he reteams with “Rush” star Chris Hemsworth for briny Herman Melville-inspired “In the Heart of the Sea.” He also possibly has an adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s “The Graveyard Book” and the JJ Abrams-produced “All I’ve Got” slated but they’re likely a way off if they’re happening at all as, sadly, after ‘Heart of the Sea’ the pendulum will probably swing back again: “Inferno” the next infernal Dan Brown adaptation is due to arrive in December 2015. But of course there’s a lot more to Howard than feature directing—he has been doing sterling work as executive producer and also the omniscient narrator on “Arrested Development” through the years, in addition to his many other TV and movie producing gigs as co-chairman, with longtime collaborator Brian Grazer, of the hugely busy and productive Imagine Entertainment. Developing projects that have piqued our interest there include Stephen King adaptation “The Dark Tower” which, last we heard was potentially being eyed by Netflix, and a “Friday Night Lights” movie that Howard and Grazer controversially announced they may go the crowdfunding route to be get made.
So what do you think, is it time we reclaim Howard from his journeyman reputation, or does he deserve no better? Sound off below. – Jessica Kiang and Rodrigo Perez