Love Brokers: Ron Howard's Night Shift (1982)
Comedies almost never age well. It’s a cruel fact that I’ve come to learn time and time again when trying to revisit beloved classics. For example, I used to hold The Jerk up as maybe the funniest thing that I had ever seen. I watched it again two years ago and sat through the entire thing stone faced, pathetically forcing myself to chuckle and lie to myself about the quality of what I was seeing. Obviously there are exceptions, but those tend to be the movies that work on their own as movies beyond the comedy. Night Shift is one of the very few whose humor actually holds up just fine, possibly even more than the story itself does, thanks to exciting performances from Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, and Shelley Long and to being generally smarter than many of the other sexually charged comedies of the era.
A timid New York overnight morgue worker, Chuck (Winkler), is annoyed by the presence of the new hire, a high energy loudmouth by the name of Bill Blazejowski, aka Billy Blaze, (Keaton). Billy and his entrepreneurial spirit is naturally disinterested in the depressing busywork, so he instead cooks up a more interesting racket for Chuck and him, prostitution. Chuck goes along to help out his neighbor, Belinda (Long), who’s being violently mistreated by her pimp. While doing the work, Chuck falls for Belinda, and tries to convince her to leave the trade and run away with him, his annoying advances she adamantly refuses.
Much like Ron Howard as a director, Henry Winkler is somebody who consistently puts in good work but is easily taken for granted. And while he’s not working all that far outside of his comfort zone, that’s not so here. Winkler shines working off of Keaton. At first he’s your average nebbish Winkler character, but by the end of the film he’s more assertive, a full blown pimp, closer to his most recent atypical performance as a slimeball acting coach on the HBO series Barry (please, if there is a god, get Winkler some awards for what he’s done on that show). It’s a very funny transformation and a case of perfect casting, playing off the public perception of the Happy Days star to surprise the audience.
Keaton, while not having as substantial of a character arc, more than holds up his end of the bargain in his very first starring role. His naturally manic energy and brilliant physical comedy is what makes the movie still such a joy comedically (his introduction and the chalkboard scene are two all-time greats). From the beginning, it’s easy to tell why Keaton ended up as the phenomenal star he is. Ditto Long in one of her earliest roles. Just like Keaton, she has an effortlessly cool presence about her. Her committed performance keeps everything grounded while being very funny in her own right.
I’ve always thought of Ron Howard as a good, not great director, and while participating in this series and looking back on his career didn’t exactly make me change that perception, it did make me appreciate him more. It only takes one great film to make the rest of the filmography look better, and on this second watch, I realized Night Shift is that film for me from Howard, just as Barry was for me with Henry Winkler. Representations of the sexual politics of the time are a bit of the fly in the ointment, but they aren’t enough to take anything away from the fun of this great comedy.