True Colors (DVD)

“You don’t own it ’til it costs you something.”

True Colors is a film that managed to skim by under my radar when it first was released in 1991. I suspect that’s because it was met with general indifference when it appeared and didn’t stay in the theatres for very long. At the time, its leads (John Cusack and James Spader) were only beginning to make names for themselves and the director’s best days were behind him. Certainly, eleven years time have done nothing to improve it and it remains very much a product and mirror of the 90s’ fascination with lawyers and behind-the scenes politics. Still, if you’re a John Cusack fan, you could do worse than to give it two hours of your time. Paramount’s new DVD release now affords you that opportunity.

Peter Burton and Tim Gerrity meet at university and become best friends. Gerrity comes from a privileged family while Burton comes from a disadvantaged background. Gerrity’s girlfriend is the daughter of Senator Stiles, the aging veteran from Connecticut. Burton and Gerrity are studying law and a work term finds them both placed in Washington jobs they enjoy — Gerrity with the Justice Department and Burton in Stiles’s office. When the work term is over, Gerrity returns to university, but Burton’s taste of the political life leads him to abandon his studies in favour of a full-time job. Burton soon finds himself caught up in power and politics, and he eventually decides to run for a seat in Congress. He allies himself with a local racketeer who provides support in exchange for expected favours from Burton. Gerrity meanwhile has completed his studies and is now working for the Justice Department. In his efforts to be a success, Burton betrays just about everyone who ever trusted him, even his best friend. When an opportunity to pay Burton back for that betrayal arises, Gerrity eagerly seizes it.

True Colors is a good example of where so much of recent film goes both right and wrong. John Cusack and James Spader provide acting of a high caliber; location work looks great; writing is poor. What we end up with is an exercise that provides fairly satisfactory entertainment, but a sense of frustration that the actors didn’t have something better to work with instead of the predictable hoops that the script has them jump through. One thing you’ve got to say, though. True Colors is a great poster boy for the career magnets of the ’90s — politics and law; it all looks so glamourous, if you can just manage to avoid seeing the sleaze.

The film’s script comes to us from Kevin Wade, whose previous claim to fame was the script for the enjoyable 1988 Working Girl. Somehow over the three intervening years, Wade’s view of the way things work seems to have changed from class to crass. Instead of Melanie Griffith working her way up in the world with intestinal fortitude and honesty, we get John Cusack working his way up through smarminess and duplicity. (Wade would sink even further with tripe like Mr. Baseball [1992] and Junior [1994] before redeeming himself with the underappreciated Meet Joe Black [1998].) The problem with Wade’s script is not just that it all seems so obvious, but that it expects us to believe that the main characters can be so black and white.

Given what they have to work with, Cusack and Spader are both excellent and provide the main reasons to see the film. Cusack is always interesting to watch and has given us a string of fine portrayals in both conventional (Bob Roberts, City Hall) and offbeat films (The Grifters, Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity). He has that smooth ability to win friends and influence people, and the characterization in this film plays to that strength admirably. Spader has not had quite the same success in his career, some of his more recent choices having little to recommend them (Curtain Call, The Stickup). His Tim Gerrity holds his own with Cusack’s Peter Burton, which is saying something, given that the Gerrity character as written is even harder to swallow than that of Burton. (For example, Burton takes away Gerrity’s girlfriend and when Gerrity finds out, he still agrees to be the best man at the wedding?)

Helping out the two principals is a fine supporting cast featuring Mandy Patinkin as the smooth racketeer John Palmeri and Richard Widmark as Senator Stiles (his last acting job to date; he’s now 87). Smaller roles are nicely handled by Philip Bosco and Paul Guilfoyle.

Direction is by veteran Herbert Ross whose best decade was the 1970s when he was responsible for the likes of The Last of Sheila, The Goodbye Girl, and The Turning Point. True Colors was his third last film; he died almost a year ago on October 9, 2001. The best that can said for his efforts here is that he lets the actors loose to do their best, not trying to overshadow them with obtrusive camera work. He makes good use of location work in Virginia, Washington, and Montana, which all adds a nice gloss of authenticity to the proceedings that helps a bit to distract from the script inadequacies.

Paramount has taken another catalogue item and given it a fine DVD transfer. Of course, the film is only 11 years old, so we should be able to expect good results. This time, our expectations are met, and we get a solid effort — sharp and clear with little in the way of edge enhancement. Colours are very natural and the only detriment is an occasional tendency to an overly dark image.

Three Dolby Digital audio tracks are provided — two in English (5.1 and 2.0 surround) and one in French (2.0 stereo). There’s little to choose between the two English tracks. This is strictly a dialogue-driven film and the results are quite adequate for it. The audio is basically confined to the front speakers. The background music is forgettable, and it also manages to obscure the dialogue in a couple of instances. English subtitles are available.

There are no supplements whatsoever. You’d have thought Paramount could have scared up a trailer for such a recent film at least.

True Colors is certainly no great work of cinematic art, but it is a handsome production and does contain some fine performances, particularly by John Cusack. Too bad the script lets the actors down so badly. Paramount’s DVD release is typical for them — a good-looking transfer, adequate sound and no supplements. But that’s about all the film deserves from Paramount, and a rental is about all it deserves from you.


Unless you’re a real Cusack or Spader fan, you can feel free to pass this one up. Court is adjourned.

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