BOOTLEG FILES 543: “Nothing Lasts Forever” (1984 comedy featuring Zach Galligan and Bill Murray).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive film that never had a U.S. release in any format.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not in the immediate future.
For a number of years, I’ve received queries from regular readers of this column to write about a 1984 film called “Nothing Lasts Forever.” I always thanked the readers for their suggestions, but I never got around to covering the film – if only because it didn’t look like something I would enjoy, and I thought it would be unfair to review a production that I have already pre-judged negatively.
Last month, “Nothing Lasts Forever” became the subject of extensive news coverage when film writers began to realize the film can be seen in its entirety via an unauthorized upload to YouTube. Many of these stories carried headlines that insisted, “Lost Bill Murray Film Resurfaces Online.” But this was incorrect at several levels: the film was never lost (or at least not in the “London After Midnight” sense of being lost), it was not a Bill Murray film (he only has a small role) and it has been online for three years (albeit on an obscure YouTube channel that received very little traffic).
Realizing that I could no longer ignore “Nothing Lasts Forever,” I gritted my teeth and watched the film. I am sorry to say that my initial fears were justified – the film is a dreary failure.
“Nothing Lasts Forever” was the brainchild of Tom Schiller, an Emmy Award-winning “Saturday Night Live” writer who achieved a degree of fame for his “Schiller’s Reel” segments of offbeat film shorts. The most famous of these shorts was “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” which imagined an elderly John Belushi dancing on the graves of his deceased cast mates – Belushi, of course, would become the first “Saturday Night Live” star to die.
Schiller sought to follow his “Saturday Night Live” friends in their migration to the big screen with a strange comedy that would emulate the style of 1930s Hollywood, complete with black-and-white cinematography (plus two color sequences shot in the muted hues that one associates with two-strip Technicolor). There was nothing original about trying to recall the style of a distant cinematic era – two of the most delightful comedies of the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” and Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” brilliantly replicated the visual panache of 1930s’ Hollywood. The problem, it turned out, was that Schiller’s work didn’t have the substance to match its style.
“Nothing Lasts Forever” takes place in what appears to be the 1930s, although there are no specific references to confirm that is the decade in question. Would-be artist Adam Beckett (Zach Galligan) is being passed off as a concert pianist, but he rebels against this scam during a performance when he reveals that his instrument is actually a player piano. Trying (and failing) to find himself in Europe, he decides to return to his hometown of New York City and make a concentrated effort to secure his dreams.
However, the city has been put under the governmental control of the Port Authority, and entry into the city is handled through an extremely rigorous immigration process. Adam is quizzed on how he will support himself and he states that he is an artist. But when the Port Authority tests him, they determine that he is ill-suited for that profession. As a result, Adam is forced to take a job as a security guard at the Holland Tunnel, with orders to shoot motorists that fail to obey any number of extraordinary new traffic rules. Outside of his job, Adam’s attempts to strike out on his own as an artist and to fall into a romantic relationship are dismal.
Thanks to a random act of kindness involving a homeless man, Adam is given a chance to learn something that no one knows about New York: there is a vast underground kingdom of elderly people that secretly run the city. “We shall show you that New York City is a dream created by higher beings as a temporary lodging place in the earthly sojourn,” says the leader of this underground realm (played by 92-year-old Sam Jaffe).
Adam is instructed by these mysterious subterranean denizens to take a trip to the moon, where he is promised that his true love is waiting. Adam books passage on a bus that is supposedly heading to Miami Beach with a gaggle of elderly passengers. However, the bus takes off into the orbit and heads to the moon. Upon arriving at the lunar destination, the elderly passengers are corralled into a shopping expedition while Adam learns from a comely young lady working up there (Lauren Tom) that the moon was colonized in 1953 and is being used in a nefarious plot to induce excessive consumerism from unsuspecting seniors.
To his credit, Schiller (working with producer Lorne Michaels and cinematographer Fred Schuler) pulled off a visually impressive work on a relatively tight $3 million budget. Howard Shore, the musical director of “Saturday Night Live” during its first five years, created a fine musical score that is among his best work.
But in focusing so heavily on the film’s look and sound, Schiller forgot to offer a story that would keep the viewer’s interest. Instead, the screenplay wobbles all over the place, with uneven helpings of satire, surrealism, science-fiction and sketch comedy piled on. In trying to cover too much territory, the film never finds a niche where it can resonate.
It also doesn’t help that Zach Galligan had no charisma whatsoever as the central focus of the film. Because his screen presence is so weak and his acting is so pale, there is no reason to be intrigued on his character’s fate.
Schiller packed the film with a large number of well-known performers in small (and often fleeting) roles. A couple of chuckles can be enjoyed by some unexpected appearances, most notably crooner Eddie Fisher in a funny/nasty self-parody of his has-been status and Calvert DeForest (a.k.a. Larry “Bud” Melman) as an overly enthusiastic bus passenger. But Schiller mostly gives his guest performers nothing to work with, resulting in either hammy efforts that go overboard (Dan Aykroyd as Adam’s agitated supervisor) or in stale wastes of time (legendary satirist Mort Sahl, who doesn’t get a single funny line in his brief bit as Adam’s wealthy uncle). John Belushi was signed to appear in this film, but he died six weeks before production began.
As for Bill Murray, he doesn’t turn up until the halfway mark as the slimy “sky host” on the bus trip to the moon. He’s not particularly funny, and his efforts only contribute to the film’s dreariness.
“Nothing Lasts Forever” was shot in 1982 and was originally planned for a 1984 release. But Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer abruptly decided to shelve the film after a disastrous test screening in Seattle. Even though Aykroyd and Murray were reigning at the box office with “Ghostbusters” and Galligan established himself as a star with “Gremlins,” the studio refused to make the film available.
Schiller made two attempts to get the film into the Cannes Film Festival, but his studio balked at making the film available for that event. Schiller never directed another film, choosing to focus his career in television commercial productions. “Nothing Lasts Forever” would later be shown in Germany, but it remained missing stateside until 2004, when Murray successfully lobbied for it to be included in a retrospective of his work at Brooklyn’s BAM Cinematek. Over the past decade, there have been a number of special screenings of “Nothing Lasts Forever” at festivals and special events across the U.S. In 2005, film historian Michael Streeter released a book on the film’s weird history.
Warner Bros. currently controls “Nothing Lasts Forever,” but that studio claims that the film has certain “legal difficulties” that prevent its release. Most likely, this involves re-licensing a number of vintage clips used in the film, including an “I Love Lucy” segment and scenes from classic movies including “Battleship Potemkin” and “Un Chien Andalou.” But that should hardly be a bank-busting endeavor – most likely, Warner Bros. sees no commercial value in getting the title ready for DVD release. Indeed, the studio has made zero effort to have the bootleg posting on YouTube taken down.
I suspect that “Nothing Lasts Forever” will eventually turn up in home entertainment release. Maybe a label like The Criterion Collection will provide the time, money and love to get the film ready for the digital age. Or maybe a surprise listing on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry will finally spur its distribution. Keep an eye out, as I suspect we haven’t seen the last of “Nothing Lasts Forever” – but for my tastes, I will be glad not to watch it again.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!