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The Boost
MGM Home Entertainment
1988 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 95 min. / Street Date 2003 /
Starring James Woods, Sean Young, John Kapelos, Steven Hill, Kelle Kerr, John Rothman, Amanda Blake, Grace Zabriskie
Cinematography Howard Atherton
Production Designer Waldemar Kalinowski
Art Direction Ken Hardy
Film Editor Maury Winetrobe
Original Music Stanley Myers
Written by Darryl Ponicsan from a book by Ben Stein
Produced by Daniel H. Blatt, Terry Carr, John Daly, Derek Gibson, Mel Howard
Directed by Harold Becker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This well-meaning but oversold 80s drug saga forfeits our concern at about the midpoint. A glossy soap that attempts to tackle The American Dream ruined by illegal substances, it muffs its own message by failing to convince us that drugs are the key problem. James Woods and Sean Young are actually quite good, considering the awkward pace of this strangely plodding film.


Hyper, self-doubting Lenny (James Woods) is a hustling New York salesman who tends to lose opportunities by coming on too strong. Then he's recruited by Max (Steven Hill), a high-flying real estate millionaire who sees potential in the defensive, over-eager young man. Lenny and his loving wife Linda (Sean Young) relocate to the Hollywood hills and a dream house and dream car; selling property with Max to the newly-rich needing to plug tax loopholes is extremely lucrative. It links Lenny up with a fast crowd he feels he has to impress, especially Car Wash tycoon Joel (John Capelos). Living hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond their means, Lenny and Linda are in for a hard fall when Max's business is curtailed by tax reform news from Washington. And the couple's hopes of landing on their feet are dashed by new addictions from their LA friends - cocaine and 'ludes.

James Woods is a fine actor and he gives The Boost's Lenny a convincingly self-destructive desperation. The character goes from an anonymous failure in New York to a high-flying tycoon in LA, and then down to the level of a pitiful mental case, addicted to cocaine and Quaaludes. It's a kind of story that's hard to kill, as we all like tales of aspiration and success. If go-getters in earlier films saw the American rainbow but failed to reach it, usually it was a conscious choice based on some moral decision, as in the superlative The Apartment.

When things start going bad, Lenny uses the 'boost' of cocaine to maintain his illusion of invulnerability. The film takes the attitude that Lenny and Linda's cocaine habit is the operative evil, when it simply exacerbates his poor judgment. In reality, Lenny is a social type with no real trade beyond his sales skills. At the beginning, when he is a total straight, substance-wise, he ruins the chance to become the rep for a real estate offering by trouncing the concept of his prospective employers' project. He claims to feel inadequate, but he's really an explosive ego waiting to go off - like Harry Fabian in Night and the City, he's an 'artist without an art'.

Lenny doesn't really earn anything, as promoter Max (an excellent Steven Hill, of 1963's A Child is Waiting hands him his dream job on a plate. Max gets him the necessary car and house, 'success props' to influence their wealthy clients. Max himself lives way within his income, but Lenny thinks he's landed in some never-ending money pot, and saves nothing while overextending himself with wild purchases and independent speculations.

The film oversimplifies Linda and Lenny's lives, and while chronicling with campy zeal their giddy highs and degraded lows, loses its way.

The drugs that the story purports to be about are almost irrelevant to Lenny's problem, and that's the killer flaw here. Why the sensible Max would sponsor such a loose cannon in the first place is hard to understand. Lenny shows no sense of perspective or commitment to anything. His feeling that he won't be able to keep his beautiful wife has nothing to do with her; his whole life before drugs is based on a credo of success - more, more and more success, and more is never enough. When he loses the support of Max, his only friend, Lenny falls apart and the show is essentially over. It meanders for a while with a sojourn in a beach town, until more tragedy (initiated, of course, by Lenny's worthless big-spender friends from LA) sends them back to try and reconquer the big-city success mountain. This time Lenny's ability to function is totally shot by the mental breakdown that the drugs have brought about. As with James Mason in Bigger than Life, they've only distilled his true character.

This sounds like a fine concept, except The Boost doesn't seem to know it. The villain is always 'those damn drugs' even though Lenny's friends and acquaintances are users and dealers, yet seem to survive. The real issue in The Boost is Lenny's gut-scraping drive to 'be somebody' and knock the world down with high-flying success, essentially reaping unearned rewards and living like a maharaja simply to assert an illusion of invulnerablity. Max's invitation to the fast track is what does Lenny in, not the drugs. They're a later complication.

The film also implies that a high-flying lifestyle is just fine, so long as one doesn't lose judgment by using drugs. There's no attitude offered about an elite class of sharpies reaping the millions earned by others. The life looks really attractive. Most viewers will simply shake their heads, seeing the only problem is that Lenny's bonehead, suicidal career choices have derailed the gravy train. It's those damn drugs.

Loving wife Linda is a happy cocaine abuser as well, yet she seems to easily escape the grief just by leaving Lenny. The movie jumps time so quickly that a lot of dialogue is expended just to keep up the exposition about how much time has passed and what particular problem is presently on the front burner. At the end we're left with a story that's really limited to James Woods' functional breakdown - he's the same unstable personality at the end that he is at the beginning.

The Boost is an entertaining film, but there's something basically unsatisfactory about it, and I'm not sure I've tapped into exactly what it is in this short review.

MGM's DVD of The Boost is a good-looking enhanced transfer given a fine encoding. The film's slick art direction is well-served. For extras, there's a James Woods - Harold Becker commentary that seems to think the film is a daring masterpiece, although nobody can fault Woods' performance. They also comment on several deleted scenes, none of which contains essential content, but might have helped to keep the film from moving too quickly.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Boost rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, deleted scenes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 17, 2003

A Welcome rebuttal from 'B', 10.18.03:

Dear Glenn: There's never been much clear-eyed discussion about this movie, and your observations are quite interesting. I think that this is essentially a story of a person far more overwhelmed by life than he knows, and his ability to cope with this to some degree on a day-to-day basis conceals this to everyone around him. [More or less.] The guy is already drowning before he ever meets a dealer or ingests a controlled substance -- and he's the last kind of guy who should ever come into contact with this stuff. After that, though... He's basically gone. This isn't a particularly complex story, but it has a ring of truth to it. I feel Ponicsan and Becker approached this and said, "there isn't enough to this -- we have to add more to it." O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Williams... they would have had trouble augmenting this; it is what it is. As Woods is almost ideally suited to play this guy, I still regret all the parts of the movie that you rightly identify as putting all of the onus for his collapse on the drugs. [Woods is the kind of actor who might be able to make us see that the drug use disastrously fueled the existing inner frailty and self-destructiveness of the core of the character.]

The film is based on/suggested by a mostly non-fiction book by Ben Stein called 'Ludes. The book is just a sad, harrowing account of a troubled, doomed friend's battles with Quaalude dependence. [There were LOTS of changes made in scripting The Boost, as cocaine and 'ludes aren't very similar.] It might have made an honest, bleak little indie movie, maybe even starring James Woods.

Stephen Hill is good here - Savant is the only critic in America who would identify him with a reference to A Child is Waiting, of course - and I also liked seeing Amanda Blake in her brief scene with Woods. I think it was her last role. Best, Always. -- B

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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