In a court of law, you don’t have to offer conclusive proof that your client didn’t kill all of Fort Worth, Dallas. You just have to throw it into doubt. If a semi-decent possibility exists that your client might not have killed everyone in Fort Worth, the jury has to say “Not Guilty.” Hence, the unofficial lawyer motto, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” If the jury just isn’t sure of anything, they can’t return a conviction.
Good filmmakers make a point of being convincing enough without going overboard. Bad filmmakers, particularly the pseudo-arty “avante garde” ones, can’t make a convincing film, so they try hard for confusing. That way, there will always be a percentage of Intellectual Snobs who defend the movie, and say that the film-going public just “doesn’t get it.”
In the case of Boxing Helena, director Jennifer Chambers Lynch tried confusing us. Jennifer is the daughter of cult filmmaker David Lynch, the mind behind Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and TV’s Twin Peaks. Jennifer Lynch tried to capture the disturbing, mysterious quality of his films. D. Lynch has had his misfires too (the box-office disaster Dune), and even his best work certainly isn’t for everyone.
Still, in my humble opinion, he does have his moments, and at his best, his films are disturbing, mysterious, perverse, but fun. Daughter Jennifer tried to copy this mood, but it comes off as just being mean-spirited, pretentious, ludicrous. She tried confusing us, but actually only ended up convincing us. She convinced us that talent skips a generation. And nobody went around saying that people didn’t get it. Though it is true most of them didn’t get it, because they wisely stayed away.
In fact, one of the people who stayed away was the film’s original star, Kim Basinger. At the time she was one of Hollywood’s beautiful people. Attractive, sexy, and she had a string of commercially (though perhaps not critically) successful hits. For Lynch’s purpose (however flawed), she needed a beautiful starlet type, and Basinger would have been a considerable draw for film fans. Basinger, thinking who knows what, agreed to do the film.
Then she read the script.
It was only a verbal contract, and Basinger wanted out. Then she decided she was out, contract be damned. The makers of the film sued her, and they won. It cost Basinger $8.1 million (the initial settlement) to get out of this movie. The lawsuit, and various counter-suits and appeals, was a serious blow to Basinger’s career. (Well, The Marrying Man and The Real McCoy didn’t help either.) Bad movie or no, Hollywood frowns on people who break contracts. For most of the mid to late ’90s, Basinger had no substantial work, and actually declared bankruptcy at one point. Recently, she is showing signs of a comeback with her role in LA Confidential. But before this, prospects were pretty dim for Kim.
The scary thing about all this is that it was the right decision. Few people ever spent $8.1 million more wisely. As hard as it is to believe, more damage would have been done to Basinger’s career if she’d stayed in this movie. How bad is it? Well, it helps to remember that Madonna was also suggested for the part, but didn’t bite. This from a woman who cheerfully appeared in Shanghai Surprise and Body of Evidence. You know your movie is in real trouble when it fails the Madonna acid test.
And all of this legal wrangling back and forth, careers set back, good actors embarrassed–all for a dubious (and possibly offensive) premise with a truly moronic ending, symbolism that’s as subtle as a punch to the head, occasionally idiotic dialogue, and plenty of arty scenes and themes that don’t enlighten anyone.
Our movie opens with a flashback as the credits roll. The scene is a fancy party at a large home. A little boy is wandering through the well-dressed guests. He calls for his father who is sitting at a desk, apparently away from the party. The father doesn’t turn around. Instead, he jabs his finger in the air. Hard. So hard, it’s a wonder plaster doesn’t fall from the ceiling. Little boy gets cold-shouldered by Daddy. Little Boy turns around to meet a guest. The guest gushes about what a wonderful doctor and all round good fellow his father is, and how he expects Little Boy will follow in his footsteps. Hmm…I wonder if Little Boy will grow up resenting his parents?
“Remember the family motto,” says the guest, looking like a child molester. “Hard work and persistence will get you anything in the world that you want.” Yeah. That and a daddy who’s a big name director.
Little Boy wanders off. The camera pans artfully across the party, taking in various guests. Two well-dressed women observe Little Boy. One asks who he is. The other identifies him as the son of Marion Cavanaugh. “That’s funny,” the first remarks, “she never mentioned having any children.” Hmm…I wonder if Little Boy will grow up resenting his parents?
Still on the same wandering shot, we also notice a statue of Venus, with her arms missing. This won’t be the last time we see that statue. Then at last we came to a halt on a young woman, flirting with a man. The woman is Mommy, Marion Cavanaugh (Meg Register). Mommy looks very unthrilled to see her son. Hmm…I wonder if Little Boy will grow up resenting his parents? Mommy incidentally looks suspiciously young. Fade to black.
Low key beginning so far, eh? Oh, things are just warming up.
Fade up on a coffin being lowered into a grave. The scene is shot from behind the coffin, and as it lowers, we gradually see Little Boy all grown up, into Doctor Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands). Before the coffin is completely lowered, Nick marches away from the grave. (Hmm…I think Doctor Nick resents his parents)
Doctor Nick is returning to his car when his beeper goes off. At his car, he picks up his cell phone (Why have both? Why not just the cell phone? Guess he’s one of those techno guys that has to have every gadget). An odd little dialogue ensues.
“This is Doctor Cavanaugh…yes…what was the mechanism of injury? …any blood flow to the hand? I’ll be there in three minutes.”
‘Mechanism of injury’? The medical babble in the following scenes is more convincing.
At the hospital, Doctor Nick gets suited up for surgery. Out of the OR comes Doctor Alan Palmer (Kurtwood Smith). Palmer is informed that Doctor Nick will be taking over the surgery. Palmer doesn’t look too happy. He says “I thought the funeral was today.” Nick replies “What’s dead is dead,” and goes into the OR without further comment. Hmm…I think Doctor Nick resents his parents, and while we’re on the subject, was Jennifer Lynch trying to send some kind of subtle message to hers?
Doctor Nick comes out a short while later. “Let’s see if we can’t spread some good news.” I guess the operation was a success.
Nick drives out to the house. Looking around, he sees photos of what looks like a glamorous model…possibly Mom. Mom seems to have been perpetually 22 until the day she died. Nick slowly climbs the stairs. Suddenly, it’s a little boy’s hand on the banister. How arty! Now in a flashback, we slowly climb the stairs from Little Nick’s point of view. Gradually, Mom’s room comes into view. A satisfied customer is leaving. Seeing Nick, she marches out on to the landing. She’s mostly naked, and slaps an ashtray on the banister. It echoes ominously through the house, aided by the SFX boys. “You were watching me weren’t you?” she demands.
Now at this point, we get a good look at her (I mean we can better asses her age. Honest) and it reinforces suspicions that she may be a little young. Actually, she looks like she might have auditioned for Baywatch, but couldn’t keep up with their acting standards (she has about three lines in the movie, and all of them come out cheeseball). Okay, so Daddy was an irritable stiff, Mommy was uncaring and a tramp. What effect might it have on the grown-up Doctor Nick? I think he might grow up resenting…
Jump back to the present. Doctor Nick goes to a bar to meet up with a pal, Doctor Lawrence Augustine (How literary!). Doctor Larry is played by none other than Art Garfunkle. Hey, isn’t nice to see him finding some work? Fans of Ken’s work will know about The Embarrassed Actor Seriesâ„¢. Art actually does qualify, having done decently with an appearance in Carnal Knowledge, starring Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen.
Art also qualifies for something I’d like to introduce right now: The From Bad to Worse Actor Factorâ„¢. Art is of course formerly of singing duo Simon and Garfunkle. When they split up, Simon went on to a successful solo career, and well, Garfunkle didn’t. Here, his career continues its downward spiral. His only saving grace is that there is so much to hate about this movie that there’s no way anyone is going to blame it on him. In fact, few people are likely to remember him, specifically.
Anyhoo, Doctor Larry congratulates Doctor Nick for making “history in surgery” earlier in the day. That’s an odd comment. What exactly was wrong with Nick’s patient is only vaguely explained, but it is hinted that his hand was nearly severed off (this would also kind of tie in with some of the later events of the movie). Reattaching limbs is a gruesome business, but doctors do it all the time. Or did Doctor Nick set some kind of record for reattaching hands? (“That’s 4,212! Three more than the previous world record holder! Call Guinness!”)
A sharp giggle cuts through the conversation. Through a crowd of people, we spot the title character, Helena. Nick spots her too, and he doesn’t look happy about it. The camera zooms in on Nick, and ominous music plays. “We’ve got to get out of here,” cries Doctor Nick, perhaps feeling the same urge that Kim Basinger did. “Lawrence, let’s go. She’s here.”
Helena is played by Sherilyn Fenn, who is a friend of Jennifer’s Daddy. She starred in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as Audrey Van Horne. Fenn doesn’t quite qualify for the Embarrassed Actor Series, as her career never quite made it to respectability. I must confess I am a fan of Twin Peaks (well, about half of it, anyway) and I enjoyed watching her in it. She’s been in a string of bad movies and B-movies though, so while she’s probably earning a decent living in direct to video projects and the occasional role in the mainstream, she’s a far cry from a spot on the A-list. She seems to blow her chances of making it there by starring in movies…why, like this one right here, as a matter of fact.
In this scene, Helena seems happy and is smiling. Take a good look, after this it’s mostly screaming and cursing.
Doctor Nick hurriedly gets up and goes to a phone. He calls Anne, his girlfriend. He announces his intention to move into mother’s old house. Then he and Larry leave. Outside, he asks “Do you think she ever thinks about me?” Larry ask if it matters. Nick smiles weakly and says “No.” There. We’re all convinced.
Doc heads home, where girlfriend Anne Garrett (Betsy Clark ) is unloading some shopping. “Hi sweetheart, I just got here too,” she says, showing the scriptwriter’s talent for seamlessly integrated expository dialogue. The two discuss dinner plans, and Nick says he’d like to go for a jog first.
Doctor Nick ends up jogging by Helena’s house. He goes up to her door, but doesn’t have the courage to knock. Instead, he decides to spy on her, and climbs a tree. Cue music. The song that plays is “Woman in Chains” by Tears for Fears. Subtle. In the window, Helena is sipping booze from a glass. Her room is lit with candles, her window wide open, the drapes swaying moodily in the wind. Conveniently, she removes her blouse, exposing her bra. The camera takes a moment to study her body closely. Of course, she doesn’t see Nick. Suddenly, her lover comes into frame. Now we meet our Embarrassed Actor #2–Bill Paxton.
Paxton isn’t a huge star, but has a solid career and some commercial and critical hit movies on his resume–Aliens (Hudson), Apollo 13 (Fred Haise) and the male lead in Twister. Paxton is a James Cameron regular, so he’s been with the prestige, and as long as Cameron keep cranking out movies like Titanic, Paxton will never have to worry about good work. Here, he plays Helena’s extra-macho boyfriend Ray O’Malley. At the appearance of Ray, the soundtrack turns sour. Mind you, the song “Woman in Chains” is still playing at this point. So we have two completely different musical tracks playing at once. Uh, interesting choice. Lynch will take another opportunity to whack us over the head with the soundtrack later.
The sight of Helena having sex with Ray is too much for Doctor Nick. He runs away. Images of him running and Helena and Ray are inter-cut. The only thing that’s missing from this sequence for Bad Movie Fans is the repetition of dialogue from earlier in the movie with an eerie echo effect (patience). [Actually, they also skip showing the other character’s heads rotating in a circle, ala The Lonely Lady – Intrusive Editor Ken] On the soundtrack we do get to hear him moaning in agony. Or maybe that was me.
Nick finds a phone booth and calls Doctor Larry. He begs him to tell him how he can get Helena back. He’s asking Doctor Larry? I don’t mean to be cruel, but Doctor Larry doesn’t exactly look like Don Juan. In fact, Garfunkle has an odd hairstyle in this movie. He’s got curly hair and a large bald spot. If he kept his hair short it would look okay, but his hair is long. It looks like he’s trying to grow two different afros in two different directions. Nick must really be out of it if he thinks Larry can give advice on how to win her back.
As it happens, Larry doesn’t even think that Nick should even try. He tells Nick not to see her any more, and forget about her. Further dialogue reveals that Nick and Helena slept together just once, but in case you didn’t notice the hysteria, the spying, and the stalking, Nick is still obsessed with her. Now, I should point out something unusual about this phone booth. It seems to be rotating. Is Nick on some weird Disney ride? Oh wait, that’s just the camera winding around and around the phone booth. What function does it serve? Dunno, but it sure looks arty. Pass the pork rinds, Zeke.
After hearing Larry’s advice, Nick pretends to cheer up and tells Larry not to worry about him. But in the next scene, he’s making a note to Helena at a florist’s. We soon discover that the cashier knows him by name, and reveals he has an account! You know, I think the Doctor is obsessed.
The Doctor waits by Helena’s house. Inter-cutting shows Anne putting away dinner. This was all one evening? The pacing seems off. When Nick gets home, she’s asleep on the couch. Now you’d think that Anne might want a little explanation for his absence, but the subject is never raised.
Next, Doctor Nick tries calling Helena on the phone. First, he practices. “Hello Helena, it’s Nick, how are you?” This may have been meant to be humorous. After a few practice pitches, he dials.
Cut to Helena’s apartment. Might I ask what Helena does for a living? She seems well set up and has a full bar in her bedroom (!), but there’s no indication of what she does for a living. Oh well, never mind. Helena and Ray are having sex again. Well, as I mentioned earlier, the timing of the last batch of scenes is off, so it’s possible that they’re still having sex (Now that’s endurance!).
The phone rings for awhile, and eventually Helena is annoyed enough to pick it up. Nick loses his courage though, and can’t speak to her. Helena snaps “hello” into the phone a few times, then slams the receiver down. The mood spoiled, she gets up. Helena thoughtfully observes that the caller is “fucking rude.” If she gets this riled from a phone call during sex, I guess her partner isn’t very good at holding her attention.
Now Helena and Ray get into a fight. They use terms and language that make you wonder if people really talk like that in the scriptwriter’s world (see IMMORTAL DIALOGUE). In a nutshell, Ray wants to continue to have sex. She doesn’t. He’s lying on the bed, naked. The scene is shot from behind Helena’s bar, and a strategically placed bottle prevents us from seeing anything. Interesting. Jennifer Lynch lets the audience see most of the female stars naked, but never goes full frontal with the men.
“Come back to Daddy,” Ray leeringly invites. Not with that early ’80s feathered haircut, Ray. Helena informs Ray that he “bores” her. “Check please,” says Ray in disgust (now there’s a stinging put-down. Way to maintain cool points Ray), then he gets dressed and takes off.
This scene also exposes one of the film’s larger flaws. Apparently, the good Doctor is a masochist. Helena is beautiful, but she is such a bitch it’s impossible to tell what he sees in her. Helena may just be the biggest bitch ever presented on film. She could take Leona Helmsley, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Shannon Doherty on all at once and leave them gasping for air, then have Joan Crawford for dessert without breaking a sweat. If Helena isn’t being cold enough to store ice cream in her, then she’s shouting down someone like a dragon spewing flame.
After Ray leaves, Helena picks up the phone and calls a local liquor store. She orders “vodka, a bottle of Rose’s lime juice, and two large pomegranates.” Plot point!
Soon, Doctor Nick is making party arrangements. We see him making phone calls, inviting guests. He has a notepad of names, and has written “Helena” in large letters several times. As he talks on the phone, he makes a big box around her name. Hmm…I think the Doctor is obsessed, and I have this theory about how he feels about his parents.
Back at Helena’s apartment, Helena is chatting on the phone, when in walks Ray. Ray, doing his “potential psycho schtick” informs Helena that she shouldn’t keep the door unlocked. “It isn’t safe,” he says. He’s wearing what looks to be a pair of black leather or vinyl pants, and a ridiculous mesh shirt. I think he’s supposed to be one of those macho Latin or Mediterranean-type boyfriends. You know, some kind of Spanish or Italian in his blood. Problem: his name is Ray O’Malley and though he tries to act like a macho Latin type, he looks like…well, Bill Paxton wearing a ridiculous mesh shirt. To quote one of his lines in Aliens “We’re on an express elevator to hell! Goin’ down!” Goin’ down is right.
Helena is cold to him again (that script sure gives her an opportunity to show dramatic range, eh?). She tells Ray that she’s going to a party, and isn’t going to go out with him. He doesn’t believe her, and selects a dress for her to wear. What a possessive jerk, eh? Kinda like a certain Doctor we know (really, how is Ray supposed to be any different from Nick, who is supposedly her true love?). Helena puts him down again. Ray sees she’s got a suitcase, and Helena tells him that she’s going to Mexico after the party. Ray gets more and more menacing, with his eyes bugging out, suggesting that Paxton went to the Al Pacino School of Psychos in preparation for this role. Eventually, he gets fed up. “Hasta whatever,” he mutters, before he leaves. That’s telling her.
Soon, we’re at the party where Nick anxiously and obviously awaits Helena. Doctor Larry congratulates Nick on a lovely party. And so does Russell (Bryan Smith). Who’s Russell? A clumsily-introduced character who tells Nick it’s a lovely party, asks if that’s a full bar down there, and then says he’s going to it. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the actor or the direction or the script, but Russell couldn’t look more awkward if he were wearing a full diving suit in this scene. He’s an important character though, because he’s the scarf guy. More on him later.
The belle of the ball soon arrives, and instantly Doctor Nick is fawning all over her. While that’s going on we see a brief aside of Anne, chatting with a friend. “I’ll bet he’s going to pop the question on you soon,” says Anne’s friend. “What else could all this be for?” Ho ho, what laughter results of knowing things that the characters don’t! Chuckle chuckle.
Meanwhile, Nick follows Helena through the party. She’s said maybe three words to him, and looked at him twice. Meanwhile, he’s been babbling and toadying. If there was any doubt, it’s official now. We don’t like Doctor Nick. As Helena will observe throughout the movie, he’s pathetic. Not sympathetic. In fact, none of the major characters are likable. None of them have any visible redeeming qualities to carry the story. And nobody will go through any kind of (believable) transition to become a better person. Sorry folks, this is as good as it gets.
And, having seen Doctor Nick act like such a doormat around Helena, it’s no wonder she treats him so badly. He is irritating. You’ll want to kick him yourself. Hilariously, as he scrapes and bows after her as she wanders into the party (looks kinda like the one Mommy threw at the beginning), Helena gets annoyed, and says “Look, if you’re going to follow me around, hold this,” and stuffs a scarf in his hands. Amazingly, he thanks her. Then he passes it to Doctor Larry, and takes off after her again.
Much to Nick’s chagrin, Russell and Helena spot each other, and are soon making eyes. Russell takes the scarf, and goes to make conversation while Nick boils. Then, Russell puts on the scarf. Poor Nick! Oh, the humiliation!
Time for a “Swear I’m Not Making This Up” scene. Helena strips down to her lingerie, and as Russell, Nick, and most of the party watches, she walks into a large elaborate fountain. She begins to…I dunno, I guess she’s showering.
“Who is she?” asks Anne, seeing the spectacle.
“She’s…” gulps Doctor Nick, “Helena.” Right, thanks Doctor. Anne looks on, stunned, wearing the expression I’ve had on my face for about half an hour now.
This self-indulgent scene continues as Helena showers while “aaahhing” music plays, and the camera makes close-ups on Helena’s body. Slow mo? You bet. Auteur! Auteur!
Meanwhile, Anne hasn’t failed to notice the attention Nick is giving Helena. The Doctor can’t watch any more (we sympathize), and dashes off. Doctor Nick goes to change his shirt (he does that a lot in this movie for some reason), and Doctor Larry confronts him. He asks why Nick invited her. Then, Anne arrives for her confrontation. Overhearing that Nick invited Helena, she demands to know if Nick is sleeping with her. Now, perhaps she’s supposed to be paranoid, but she really is jumping to conclusions. All she knows is that he invited her, and was staring at her. Why on Earth would he stare at her? She was only showering in his fountain. Oddly, Doctor Nick declines to answer.
Meanwhile, Russell and Helena make plans to go somewhere “neat.” That’s erotic. Russell asks what Helena is doing at the party, and says “A little boy named Nick invited me.” Gosh, she’s so mean to that creepy little turd. Russell breaks in on the confrontation between Anne and Nick, and says that they’re leaving. “She’s leaving?” whines Doctor Nick. Anne gets mad and leaves herself. “Oh, come on Helena,” he yells after her.
“It’s Anne, Nick,” she blurts, and leaves. Oh, I get it. Her name is Anne, but he called her Helena, offending her. Thanks Scriptwriter, for that extra line to explain things.
The Doctor goes to the front door to watch Helena leave, which she does in slow mo. He has flashbacks of her coming on to him, and whispering to the camera. Her distorted giggle cuts the air. We see her look back at him, Russell’s arm around her, them walking away…Go already! They’ve been leaving for ten minutes now!
Okay, so we know Helena hates the Doctor. Why then, did she go to this little soiree? Is she thinking “Oh look, an invitation to Doctor Cavanaugh’s place. I think he’s a nerdy little creep, so I’ll just go, shower publicly in his fountain, then leave.” Frankly honey, most women wanting to snub him just would not have gone.
The next day, Helena leaves a message on Doctor Nick’s phone. It seems she forgot her purse, and orders him to deliver it to her at the airport. She warns him not to look at the contents. “Don’t be Curious George, Nicholas,” she says, but as we pan away from the phone, we see that he already has the contents of the purse spread out in front of him. Obsessed, do you think? Helena takes another little stab at him. “Russell says hi,” she adds nastily.
Never to let the object of his obsession down, the Doctor drives out to the airport. He doesn’t get out of his car right away, but instead plays with the mirrors to get a look at Helena’s legs, which are marching right towards him. Why not look directly at her? Because then we couldn’t have these swell camera angles. Although Helena is bearing down on him like an SS Trooper, he still seems surprised when she screams “Give me my purse!” and rips it out of his hands. Seems our Doctor is running late, and forced Helena to miss her flight, something she’s getting a might testy about.
She gets even angrier when she discovers her address book is missing. The Doctor meekly says that it must still be at the house, but he doesn’t know what it looks like. She will have to accompany him. She hurls more abuse at him. “Then you’re coming?” he asks hopefully. Oh God, what a drip. What Helena needs her address book for in Mexico isn’t explained, but I suppose its plausible that she just wants to get it away from this creep as soon as possible.
Our next shot shows them pulling up to the house. We hear Doctor Nick’s voice say “Here we are at the house, Helena. I’m so glad I got to tell you that story in such depth and detail.” Ken’s World of Awful Movies would like to extend its deepest gratitude to director Jennifer Lynch for not filming that scene.
Inside the car, Helena is massaging her temples. You know, although Helena is not a likable person, at least she has some attitude. Are we really supposed to identify or sympathize with this toady Doctor Nick? We rarely see Helena when she’s not around a colossal jerk like Ray O’Malley or Nick Cavanaugh. No wonder she’s so abrasive. This double-team would make Mother Theresa irritable. Perhaps this explains why as she massages her temples I was thinking “Yeah, no kidding.”
Inside the house, Doctor Nick offers to go find the book while Helena waits and has a drink. Ah, but a moment ago he said he didn’t know what it looked like! For some reason (most likely to do with the script) Helena doesn’t pick up on this. Between rejecting his offers for lunch, she studies a bust of Venus, sans limbs.
Eventually, she loses patience with the Doctor’s bootlicking. She tells him in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t want anything to do with him. “Wasn’t last night enough?” she asks. Ah, so that was deliberate. Even Doctor Nick flinches at this (“Houston, we have comprehension!”). The logical thing to do at this point–since it’s obvious Helena doesn’t want Nick and we can’t really see what so fine about her that he’s gotta have her–would be to just forget her. That would be the logical thing. Instead, the movie continues.
Finally, Nick lifts a serving hood from a table to reveal the address book. Helena snatches the book and storms out of the house. The Doctor whines at her not to be angry. He takes off in pursuit, trying to cool her down. She walks down a hill, turns to face him, then backs out on to the road.
A truck screeches around the corner. Now, from the way this is filmed, it is brutally obvious that Helena has plenty of time to get out of the way. It is equally obvious that the driver has both time and room to swerve around her. But the truck hits her. After all, if it misses her we’ll miss all that clever symbolism and original ending. The impact doesn’t send her flying, and it doesn’t kill her (the speed of the truck indicates it should do both). Instead, we see the truck run over a plaster cast of her legs. Fade to black.
Fade up on the hospital. The staff is discussing Doctor Nick’s absence. He hasn’t been by in a few days, and they’re worried he’s left them for another hospital (philandering surgeons?). Seems strange they’d think this. If he was going to leave, wouldn’t he simply tender his resignation? Wouldn’t a prolonged absence indicate that something’s rotten in Denmark?
Anyway, Doctor Palmer decides to swing by Doctor Nick’s place, in the hopes of getting recommended for his position. When he arrives, the house is oddly quiet. The phone is unplugged, and the cord wrapped around it. Bum-bum-buuuuummmm!
Doctor Nick greets him with “Alan, what a beautiful day.” They engage in some meaningless conversation about Nick’s job. Suddenly, there is a noise in the back. Nick rushes through a set of doors and we see Helena, doped up, and dressed in lingerie, lying in a bed. “Helena, did you want to hear music?” asks Nick. Yes Doc, that’s why she knocked the radio on the floor. Although it isn’t overtly apparent yet, Helena’s legs have been amputated.
The amputation of Helena’s limbs are the movie’s big gimmick. And this raises some obvious questions. Just how did the Doctor operate on Helena from his house? Did mother keep a mad-scientist’s lab in the basement? Where did he get the equipment? I suppose he could have gotten it if he really wanted to. Helena seems remarkably healthy and strong after such a traumatic event. How did she recover so quickly? Where exactly did the…uh…pieces go? Stuffed in a Hefty bag and dropped on the curb? Perhaps because she wants to display a rare bit of decorum, or because it would force her to explain things properly, Lynch does not show the how of this situation. Not that I’m complaining.
At the sight of Helena, Palmer is shocked, and wants to get her to a hospital. Nick protests that everything is okay, he’s taking care of Helena. Palmer points out that it’s not that simple, seeming to touch on the fact the situation is what most people would call unethical and illegal. Nick says it is that simple, and that he will resign his position to take care of her, and recommend Palmer for the job. Amazingly, Palmer seems to accept this answer, though it doesn’t really fit his point.
Nick insists Helena is happy here. “A woman like Helena wouldn’t survive in a hospital with all those constant reminders of her loss.” As opposed to staying in a house with a man she hates with constant reminders of her loss (it’s really hard to disguise the fact you have no legs, regardless of where you are). Palmer is far from convinced (and so is the audience), but with a letter of recommendation promised, he reluctantly agrees to keep quiet. “I was never here,” he says before leaving.
This is the first of many conversations, situations and characterizations following the accident that just don’t ring true. We don’t know Palmer well enough, and in order to accept that he is either too wrapped up in climbing the career ladder or too wishy-washy to do anything about this, we need to. However, discussions like these are negated by the single most ludicrous part of this movie–the ending, which we will get to in due time.
Doctor Nick goes in to attend to Helena, while Sherilyn Fenn goes for an Oscar® moment. Helena is freaking out, saying over and over again “It’s a dream.” Doctor Nick says that she looks beautiful in order to comfort her. Nice bedside manner, Doc. “Well Mr. Smith, your spine is severed in three different places, you’ll never walk again, but hey you old devil, you still got your rugged good looks!” Soon Helena decides her legs are burning, and it’s all just a dream. Interesting comment, in light of later information.
Later, the Doctor tries to bring her a wheelchair. Helena freaks at the sight of it, and orders him to get out. She rails on him. If he hadn’t been late going to the airport, she wouldn’t be here. Her hatred wells up, and she lashes out with the vilest language ever heard on film. She calls her captor (women and children leave the room please)….”stupid” and “incompetent.” I imagine at this point, all the pimps and construction workers must have fled the theater in shock.
The Doctor growls “At least you’re still alive,” the first time he actually asserts himself in this movie. Pity it was for a really idiotic observation. He helpfully left lots of breakables in reach, which Helena throws at him, and he retreats from the room. On the other side of the door, he spots a bird, fluttering agitated in its cage. Well hit me with the symbolism two-by-four.
Others drop by looking for Nick, including Doctor Larry, who stays just long enough to note the pile of uncollected newspapers before leaving. Never mind the outside world, we’re here for the battle of wits between Helena and Nick. Finding him glancing at arty pictures of her (Where did these come from? Did she give him her model portfolio before the one time they slept together?) she calls him “Pathetic.”
The Doc petulantly explains that he loves her and wants to care for her. “I won’t let you care for me,” she replies. “No one ever has, and no one ever will.” This line of self-pity sounds so alien coming from Helena’s mouth that she might as well be speaking Klingon. Up until now, we’ve seen no sign of emotional weaknesses or poor self-esteem. And Sherilyn Fenn delivers the line in such a way as to suggest that Helena sees no need to have anyone care for her. If we knew her better, it might make sense. But character development isn’t a strong suit here, so let’s get into the hissy fits.
Snapping, the Doctor shoves Helena’s wheelchair on to the back porch. He challenges her to scream for help. Apparently, the nearest house is well out of range. It’s pouring rain and they both get soaked. Helena suddenly turns soft, and invites Doctor Nick closer. He stops shouting at her, and takes the bait. As soon as he’s close enough, Helena slaps him, then starts screaming for help. The Doctor wheels her back into the house. To bastardize a quote from another awful romance movie, Love Story, “Love means never having to scream for help.”
A while later, we get another scene of Doctor Nick abuse. Helena decides to recall their sexual encounter. “You know I never had an orgasm when I was with you,” she says conversationally. “Not one.” Uhmm…I’m not sure what kind of lovers Helena usually has, but they slept together once. Not everyone gets multi-orgasmic from one encounter. Apparently, Doctor Nick was very nervous and had to be told what to do. And he was shaking. “Shaky, shaky, shaky,” says the eloquent amputee.
“I was afraid,” he whines.
“You still should be,” she retorts.
“I only wanted to make you feel good.”
“You haven’t the faintest idea on how to make me feel good.”
And she has a point, but he still doesn’t get it, so the movie continues with Helena taunting Nick some more. She says she knows his secrets. That makes him panic. She can hear him moaning and crying, and “jerking off” apparently. Thanks for sharing that with us. Now there’s a mental picture I’m really thrilled to have. The Doctor calls Helena “sick.” There’s no apparent irony in this scene (or this movie, and it really needs it). He says he doesn’t want to talk about it that way, and she responds “Maybe that’s why you don’t f*ck that way.” Close examination of these words and what she’s trying to get at only make you end up feeling as crazy as Doctor Nick, so don’t bother. Doctor Nick, needless to say, looks ready to burst. In the kitchen, a kettle begins steaming. Symbolism!
Cutaway for a quick plot point. Ray is searching for Helena. He goes to meet Sam the liquor man, and bribes him to keep an eye out for any information that might lead him to her.
Cut back to our two love birds eating dinner. Suddenly, someone’s at the door. Helena shouts for help, and the Doctor hurriedly gags her. Now as he stumbles around, she has plenty of time to remove the gag. I mean, plenty. Instead of doing that and screaming, she tries to roll her wheelchair to the front door. At one point, she almost succeeds in wheeling out in full view of Anne, the visitor.
Anne ducks down to pick something up, just missing Helena. The Doctor grabs the wheelchair and drags her out of sight, finally securing her arms. If Helena had pulled out the gag and screamed her head off, there is no way Anne would have missed her. Of course if that happened, they’re would be no movie, an attractive notion at this point. Anne finds the spare key and lets herself in. The Doctor nervously goes to greet her. Anne wants to reconcile, and begins to come on to Nick.
Next follows one of the most unintentionally hilarious movie scenes I have ever had the pleasure to witness. It reminds me of a story I once heard about Aerosmith. During the early ’80s, the band was pretty messed up on drugs and alcohol. They released an album called “Rock and a Hard Place” which featured a Stonehenge-like structure on the cover. Sadly, the rock and roll satire This is Spinal Tap was in theaters (see that movie to understand the irony). Lead singer Steve Tyler says he “freaked” when he saw Spinal Tap, and that he took it personally.
Well, if Jennifer Lynch ever sees Top Secret!, an Airplane!-style spoof of spy movies and Elvis flicks, she’s gonna freak too.
What happens? Nick and Anne embrace and kiss passionately. She gets down on her knees to Perform a Personal Service for Himâ„¢ (this is the Official Ken’s World of Awful Movies Euphemism for “Oral Sex”). In the darkness, a gagged Helena watches, seemingly intrigued. Is she turned on? Hard to say. She’s not giggling, so presumably she hasn’t seen Top Secret! either.
They prepare to have sex on the floor, but the Doctor hallucinates, and sees Helena instead of Anne removing her sweater. “Helena” makes a lewd suggestion. He uh…misfires, and Anne comforts him. This is where I started howling. Her dialogue is almost identical to dialogue from a scene in Top Secret!, where we are led to believe that stars Val Kilmer and Lucy Gutteridge have just attempted intimacy, but Kilmer got a little too excited too fast.
We hear Gutteridge telling Kilmer it’s okay, that it happens to lots of men. It turns out that she’s only reading a passage from a book (see IMMORTAL DIALOGUE). She then says “Can you believe they print this trash?” (Hey! Maybe Lucy is reading the book version of Boxing Helena!) To see a “serious” art film accidentally copy the dialogue of a movie parody is just too much, and really doesn’t help us take the film as seriously as its creator apparently does.
They recover in the living room, when suddenly the phone rings. “Did you do that?” Nick asks Anne. This raises a giggle. You hope she replies “Yes. I made the phone ring. I dialed telepathically.” He’s actually asking if she plugged the phone back into the wall, and the script has her make an intuitive leap. “Yeah, I thought it came unplugged,” she replies.
How did she know what he was talking about? It’s always a sign of a bad script when the characters make leaps of intuition like that. A more appropriate response would have been “Do what?” or “No, I’m sitting right here, you moron.” Nick tells Anne that he doesn’t want to be around her. Unlike everyone else in this movie, Anne takes a hint, and leaves.
After she’s gone, Nick makes a phone call. This appears to be the same phone Doctor Palmer saw earlier, when it was wrapped with its cord (Anne thought it accidentally came unplugged?). Since Helena apparently has the run of this floor, why hasn’t she plugged the phone back in and called for help? Maybe Nick’s right, she’s just being coy and doesn’t really want to escape. Or maybe the script is glossing over obvious details like this. Hmm…
Doctor Nick sends flowers to Helena’s apartment, where Ray finds them. A message on the card hints that the Doctor doesn’t know where she is either. The Doctor has no time to congratulate himself on his clever ruse. It’s time to face Helena, and she’s just seen him fail to perform. Hoo boy. You can hear the axe being sharpened.
Helena calls him a “joke.” She observes that Doctor Nick must have spent most of his life being ashamed (“Psst! Helena! It’s true! And he grew up resenting his parents!”) Apparently, a similar misfire happened during Helena’s encounter. Helena timed his encounter with Anne–three seconds by her watch. Apparently he’s improving–she claims he lasted a good two seconds with her. “You don’t understand, I love you,” he wails. Uh, that’s not the point she’s making, Nick.
He further offers up this interesting tidbit. “If you were a real woman, you’d lie to me about our sex. The other women lie all the time.” Whoa. Now according to the credits, Jennifer Lynch also co-wrote the script. It’s hard to believe that she endorses this particular view, so we can only conclude that she too is aware that Doctor Nick is a complete whiny creep. Why then, is she forcing us to spend 105 minutes with him? And with other characters we don’t like?
Helena tells him that people lie to respect other people’s feelings because they love them, but she doesn’t care about his feelings. “Why lie?” she barks. She tries to throttle him. Cue scary music. Momentarily, he sees his mother strangling him. Now we’re presented with evidence that Nick associates Helena with his mother. It was hinted at earlier. Why, he might even indirectly see winning Helena as a symbolic way of winning his mother’s love. Wow. No film-maker’s ever made that association before. He breaks free of Helena’s grip.
Helena will regret that attempt on his life. But before that, we get a little montage to show the passage of time. We see Nick watching a video tape of the fountain scene (when did he make that?) and listening to opera. Then, we see him skipping rope to keep in shape. He runs into his room, and there’s his mother. “Nicholas, you have done a very, very bad thing,” she whispers. You know, I hope David Lynch creeps up and down the halls of the Lynch mansion whispering “Jennifer, you’ve done a very bad thing.”
Finally, Nick is with Helena again, giving her some medication. His back is to us, and she is hidden. He pulls away, to reveal that Helena now has no arms–apparently amputated by Doctor Nick. This scene is filmed in such a matter of fact way, it’s hard to know how to react. If this was a psychological thriller, it would have been a high point of horror. If it was a David Lynch movie, it would be filmed in such a way that you wouldn’t know whether to laugh or scream. As it stands, you just sit there wondering what you’re supposed to make of all this, and then you contemplate taking a shower to get the movie off your skin. Helena seems to know what to do. She begins giggling hysterically. This scene goes on, and on, and on…
Later, Doctor Nick returns from a jog. When he returns, Helena snaps “Don’t you ever leave me alone here again.” Without limbs, she’s totally dependent on him. She insists that nothing’s changed, and that someone will eventually find out what he’s done. “Ray will kill you,” she informs him. Missing the point again, the Doctor says that none of Helena’s other men ever cared for her, but he does, he will take care of her, and he loves her.
“You don’t love me,” she snaps. “I think you can’t be a man without me.” Actually, not a bad observation.
“But I have you,” replies the Doctor. So, have we made up our mind to make this a psychological thriller, or a warped love story, Miss Director? Can’t have it both ways.
Before the scene ends, Helena glares at a bird in a cage, the bird glares back. Symbolism! You know, the bird may not resent its cage so much as being in this movie.
Later, we see Nick removing an eyelash, which has fallen just above Helena’s cheek. He shows her the eyelash and says “Make a wish?” She deadpans, “They never come true.” “Mine has,” he says cheerfully, and blows the hair off his fingertips. Has anyone else heard of this method of making a wish? Never mind. I just find it difficult to think that if a genie granted Doctor Nick three wishes, one of them would be for a limbless woman who hates him. I shudder to think what the other two might be.
Okay, time for the wig-out scene. While the Doctor orders a prescription, Helena calls him several times, loudly. When he finally gets off the phone and asks her what she wants, she says “Nothing.” Then, the phone rings. There’s some discussion over whether real men answer the phone or something (don’t ask and make me recount this scene, please!) then finally, Nick picks it up. Apparently, it’s Doctor Larry. He says that Helena’s here, and then asks if he wants to talk to her. Amazingly, he offers the phone to Helena. She immediately screams that she’s a prisoner, but the line is dead. “I hate you,” she spits.
“I don’t hate you,” he replied. “I seem to know you better all the time.” Yes, you’re one smart cookie, Doc. You used your amazing deductive powers to determine that Helena would attempt to call attention to her plight. “I wish you were dead,” she says. Amen, sister. Testify.
Nick says that if he dies, she dies, and they ruin everything they have together. Needless to say, this doesn’t win Helena over. She expresses doubts over the severity of her accident, wondering if the original amputation wasn’t necessary. “How can I ever look at myself again and think of myself as something worthwhile?” she sobs. You know, for all Helena’s bitchiness, we never saw any indication she was vain. It makes perfect sense that she might be hysterical over losing her limbs, but I think that she’s stuck in a house with the maniacal creep that did this might take precedence over whether or not she can get a date.
The Doctor gets out a gun. He puts the gun to his head and offers to kill himself if it will make her happy. She shrieks “No.” Next, he offers to kill her. She declines both offers. This done, he collapses in what’s left of her lap.
As bad movie fans know, the wig-out scene is immediately followed by the getting along scene. The characters involved in the wig-out scene suddenly like each other. The conflict and hatred becomes cooperation and love. Yes, we’ve seen nothing to indicate that Helena didn’t want the Doctor to kill himself because she might starve to death, helpless. It seems more logical that she still wants to live regardless, and that’s why she didn’t want anyone to take a bullet. This movie would have us believe that she’s now beginning to fall in love with Doctor Nick. That’s ludicrous in itself, but even more so in the way this idea is presented.
“You really are that frightened about everything. Women, me, yourself,” she says, and a pair of hands slide into his hair. Honest. Then she stands, raising her arms as if she’s going to fly.
She then goes into a monologue on how to make love to a woman. Geez, Doctor Nick, I sure hope one of us is hallucinating this scene. The scene ends with a triple take of the same turn as Helena spins to kiss Nick. Auteur! Auteur!
As unbelievable as that is, the next scene is even loopier. Armed with the knowledge of how to please a woman, Doctor Nick invites one to his house. They have sex while the song “Sadeness” by Enigma plays. Perhaps Lynch was trying to film an R-rated version of the song’s video. The young woman is Nicolette Scorsese. Film fans may be prepared to take some peripheral rage at this. However, I’ve consulted numerous film guide and sites, one of which clearly lists close relations to famous film types, and it would appear that this woman is not related to Martin Scorsese, who has made films like Taxi Driver.
Nicolette gets naked, and goes through a fairly graphic sex scene with Julian Sands. There are even light hints of Sado-masochism (and “Sadeness” playing on the soundtrack! How clever!) as Sands pulls her hair and holds her wrists, pushing her against the fireplace mantle. If anyone can confirm one way or another if she’s in any way related to Scorsese the director, please mail us. We need to know if two daughters of acclaimed directors make fools of themselves with this movie.
To top this sequence off, who should appear in the dream-like sequence but Russell, to hand over Helena’s scarf. I can just imagine the actor’s reaction to the briefing for this scene. “You want me to what?” At least he gets his name in the credits as “Russell” and not “Scarf man”.
And now, we are subjected to one of the most bizarre ‘falling in love’ montages ever presented. We see shots of Doctor Nick massaging Helena’s shoulders, putting make-up on her, brushing her hair while she stands there, beautiful but without limbs, as if she were some kind of living statue. All of this is presented in a totally straight, solemn fashion. Father David Lynch has done things equally weird and disturbing, but his approach always has a touch of the tongue in cheek, as though somebody somewhere is kidding, or that the movie is taking place in a weird parallel universe where people actually talk and act this way. But Jennifer Lynch presents it with such seriousness, and you quite simply can’t take it seriously. The characters don’t make any sense, the situations are too out there to be believed. And depending on how you interpret several themes, you might get really offended by the idea that a woman could not only fall in love with a man who imprisons her, but also mutilates her severely.
Eventually, the montage ends, and Helena asks Nick if he loves her. Naturally, he says he does. Then she asks “as a woman, or a possession?” He replies “I love who you are on the inside.” Uh, rrrrright. How about showing this wonderful kindness and tenderness that’s so irresistible? To all appearances, Helena’s a dragon on the inside, a dragon on the outside. Was that what this amputation was all about? Denying Helena parts of her body so she is forced to work with her inner person? I don’t buy it. Again, we’ve seen no evidence that Helena was vain. She’s good looking and dresses well, but we never see her being prissy or hung up on her looks. If anything, she’s a bit trampy and she hates Doctor Nick, something that strikes us as being perfectly reasonable.
“I love you like a woman again,” says Helena. You mean, she loved him before, during their one extremely brief fling? “Please give me back some of what you’ve taken away. Kiss me.” Oh spare us. I guess it was about loving the mind before the body. Like I said, it don’t make no sense. Anyway, he does kiss her, and we see an image of the limb-less Venus statue. Well run me over with the symbolism eighteen-wheeler.
Ah, but this strange paradise cannot last. Doctor Nick orders in some liquor for Helena. Sam the liquor man, hearing an order for vodka, lime juice and two pomegranates, puts two and two together. He gives Ray a call.
Ray bursts into the house one night, and attacks Doctor Nick. Nick bellows “Get out of my house!” in such a way to suggest that he’d like to get out of the house too, where there’s more scenery to chew. During the battle, Ray spots Helena, and is stunned. Helena, interestingly, look ashamed. Guess she’s obsessed with her body again, huh? Not that she ever seemed to be before…never mind.
“You made her a freak!” screams Ray, and pounds Nick around some more. Helena begins to scream, telling him to stop. Ray then makes the most insightful comment of the movie: “You don’t know what you’re saying, you’re all messed up. You need help.” Word, brother.
Rays pulls out a gun and points it at Doctor Nick. “You should die. She was beautiful.” Victor Frankenstein–I mean Doctor Nick–shouts “She is beautiful!” Ray roughs him up again (maybe this movie should be called Boxing Nicholas), as all the while Helena pleads with Ray not to hurt him. Ray, confused, shoves Nick into a statue of Venus, then leaves. Helena sobs and begs Nick to wake up. The statue wobbles back and forth, and is about to topple on Doctor Nick’s head…are we about to be hit with the symbolism H-bomb?
That’s a negative. It’s revelation time. You know all those moments and situations that didn’t ring true earlier? Suddenly, they’re all explained away. Doctor Nick awakes in the waiting room of the hospital. Helena is in the next room, recovering from the accident with the truck, which was six hours ago. Oh no? Oh yes. It was all a dream.
We could ask the obvious questions, such as how Doctor Nick had such a detailed dream. We could ask how he knew details that were revealed when he wasn’t present–such as Ray’s personality–and included them in his dream. Instead, let’s note that Grade 3 students know better than to end their Language Arts stories this way, because it is the most lazy, lame and unimaginative way to end a story (because you don’t have to think of good reasons why Helena doesn’t take advantage of obvious methods of calling for help). Why not just drop the Greek God Apollo in there, have him whistle time out and pull everyone to safety? Actually, on second thought, this is so lame that you’ve almost got to admire Jennifer Lynch’s gall for putting it in here.
To conclude the movie, we see: Helena, having a flashback of being rushed to the hospital with Doctor Nick in tow. We see a nurse walking out of the elevator and saying hello to Nick. She looks exactly like the woman Doctor Nick brought home (yes, it’s Nicolette Scorsese again). We see Doctor Nick holding Helena’s hand and hearing dialogue from earlier in the movie (“You did this to me!” and “You made her a freak!”). See? Told you it was coming. And finally, we hear Doctor Nick say that “I am still haunted by my love, by my dreams,” in a voice over. Thanks Doc. We hadn’t noticed.
What was the point? Doctor Nick Cavanaugh is one screwed up little boy. Gee, we knew that five minutes in.
I actually know someone who liked his movie. Now I don’t trust his opinion on anything, not even the weather. “Hey, Gary, what’s it like outside? Uh…never mind.”
Probably the most astonishing thing about this movie is that it was made by a woman. If you examine the movie’s themes, you can get some pretty ugly ideas that seem completely unnatural for any woman to have. A misogynist male director sure, but a woman? The movie presents Helena’s predicament with hardly any degree of suspense, or horror, so obviously it wasn’t meant as a psychological thriller, unless Lynch is even more inept than previously suspected.
That Helena actually comes to live with her predicament seems to suggest that a woman may not mind being wholly dependent on a man, and worse, might enjoy being an object of art, even if it means severe mutilation. Or it may just be suggesting that when a woman says “No,” you should force yourself on her until she comes around. If that doesn’t do it, maybe hack off a limb or two or four. Hey, why not show this movie to kiddies?
If the film is postulating that Helena somehow is deserving of this treatment, why? Because she’s bitchy? Because she’s beautiful? Uh, neither one of these things is exactly a crime.
Is Jennifer Lynch trying to set the women’s rights movement back to oh, 1756? Of course not. It was all a dream, and the contents of the dream should not be taken seriously. So, she deliberately negates about half of her movie. Half of the time you spend watching this movie doesn’t mean anything. Now there’s a satisfying cinematic experience.
This is the “Premature Ejaculation” scene from Top Secret:
Slow pan across some furniture, the remain of an eaten meal.
Hillary: “That’s okay, don’t feel bad. It happens to lots of men the first time. Just relax, I’ll poor you a drink. We can always try again in a couple of hours…”
The camera finally pans on Kilmer and Gutteridge. Gutteridge is reading a book.
Hillary: “…she said as she laid down beside him and caressed his chest.”
And from Boxing Helena:
Anne: “It’s okay honey, it’s okay. It happens. I don’t mind, Nick. We were rushing it. We can try again in a little while, Nick. Hey, I’d like to. It’s okay Nick. Let me get you a drink.”
Helena and Ray have a little spat:
Ray: “Come back to Daddy.”
Ray: “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Helena: “Gee Ray, what could I possibly mean by that? I believe I meant, get out of my bed? You bore me.”
Ray: “I bore you? No I don’t.
Helena: “Look, I’m in a bad mood.”
Ray: “You need to lighten up.”
Helena: “You need to pay closer attention.”
Ray: “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Ray, disgusted: “Check please!”
Helena: “What are you doing?”
Ray: “I’m going out.”
Helena: “Oh, you can get me some groceries.”
Ray: “I’m not your goddamned errand boy. I’m going to the club.”
Ray: “Gee Helena why would I possibly be going to the club. I’m going to go get laid.”
And in the closing credits:
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