Charles Grodin is one of those names that, when uttered among the film and comedy cognoscenti, inevitably elicits swooning sighs and a trail of invisible cartoon hearts. He’s a master of the comedy of awkwardness, whether playing characters who instigate uncomfortable situations, or put-upon everymen who squirm under duress. “Deadpan” would be the blanket description of Grodin’s style, because he’s not an actor given to big emotional swings in any direction. But it wouldn’t be quite right to stick him with that label; there’s range to his game, and more variation in his performances than people might assume. As a nebbish whose eyes stray to another woman on his honeymoon, the Grodin of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid isn’t the same as the Grodin of Albert Brooks’ Real Life, in which he plays a suburbanite who welcomes a film crew into his home to shoot a movie about his family. In the former, his signature posture of defeat and exasperation hardens into a cruelty that gives May’s black comedy its edge; in the latter, he’s a man eaten alive by his own narcissism, increasingly desperate in his determination to preserve his image as his life falls apart in front of the camera.
Over the years, Grodin has turned simmering hostility and extreme passive-aggression into a form of performance art, especially on the talk-show circuit, where he mock-antagonized Johnny Carson and David Letterman for years. And that disdain continued into the political arena, too, including a withering performance on Hannity & Colmes and a short-lived hosting gig on his own cable show, in which he greeted the news and views of the day with dramatic shrugs, eyerolls, and shakes of the head. What all of these roles have in common is Grodin’s timing and irreverence, and above all an instinct for creating a riveting air of comic tension. The comedy of awkwardness, in Grodin’s hands, is akin to watching a horror film in those pregnant moments before the monster attacks, when the audience is ready to crawl out of its skin in discomfort. Grodin has never cared about being liked, or at least he has never made it a priority. He relishes the chance to be a gnat constantly buzzing around the ear, dodging every futile attempt to swat it away.
Grodin plays that gnat to perfection in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run, one of the most entertaining studio movies of the 1980s, and Robert De Niro, irritable and erratic, does the swatting. But what makes this perhaps Grodin’s best performance is how much range he finds within the seemingly restrictive confines of his deadpan persona. Midnight Run is funny as hell, and that’s owed in large part to the comic friction between Grodin and De Niro, but Brest and his screenwriter, George Gallo, are more ambitious in their conception of the film than “buddy comedy.” To quote Adam Scott, who recommended the film on this site, the film is a “full meal,” a road picture that features action, comedy, and a couple of lump-in-the-throat moments that require more from the actors than mere comic chemistry. While De Niro does a lot of hilarious, profane gesticulation in the film, Grodin affects a serene calm that nonetheless runs the gamut from calculated annoyance to a persistent decency that gives the story its heart. And often he does it with just a shift of the eyes.
Grodin stars as Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, a mob accountant who embezzled $15 million from vicious Chicago gangster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) and gave most of it away to charity. De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a former cop turned bounty hunter who’s hired by a bail bondsman (a wonderfully sleazy Joe Pantoliano) to bring The Duke back to L.A. within five days for a hefty $100,000 fee. It should be an easy job—a “midnight run”—but everyone wants a piece of The Duke: Serrano and his goons, whom he refers to as “Moron One” and “Moron Two,” want The Duke dead for stealing their money; the FBI (led by Yaphet Kotto) wants to put him into Witness Protection in exchange for his testimony on Serrano’s books; and a hapless rival bounty hunter, descriptively named Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton), wants the retrieval fee for himself. So Jack and The Duke dash across the country in planes, trains, and automobiles, dodging a gauntlet of colorful sleazeballs while barely surviving each other.
Midnight Run has a wealth of great running jokes, like Jack getting the edge on Marvin multiple times by pointing behind him (“Marvin! Watch out!”) and knocking him out cold, or Kotto’s FBI man having to answer to the ID Jack swiped from him (“His real name’s Mosley.” “I’m Mosley!”). But the best recurring gag is The Duke’s constant needling of Jack on a range of topics, including:
- Advising Jack not to open a nice little coffee shop with the money, because restaurants are a tricky investment.
- Jack’s predilection for fried food (“Why would you eat that?”) and smokes. (“Cigarettes are killers.)
- The fact that Jack hasn’t seen his ex-wife and daughter in years. Wouldn’t it be nice if he paid them a visit on the way?
- “Why were you so unpopular with the Chicago Police Department?”
- “You ever have sex with an animal, Jack?”
- The matter of who lied to whom first.
- Does Jack really want to hand him over to the police, where Serrano will surely have him killed in prison before he can testify?
Poke. Poke. Poke. The comic rhythm of Grodin and De Niro’s buddy partnership comes from The Duke’s shrewd strategy of breaking Jack down by annoying the hell out of him. He’s like the kidnapped boy in The Ransom Of Red Chief, making himself such a pain in the neck that his captor will be eager to let him go. But it’s also a genuine play for Jack’s conscience: Even before The Duke learns that Jack’s refusal to take bribes from Serrano led to his exit from the Chicago Police Department, he recognizes that Jack is a man of integrity who just needs to realize that turning him over to the wolves isn’t the right thing to do. Jack’s moral calculus is that as a bounty hunter, he takes money for finding bail skippers and bringing them to justice, which is simple and satisfying and what he imagined being a cop would be like. The Duke is the gnat buzzing around his ear, but he’s also the angel on his shoulder, whispering the truths he doesn’t want to hear.
Grodin works beautifully on both ends of the spectrum, and he does it as much with his expressions as his droll, gently scolding voice. Witness the shift in this scene, where the two are traveling on a freight train and The Duke goes from mocking Jack’s belligerence to listening to his story about why he’s held onto a watch that no longer works:
De Niro gets the monologue in this scene, but it’s Grodin’s reaction shots that really sell the emotion. The Duke’s main goal in Midnight Run is self-preservation, and that motivates his interactions with Jack, even when the two become familiar enough with each other to trade inside jokes. When a light exchange leads him to ask Jack about the watch, however, Grodin’s second-long reaction shot (around 1:14) is one of the film’s lump-in-the-throat moments, all done with a softening of the eyes. So much of Grodin’s performance, comic and dramatic, comes from simply looking around—observing, reacting, shooting a conspiratorial glance, occasionally rolling his eyes. It’s worth seeing Midnight Run a second time just to watch him watching.
What unifies the many roles of Charles Grodin—leading man or supporting actor, late-night guest, even talk-show host—is his passivity, his ability to react to the stronger presence in the room. That may be De Niro, that may be a slobbering St. Bernard, that may be Albert Brooks and his film crew, that may be Johnny Carson or David Letterman, or that may be the exasperating news of the day. Whatever the case, something is happening to him, rather than him making something happen. And that’s a deceptively powerful position for him to be in: In performance, the actor expending the most amount of energy in a scene is typically playing the character least in control. From the moment he fakes a fear of flying, The Duke is in control over Jack in Midnight Run, quietly and convincingly making the case for his liberation. He’s second fiddle, but key to the film’s success.
The conversation continues over in the Forum, where Noel Murray is joined by critic and Midnight Run superfan Alan Sepinwall to talk over the film’s miraculous alchemy, its wealth of great supporting actors, and how it transcends its era. Next week, we wrap up Movie Of The Week’s Buddy Comedy month with a rare distaff entry in the canon: Romy And Michelle’s High School Reunion.