Perhaps moreso than anywhere else, in comedy, to be truly precocious is to be damned to obscurity. Through the power of YouTube, you can see some of the TV casualties that remain fresh to this day, and at IFC Center this weekend, you can see the great Marty S’s contribution to cult comedy: After Hours, the twitchy, paranoid black comedy so black it was shot almost entirely at night.
Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) first appears to us training his new co-worker, an over-educated twerp who wants to start a lit mag for other young, smart people living in the city who can’t get published elsewhere (plus ça change…), how to run a word processing program. As a glass-eyed look of insouciance washes over Paul’s face, the twerp grows uncomfortable, but doesn’t abandon his spiel—because he really believes it. This painful and all-too real mélange of unbalanced sense of self, social nicety-induced tedium, awkwardness and ego permeates every other encounter of the film. We’ve all been trapped in that elevator, shared that common space, or been accosted at the bus stop for seemingly no reason, so identification is unavoidable.
However, the thing about Paul—not unlike all of us—is that he’s a bit of an asshole. The endless cycle of awkward is inaugurated by his attempt to bed Marcy (Roseanna Arquette), a quirky chick who’s staying in a loft in Soho. It’s quickly revealed that she’s completely unhinged, but that doesn’t matter to Paul—she’s gorgeous, right? Journeying downtown under the pretense of buying a bagel and cream cheese papier-mâché paperweight from her roommate, he patiently puts up with her bullshit until he discovers a tube of burn medication, berates her, and then jumps ship. (This is also kind of understandable, but an asshole move nonetheless.) While divulging the rest of the plot would spoil the indignities and reversals Paul suffers, it’s worth noting that he manages to overstay in every instance—the worst trouble is the trouble we make for ourselves.
Like all of Scorsese’s New York-set films, After Hours lovingly documents the city’s manic idiosyncrasies and architecture: the wet pavement of empty streets reflects cathedral-like warehouses; a Mister Softee truck is used as a vehicle for vigilante justice, all the while playing that distinctive jingle; the MTA agent at the Spring Street station is completely unhelpful. By all means, see it on the big screen for full, uncomfortable effect.