Directed By: Alec Baldwin (uncredited)
Screenplay By: Pete Dexter, Bill Condon, Nancy Cassaro
Story By: Pete Dexter
Based on the short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet and the play Scratch by Archibald Macleish
Produced By: Alec Baldwin, Jonathan Cornick, Carol Gillson, David Glasser, Adam Stone
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, Barry Miller, Kim Cattrall
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 102 minutes
Review Date: July 9, 2010
When I saw Shortcut to Happiness in this month’s cable listings, I thought, What? A comedy with Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, and I’ve never even heard of it? I figured, at the bare minimum, I would have seen a couple of reviews when it was released in 2004. How could a movie with such well-known actors, produced and directed by star Alec Baldwin, slip through the cracks?
It’s impossible to review this movie without acknowledging its troubled production history. After all, its most significant problems — editing and music — are rooted in post-production, and Baldwin had left the project and removed his name from the director credit long before post-production was completed. So here it is in brief: principal photography was completed in 2001, but the investors lied about having enough money to make the film. Consequently, according to Baldwin, the investors were investigated for bank fraud and “the Feds” took the film away from him. Once the Feds released the film, a rough, incomplete cut was screened at film festivals in 2004, in the hopes of securing funds to complete it. When that didn’t work, Baldwin left the project. It languished because, in the midst of the chaos, the film’s production company had gone through all sorts of splitting, merging, and absorbing, so half a dozen companies claimed ownership, each cutting their own versions of the film. Thanks, one assumes, to Baldwin’s high-profile, Emmy-winning role in 30 Rock, producer Bob Yari picked the film up in 2007 and sold one of the many cuts to Starz, sandwiched between more well-known movies like The Illusionist and Find Me Guilty. There it remains, playing regularly on Starz, unavailable on DVD.
Buried within the mediocre end result is a fairly compelling comedy about the meaning of success — should one sell out for money and fame or commit to a more spiritually rewarding but less lucrative path? Baldwin plays Jabez Stone, a struggling New York writer who believes he’s finally writing something worthwhile. Unfortunately, nobody will read his first novel, much less his incomplete second novel. Desperate, he sends the first manuscript directly to high-profile editor Daniel Webster (Anthony Hopkins). To Stone’s surprise, Webster actually reads it, but he does not like it. One fateful night, muggers steal Stone’s laptop — which contains the only copy of his new novel — and his typewriter breaks. Enraged, Stone hurls his typewriter out the window of his apartment and kills an elderly woman.
This is the film’s crossroads. It could have developed into a much more interesting movie had they continued down this path. However, Jennifer Love Hewitt shows up as a variation on the Devil, and it starts to adhere rigidly to the basic plot of “The Devil and Daniel Webster”: Stone trades his soul for 10 years of fame and fortune but quickly finds the price — loss of friends (both literally and figuratively), loss of time, and loss of dignity — is too high. Stone is forced into the position of hired hack, pumping out beach reads quickly and efficiently. In one of the funniest running gags, the titles of Stone’s novels suggest the vacuous redundancy within its pages: A Loss of Feeling, Remembrance of a Loss of Feeling, and (my personal favorite) A Certain Numbness of the Extremities.
As expected, the third act revolves around a trial for Stone’s soul, with Webster arguing on his behalf in front of a jury populated by famous authors and presided over by Stone’s successful former friend (Dan Aykroyd), who was killed in order for Stone to achieve his success. In a film that contains many sharp jokes aimed at the entertainment industry, and strong performances by everyone (including, surprisingly, Hewitt, who is cute but generally the weak link in every film she’s in), this third act feels like a bit of a cop-out. Since its 1937 publication, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” has had so many spoofs, homages, and adaptations, the trial for Stone’s soul lacks suspense and emotional punch through sheer overuse. The screenwriters have multiple opportunities to stray off the beaten path of their source material, but every time it seems like the story will head in a more interesting direction, it snaps back to a story that has, unfortunately, become a cliché.
Although the third act can be blamed on Baldwin and his screenwriters, it’s not the film’s biggest problem. The film’s stilted editing causes each shot to hang a half-beat too long, which is the death knell for a comedy. The dialogue has a vaguely screwball patter that sort of works when both actors are in the same shot. Whenever the film cuts back and forth between two or more characters, the timing gets thrown off. Compounding the problem are the ill-fitting musical selections, which seem haphazard and almost never fit the tone of the scene. It feels like somebody involved in the production owned the rights to a handful of pop songs and tossed them in because it was cheaper than composing original music.
Better choices may have salvaged this film, but it’s a moot point. What matters is how the film turned out, and the answer is, unfortunately, “Not well.” I can lament the wasted cast or the troubled production destroying the possibilities of a good film, but that doesn’t change what it is: a mediocre curiosity that’s ultimately not worth seeing.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.