Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Danny DeVito and Barbara Hershey
Written by: Barry Levinson
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Running Time: 1hr 52mins
“I wanted to find some minor thing that would happen that both people would see differently — so that both people thought they were right,” Levinson says. “And that one little moment that would propel the piece, so that you would think it was a movie about revenge, which in fact it’s not. It starts that way and that leads to relationships, as opposed to an accelerating feud.” The Washington Post
Some movie posters for this film featured a long blurb that read: “The Year – 1963. Selling the American Dream is a risky, funny business – you could wind up paying with your wife!” IMDB
Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson has had an interesting career and in the 80s & 90s, he was at the top of his game. With movies such as RAINMAN, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, and BUGSY, he was considered by many, including myself, to be one of the best filmmakers around. Mixed in with his more commercial hits and award-winning projects, Levinson also created a series of films that, for some reason, didn’t get much attention. They were his more personal projects, often referred to as his “Baltimore Films” and consisted of some of his best movies such as DINER, AVALON and LIBERTY HEIGHTS. My favorite, though, is the mostly forgotten low-key comedy TIN MEN. It’s a story that boasts three amazing performances and a well-written script that takes its humor from real life rather than cheap gags, allowing it to become a genuine reflection of human behavior.
The title TIN MEN refers to a nickname given to the men who, in the 60s, went door to door selling aluminum siding to homeowners nationwide. Much of the film’s humor comes from the fact that these weren’t honorable men. They would con the customer by promising them a commission or referral fee for any neighbors who purchased the siding after admiring their homes or would tell the homeowners that the product would be free and all they would have to pay for was the labor. (The “LIFE Magazine” scam is probably the best so I won’t spoil it here.) TIN MEN is about these men. It takes place in 1963 after a housing commission has been created to cut down on these scams. The film opens as two salesmen from different companies get into an altercation. Just after buying his brand-new Cadillac and slowly backing it out of the dealership, Bill “BB” Babowsky’s car collides with Ernest Tilly’s, leading to a heated exchange of words. Tilly claims, “You Bolted out of Nowhere,” only to have BB reply with, “I bolted… at 6 miles an hour, I bolted!” This inciting incident drives the story forward as both men vow to get even with each other, BB even going as far as to seduce Tilly’s unhappy wife, Nora.
Levinson has written and directed a mature comedy that relies on smart dialogue and genuine emotions. It may only consist of a few laugh-out-loud moments, but it’s the kind of film that will keep a smile on the viewer’s face throughout most of its nearly 2-hour runtime. TIN MEN isn’t a slapstick comedy, nor is it a farce. It doesn’t rely on jokes and puns. The humor grounds itself in reality, making the film more genuine in tone and less over the top than so many other comedies. While opening with a humorous scene of the two main characters having a verbal exchange regarding their accident, as well as some smile-inducing scenes of the Tin Men attempting to scam their potential clients, the humor eventually settles into some more dramatic subplots. After BB seduces Nora, Tilly’s wife, as the ultimate get-even stunt, he finds himself unexpectedly falling in love, while Tilly’s life enters the world of divorce, money problems, the IRS and the newly formed Home Improvement Commission. The film is about two men whose lives have literally crashed into each other and how the following weeks play out, each having their lives head off in different directions, only to find themselves in the same place in the end.
The film’s cast is nearly perfect, with Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito delivering strong lead performances. DeVito, who was probably best known at the time for his more comedic roles in movies like RUTHLESS PEOPLE (A personal favorite), WISE GUYS and THROW MAMMA FROM THE TRAIN, is very funny as Tilly, but he is also given the chance to shine in some more dramatic scenes as well. Tilly is a man with a warped sense of ethics, and DeVito nails the part to near perfection. Meanwhile, Dreyfus adds a real depth to his character as he begins to realize the life he once had no desire for is becoming the life he now longs to live. Having never lived with a woman, he finds himself in a situation with Nora that forces him to find a part of himself he didn’t know existed. DeVito and Dreyfuss shine when on the screen together, never missing a beat with their constant back and forth.
Although the film’s main plot centers itself around Tilly and BB, it gains its strength through a superb performance by Barbara Hershey as Nora. She is a woman with her own story to tell and her relationships with both characters aren’t what you would initially expect. Nora’s distinct connections with both men help to endear us to them. Neither Tilley nor BB are classically likable characters. After all, they are two men who make a living conning the average homeowner out of their hard-earned money, but it’s through Nora that the viewer can see them for who they truly are deep down.
The rest of the supporting cast is wonderful as well. It consists of great character actors like Bruno Kirby, Seymour Cassel, Jackie Gayle, J.T. Walsh and an early performance by John Mahoney. They portray the side characters who work with and surround BB and Tilly and help set the realistic ambiance needed to create a perfect tone. They occupy scenes with the kind of dialogue that made the television show SEINFELD a hit, only TIN MEN came out a couple of years earlier. Conversations range from how unrealistic the hit show BANANZA was to who was the best guest on Johnny Carson. These men are a lot of fun to hang out with and even though the plot doesn’t need some of this dialogue to move it forward, these men add such a great comic tone to everything that the movie wouldn’t be the same without their conversations.
TIN MEN is a rich character study that effectively transports us back to a time when things were very different than they are today. With its perfect balance of humor and drama, the film deserves to be recognized as one of award-winning director Barry Levinson’s best, as well as one of the finest dramedies that the 80s had to offer.
Watch TIN MEN
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