Attacking the issue of Valium addiction as if it were alcoholism, gambling, and crack all rolled into one is I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can, a broad, obvious, and frequently unintentionally amusing movie that seems to exist for two specific reasons: Valium was quite popular back in the early 80s -- and Jill Clayburgh wanted a chance to snag an Oscar nomination.
Looking for all the world like a particularly desperate made-for-TV production, Dancing delivers Ms. Clayburgh as a talented, sensitive, and well-regarded documentary filmmaker -- who's also amazingly addicted to Valium. How our main character got this way is completely a mystery; Clayburgh's Barbara Gordon begins the movie as a pill-popping ninny with little explanation as to why she got this way.
But Barb's smart enough to know at least one thing: The Valium's got to go! And with the help of her offbeat boyfriend Derek (Nicol Williamson), Barbara's going to kick this nasty habit once and for all! Unwisely opting to ignore her doctor's instruction, Barbara decides to quit cold turkey, a decision that will inevitably lead to many sleepless nights, frequent migraines, and situations in which she ends up tied to a chair with a fat lip.
Yeah. A fat lip given to her by Derek. Seems that Barb's not having enough trouble giving up the Valium, so screenwriter David Rabe (that's Mr. Jill Clayburgh, mind you) decides to saddle our leading lady with a boyfriend character who starts out strong and supportive -- and ends up abusive and goofy. Perhaps the reasons as to why Derek is such a nut-job is explained in the book this film was based upon, but on the screen ... the guy goes from semi-eccentric to outright wacko in a matter of minutes. (One suspects this subplot exists so that Barbara will seem more like a victim than a desperate pill freak, and if so it's a flimsy device indeed.)
It's all so very maudlin and pedantic; Barbara eventually makes her way to the booby hatch, which is where Clayburgh sinks her teeth into the meat of overacting as if it's her very last meal. She screams, she whines, she behaves like a petulant infant ... it'd probably be a whole lot more sobering and tragic if Dancing weren't directed with all the creativity of a dead cactus: the overdramatic musical cues pour through the drama with a merciless intensity while director Jack Hofsiss (indeed, working on the only feature film of his career) frames the proceedings with a staunch devotion to visual boredom. I've seen episodes of All My Children directed with more style and dramatic intent.
If there's one thing truly entertaining about I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can, it's that you can play the family-fun game of Spot That Actor! Keep your eyes peeled for early appearances by Dianne Wiest, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Dan Hedaya, Deborah Foreman, Richard Masur, and Ellen Greene! (But don't get too attached to any of 'em; this flick is Clayburgh's vehicle all the way.)
Sad to say that after I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can, Ms. Clayburgh kind of dropped off the Hollywood map. She'd done a lot of darn fine work prior to this film, but for some reason she didn't exhibit much in the way of staying power. Then again, she's a gal who was born into a rather wealthy family and had a lot of early-career success ... so perhaps she's just happier doing the Lifetime Channel circuit these days. I've no idea how a celebrated actress like Jill Clayburgh goes from Portnoy's Complaint and An Unmarried Woman to Reason for Living: The Jill Ireland Story and Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders -- but here's hoping the lady makes a big-screen comeback some time soon.
Only not in another overbaked and underwhelming yawn-fest like I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can.
Video: A widescreen anamorphic transfer delivers the 1982 film in relatively fine form. Nothing worth popping a pill over, but by this point we already know that Paramount treats their back catalog titles with some respect -- which the film fans do appreciate.
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono, but you'll have little trouble hearing the shrill shrieks and breathless babblings of Barbara Gordon.
Extras: The DVD comes with a booklet entitled "Gimme a break, fellas: It's just Valium!" Nah, just kidding. No supplements whatsoever.
I can only assume that Housewife Valium Addiction was a huge and topical issue back in 1982, but let's just say I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can hasn't exactly aged all that well. And that's me being kind. If you're a big fan of Clayburgh's work, I'd certainly recommend this flick as a rental; everyone else can stay far away.
And for those keeping score: No, Ms. Clayburgh did not receive an Oscar nomination for her work here; her two nods came for her work in An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Starting Over (1979).