[Deep Focus]
Written and Directed by Steve De Jarnatt
Starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham
USA, 1988


Wouldn't it figure that the end of the world would have a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream?

The score is eerie and off-putting and contributes in a big way to the dreamy, irritating and harrowing Miracle Mile. Here's a movie that's built its considerable cult reputation on an admittedly cool premise: a guy picks up a ringing pay phone in the middle of the night and accidentally receives a tip that World War 3 has begun, and that the United States is about an hour away from a devastating nuclear holocaust.

Anthony Edwards is the guy who's not quite sure whether to believe what he's heard, but hooks up anyway with a motley bunch of customers at an all-night diner. Denise Crosby is the severe, statuesque woman who looks up from her Cliff's Notes on Gravity's Rainbow long enough to dial some mysterious numbers on her cellular phone and arrange for a helicopter to airlift everyone to a plane that will take them to Antarctica. Mare Winningham is the love-at-first-sight girlfriend who complicates the proceedings further -- Edwards met her early in the day, won't leave without her, and lights out for her apartment building to pick her up.

So the rest of the movie follows on dream logic, taking its weird cues from Martin Scorsese's After Hours, which used Manhattan to much the same advantage as writer/director Steve De Jarnatt uses a neighborhood of L.A. But Miracle Mile is nowhere near as assured as a Scorsese picture, and this winds up being the kind of movie where the protagonist is so slow and stupid that you want to shake him by the lapels and throw him in some direction, any direction, just to get things moving along. In particular, there's one very easy way for Edwards' character to check the veracity of the story he gets over the telephone, but he doesn't figure it out until almost the end of the movie. The ambiguity is, of course, what drives the picture, but it's hard to get wrapped up in a story when you're smacking your forehead out of frustration with the dullness of the hero.

Miracle Mile plays out in 87 minutes, most of them real time, but De Jarnatt the director should have demanded a rewrite from De Jarnatt the scripter to tighten things up and have his characters act reasonably. The performances are pretty rough all around, and some of the story elements are just creepy, like a scene (satire?) that takes place in a gym and the weird, gratuitous presence of gay stereotypes (The Bodybuilder, The Drag Queen).

But the very ending, where we finally find out whether or not we've been hoaxed, is nearly unmissable. It's goofy and maybe even pedantic, but it's undeniably and nearly uniquely chilling -- especially a scene in an elevator. It reminded me specifically of a great moment in Until the End of the World when the airborne Sam and Claire believe they're experiencing the apocalypse secondhand, from a great distance -- Miracle Mile conjures a similarly palpable sense of dislocation from the rest of the world, the knowledge that something terrible may be happening and the realization that you have no way to confirm it, or combat it.

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer