Defending ‘Nothing But Trouble’ … Really

Thirty years later, this Dan Aykroyd mega bomb is flawed but flamboyantly nuts

Nothing But Trouble” (1991) begins in such a familiar way, it allows the audience to get comfortable, let their guard down and be knocked over by what an unhinged, off-putting and wildly ambitious work it becomes.

The opening credits of Dan Aykroyd’s directorial debut unspool over a glittering New York City skyline, making this seem like another generic romantic comedy. The shots of the Twin Towers promise a very different kind of movie from the one we’re watching.

We meet Chris Thorne, a wealthy financial analyst, played by Chevy Chase, who immediately hits on Diane, played by Demi Moore, a lawyer in need of a car.

Nothing But Trouble Trailer 1991

Somewhere in New Jersey, Thorne makes an ill-advised short cut through Valkenvania and is pulled over by the Chief Constable (John Candy). A mere speeding ticket and a wag of the finger is out of the question, as the cop informs Thorne that he must have an audience with the local justice of the peace.

Thorne pleads, “This may be… Valkenvania, but this is still America.”

His complaints unheard, Thorne, Diane and their tag-alongs find themselves in a ramshackle court, with the proceedings being lorded over by the 100-years old Judge Alvin Valkenheiser, played by Aykroyd. Around that point, the movie goes Looney Tunes crazy and never looks back.

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Aykroyd conceived of the story, while his brother Peter (who makes a gratuitous cameo as Mike the Doorman) wrote the screenplay. I should add that the bizarre but fascinating Wes Craven/ Eddie Murphy vehicle, “Vampire in Brooklyn” (1995) was also composed by brothers (in that case, Eddie and Charlie Murphy).

Aside from the Coens brothers, siblings don’t always make the best collaborators. In the case of both “Nothing But Trouble” and “Vampire in Brooklyn,” the end results are all over the place but extremely entertaining.

The setup is good, if overplotted (surely there was an easier, quicker way to get Chase and Moore on the road). Aykroyd has ditched the teens and made a yuppie-infused “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Here, the rich and protected are clueless when having to negotiate or exchange pleasantries with salt of the earth types. A valid question: did Aykroyd even want to make this a comedy? There are enough elements here for a welcome ’90s variation on “Motel Hell” (1980).

Motel Hell (1980) - Official Trailer (HD)

The remarkable set design, costumes, matte paintings, matched with Aykroyd’s unleashed imagination, make this either too much of a good thing or just too much, depending on whether you’re a fan or roll your eyes at the very thought of this movie.

While a high-profile flop in 1991, it’s grown on a generation hungry for cult movie oddities.

Chase is in great form here – he’s deadpan, cynical, too cool for the room and dialing into the snarky edge of Irwin Fletcher. Although hardly a film that is mentioned fondly with his more famous comedy hits, Chase’s one liners are sharp enough to always land and give the film a kick when it starts wandering off track.

Moore is better than her role, though there’s enough here to remind us why comedy isn’t what she’s primarily known for. Chase and Moore give it a try, but the romance doesn’t make sense and the two lack chemistry.

Aykroyd’s grandstanding turn “won” him the Worst Supporting Actor award at the Razzies, but his eccentric, hammy work is exactly what the character needed.

Candy is solid, especially in his initial performance as a no-nonsense cop; his mute second character is in line with Aykroyd’s tendency to lean into the weird, but it even stretches how much the generously charming Candy can work the material.

Multiple song soundtrack cues from Ray Charles, Damn Yankees, Peter Aykroyd and Digital Underground feel gratuitous, as Aykroyd pushes the overly busy soundtrack too hard. Much better is Michael Kamen’s unusual and feisty score.

The PG-13 rating has excised any gore (if there was any to begin with) and the horror is lacking. Except for a nauseating shot of the Judge devouring an undercooked bratwurst, the gross stuff and violence are kept offscreen (which is disappointing for a movie that introduces an often-used device called The Bonestripper).

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An anecdote on the film’s production popped up in Spike Lee’s 2006 tell-all book on filmmaking, “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It,” where he recalls Warner Brothers not giving him the budget he needed for his masterpiece and sixth film, “Malcolm X” (1992).

Lee needed $30 million to make it and had to raise some of the budget himself. Meanwhile, Aykroyd was given around $40 million for his directorial debut. The logic, perhaps, is that Aykroyd had worked with Steven Spielberg and John Landis at that point and knows his way around a set.

However, Lee was right – providing the gifted comic actor but filmmaker novice that much money and freedom for his first movie, let alone one made on this size, was unwise.

Aykroyd shows his limitations as a director during the fight scenes and action; he has an eye for detail but the choreography here is lacking. The second act, while eventful, is full of long, laugh-less stretches, but the meticulous sets and pull of the bizarre story carry it along.

A sequence involving a room of discarded IDs from the Judge’s countless former victims is an indication of how this could have benefitted from going darker, not dopier.

Digital Underground Manager Talks Shock G (RIP) Tupac And "Nothing But Trouble"

There are some mistakes at the story level that almost sink it altogether: the side characters of rich Brazilians who join Chase and Moore’s journey is unneeded baggage from the start. Although the Aykroyds are trying to establish a pattern at the story level, bringing in Daniel Baldwin’s drunken motorist also doesn’t add much.

The second act introduces giant mutant babies (one of which is played by Aykroyd) who are also walking, talking bad ideas. Yes, the make-up is amazing all around but considering the oversized tykes (named Bobo and Lil’ Debbull) come with no backstory or any real reason to exist in this film, they function as an embodiment of Aykroyd missing the mark.

The well-known sequence that allows hip hop group Digital Underground to literally enter the film, do a few numbers, then walk out the front door, is another distraction. Aykroyd could have included this as an add-on over the end credits or just had the Digital Underground scene as a music video for MTV airplay (which it briefly became).

As is, its initially amusing, until it turns painfully corny, though it at least gives Tupuc Shakur a most unlikely film debut.

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Aykroyd’s imagination isn’t something I’d normally want tethered, though it’s worth noting that his epic-sized, near-insane original concept for “Ghostbusters” was carefully whittled down into the film it is now. Aykroyd’s tendency to embrace occult concepts, introduce odd character names and thrust his narratives right into The Twilight Zone isn’t just present in “Ghostbusters” but also in his funniest screen vehicle, “Dragnet” (1987).

I admire how weird and unpredictable “Nothing But Trouble” is but can only half-heartedly defend something this wonky and maddeningly uneven.

“Nothing but Trouble” makes a welcome debut on Blu-ray this month, thanks to Shout Factory. The film still looks grungy (minus the establishing and final scenes set in New York, the only instances where the film looks like the glossy star vehicle it is).

The set of special bonus features are a mixed bag but, to say the least, a welcome upgrade from the old snap case DVD edition from decades ago.

The featurettes sport separate interviews with Aykroyd and Chase – the former is the best of the talking heads here, as his chatty, in-depth recollections cover the expected inception, making and response to the film, though he’s such a fast talker, Aykroyd covers far more than just the basic talking points.

Chase, on the other hand, gives a wandering, unfocused monolog on the film, pausing to laugh at Aykroyd’s prosthetic nose, as though he were just realizing now what it’s supposed to be in the film; Chase compliments Aykroyd and the film in full.

It’s a major difference from the unfavorable words he wrote in his 2013 authorized biography, “I’m Chevy Chase… and You’re Not.”

We never see Aykroyd and Chase during their interviews. Instead, we have the audio of their interviews playing over clips of the film and, a far more welcome touch, behind the scenes photos and the stunning production sketches.

Most of the interviewees here aren’t filmed but heard, which is fine, except the barrage of “Nothing But Trouble” clips made me overdose on the movie. Among the best interviews comes from Bertila Damas, who played one of the two “Brazillionaires” in the film (the other was played by the late Taylor Negron).

Damas appreciates the film’s cult following but is still the most refreshingly honest about the movie and the production issues, namely Chase. While Aykroyd makes a passing, uncommitted reference to Chase and Moore not getting along during filming, Damas comes out and recalls when Chase was unkind to her.

I’m not saying I wanted all involved to linger on the film’s negative history, but Damas is the only one on hand to make measured observations about the troubled production (Aykroyd, on the other hand, refers to it as a “classic,” a sign of optimism to anyone outside of the film’s fervent cult).

Some blurry TV trailer spots are on hand, though the film’s official trailer admirably sells what the film is and doesn’t undermine how off the wall it plays. Seeing the stunning artwork on a separate gallery featurette, which led to the creation of the character and costume designs, is the biggest highlight of batch.

Getting Aykroyd and Chase was a major achievement for this disc, though I wonder why no one asked Aykroyd for an in-character commentary track, as that seems right up his ally.

“Nothing But Trouble” is one of those not-entirely-there studio films I can’t help but defend, due to how big and wild a swing it was for everyone involved. Aykroyd’s lone directorial effort is profoundly off kilter, which is better than being average or forgettable.

Whereas “Nothing But Trouble” is flawed but flamboyantly nuts, everything else is just the same old song.

One Comment

  1. Love this movie, actually was looking for some facts because I am reviewing it. I find several of the things you stated here are spot on, but I can’t help but find that you were overly harsh on Dan’s directing. The fight scenes for example, well first of all it is not an action movie, that it does need carefully planned out fight scenes. Furthermore; that is not the director, that is the choreographer and the actors, they have more to do with fight scenes than the director does.
    Asides from the above, I agree, it is a fun filled, kind of crazy movie that is just fun to watch

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