My Misspent Youth In Films...
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton
Released: March 30, 1988
What I Thought Then
A goofy and kinda spooky movie, to be sure, but I was mainly here for Beetlejuice's antics. Also, I was a fan of the tie-in Saturday morning cartoon.
What I Think Now
Oh, hey, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, and Michael Keaton are in this! And also Winona Ryder and Catherine O'Hara. And that creepy guy from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It's crazy to think that this was Tim Burton's second feature-length movie, after Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, or that he would follow it up with Batman. This film firmly established him as an auteur and made him a household name. It's a rich playground for his fervent imagination, darkly comic sensibilities, and signature camp-plus-goth design aesthetic. And it introduced a new generation to the musical stylings of Harry Belafonte. But is it actually any good?
This is a movie about jaw-dropping visuals and bonkers set-pieces that are strung together by a plot that only kinda sort makes sense if you don't think about it too hard. In fact, there's a lot about this movie that just doesn't work. The central conflict between the dead Maitlins and the living Deetz's is resolved off-screen. The rules of the world are poorly established; some ghosts can freely change their forms, some seem to be stuck in whatever form they died. Beetlejuice is both summoned and banished by saying his name three times, but in order to be set free he has to get married to a mortal... for some reason. The effects haven't aged well at all and the make-up, while imaginative and stylized, doesn't look even remotely naturalistic. It's a movie about dead people and yet it has very little to say about death, apart from one joke that suicides become civil servants in the afterlife--a joke that's going to be a little cringey if you actually know anyone who's committed suicide. It seems to be sending up New York nouveau riche, but it doesn't have anything to say about them apart from just mining them for jokes.
And yet it all kinda works. A big part of this is tone. From a storytelling standpoint, the movie's opening has a challenge in that it needs to introduce us to two characters, have us immediately like them, then kill them off and have the audience be okay with that. That's a difficult trick, but Burton pulls it off with aplomb. Second, the set-pieces really are that good. The Day-O! dinner party sequence is laugh-out-loud funny even to this day, thanks in no small part to Catherine O'Hara's legendary comic presence. Her body is doing one thing, her eyes are doing something else, and she's fully committed to both and truly sells the gag. It was a brilliant bit of casting.
In fact, the cast is the other thing that really makes this bizarre melange work. Baldwin and Davis are extremely likable. (Side note: I love a lot of Baldwin's early work. He was the best Jack Ryan--don't @ me.) Ryder was in the early stages of her teen-goth-heartthrob phase. She doesn't have a ton to do in this movie, but she acquits herself well. O'Hara is hilarious throughout, especially when playing off Glenn Shadix as Otho, her live-in interior designer who is clearly coded as gay in such an over-the-top way that I can't tell if it's offensive or not. Even bit players like Sylvia Sidney as Juno, the Maitlin's netherworldly caseworker, bring a ton of charisma to what could otherwise be very bland parts. Of course, the centerpiece of the film is Michael Keaton as the titular "ghost with the most". He brings a manic energy that in a few years we would all describe as Jim-Carrey-esque. Given his oeuvre, it's easy to forget that Keaton is a talented physical comedian, and he's really giving this all he's got. And, honestly... it's the thing that has aged the most poorly for me in this film. A lot of the Beetlejuice character has a perverted-old-man-borderline-sexual-assault vibe that just isn't very pleasant to watch. Fortunately... or perhaps just weirdly... he has very little screen time. He's much more of a presence than a character for most of the film. The other thing that's aged especially poorly is a running gag about a guy with a shrunken head that's... probably racist?
I think so. It hasn't aged super well, but it's fairly charming and it's a great showcase for Burton when his imagination was at its wildest but also reigned-in by technical limitations.