Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972)

Michael Crichton had an extremely productive early ’70s. Multiple film adaptations of his works were in the making, including a successful version of his 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, and Crichton himself began foraying into directing and screenwriting. But he continued with prose as well, publishing five novels in the first three years of the decade. Three of these bore his pseudonym “John Lange” and one of them (The Terminal Man) bore Crichton’s actual name; the fifth, a collaboration with his brother Douglas Crichton, was published under another pseudonym that combined the names of both brothers. Suspiciously, an actor named “Michael Douglas” became pretty damn famous not long after.

But that Crichton Brothers book — a somewhat zany story called Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues — sadly is the least effective of those early tales. It’s obvious, even in the film version of the novel, that the pair of writers either couldn’t agree on a direction for the story or just succeeded in writing a story that goes nowhere. Dealing is an absolute slog, and so maybe Michael Douglas’s uptick in fame should be attributed to something else (“like what?”) and not to his deft scriptwriting ability.

We mentioned in our Andromeda Strain review that Crichton’s reputation as a sci-fi writer should perhaps not be simply accepted in such an uncritical way as to assume that’s all he’s able to write. Future entries in this Writer Series will bolster that point, but unfortunately Dealing is evidence for the other side. The story follows a Harvard grad named Peter who gets involved in marijuana trafficking through a childish infatuation with a girl involved with one of the drug dealers. A bag of weed gets confiscated and said object of Peter’s affection forces him to click into John McClane mode to save his girl.

Peter must be one of the most infantile film protagonists since the dawn of film protagonists (aside from actual infant protagonists, like that Wayans Brothers movie Little Man where one of them is a talking baby or some bullshit — anyway). To say he’s dumb as a rock would run the risk of a statement about his true lack of personality becoming lost in the colloquialism…but f*cking hell, this guy is dumb as a rock. That’s forgivable, of course. Some of the most lovable characters in fiction are total morons. But the rocklike structure of Peter’s brain must extend to his visage and demeanor as well, because the dude has less emotion than Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives. Guys like this can’t carry a movie, and it’s painfully clear in Dealing that Peter is either poorly written or poorly cast, or both.

He’s certainly the latter. Robert F. Lyons wasn’t in a whole lot before he led the cast of Dealing, but he doesn’t bring any of your typical newcomer’s charisma to the screen. He’s useless in conversation, and not at all in an endearing way. To boot, Dealing‘s supporting cast is actually pretty impressive. They’re largely wasted (their talents are wasted, but they’re sometimes wasted too). Paul Sorvino plays a cab driver in two scenes, the late Charles Durning plays a cop in three or four scenes, and John Lithgow made his feature film debut as a friend of Peter’s. The scenes where Lithgow’s character yells at Peter are the best points in the movie, because you actually get to watch as someone shows poor little Lyons how it’s done.

Overall, it’s unclear how much involvement Crichton actually had with the film version of his co-authored book. Again, he was a busy guy at the time. Impending directorial projects like Pursuit and Westworld, the former of which is pretty good and the latter of which is a downright classic, likely took up a lot more of his attention. It’s wise to follow suit, then, and let Dealing slip onto the back burner.

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