“Life is so unpredictable, man… one minute we’re hauling a boat, next minute we’re getting a ride with babes.” — Gus Green (Danny Glover), Gone Fishin’
Like the original 2008 Cloverfield film, the climax of 1997’s Gone Fishin’ — the fourth movie J.J. Abrams co-wrote — involves a monster. It’s not a mythical one, but it’s still pretty formidable in the context of the film. Also, there are simply not enough movies out there in which the main confrontation involves an alligator guarding a suitcase full of jewels.
Gone Fishin’ may seem like a footnote in Abrams’s career, but it actually came as a turning point. It was the last script billed to “Jeffrey Abrams,” and his last project before his breakthrough with a co-writing credit on 1998’s Armageddon. From there, Abrams pivoted back into a successful career in television, developing and working on Felicity, Alias and Lost in fairly close succession, before returning to the multiplex and becoming that disgustingly affluent, post-Spielbergian wunderkind we know and love/hate today.
For someone who has helped define the tone of the average, modern Hollywood action-adventure blockbuster today, it’s amazing how unlike anything in the current cinematic landscape Gone Fishin’ is. It’s a madcap comedy about middle-aged men, rated PG — done in a goofball, slapstick-y comic style that owes more to Beavis and Butthead than The Bucket List. There’s almost no conflict in the film, and very few discernible jokes; perhaps the best one is Joe Pesci’s catchphrase of “Holy sh-mokes!”; or the mere fact that he’s clad in capri cargo shorts and a flat-brimmed hat for the duration of the film. A surprisingly svelte Willie Nelson appears as a Christ-like fisherman’s guru, Billy “Catch” Pooler, to save Glover and Pesci’s “average Joe” characters from possible death during their misbegotten fishing trip to the Everglades, which makes for a strong moment.
The main intended, overarching “joke” of the film, of course, is that despite the title, very little fishing gets done. Every year, childhood friends Joe Waters (Pesci) and Gus Green (Glover) go on a fishing trip, which inevitably ends in disaster. This year’s Florida trip goes bad when they cross paths with a con-artist, murderer and thief named Dekker Massey, who is attempting to retrieve booty he stashed in the everglades. Waters and Green are dumb-and-dumber working-class Joes from New Jersey, who seem to break everything they touch — There are multiple scenes where they accidentally break the controls on motorboats. Somehow, the two slightly lecherous older men never suffer real consequences for their actions — even burning down a country club — or do anything their loving wives in Newark would object to. Like Abrams’ subsequent project, Felicity, conflicts build up and dissipate before the audience can even sense the tension.
Gone Fishin’ is comforting in the sense that there are almost no stakes; the dark humor of our Apatow-wave Hollywood comedies, and flashes of brutality that dilute our present-day action films, are completely absent here. Gone Fishin’ was a bomb with critics and only made back roughly a third of its budget. Given its PG rating, it wasn’t clear who was expected to attend or enjoy this movie. Perhaps, it brightened the nights of a few grumpy families: hitting a movie after a raw bar dinner on summer vacation with their grandparents in Maine.
Perhaps the Abrams-produced 10 Cloverfield Lane’s action-horror-comedy genre-warping will channel a bit of Gone Fishin’’s WTF-am-I-watching je ne sais quoi. But there are no guarantees — no easter eggs to be found here. And J..J., for better or for worse, tends to stick much closer to the status quo than “Jeffrey” did. Plus Abrams didn’t dare write 10 Cloverfield himself. Maybe he feared that a little bit of ol’ Jeffrey’s “holy shmoke”-ness would seep in there, and doom his chances of box office domination. In some sense, Gone Fishin’ seems like the ghost Abrams has spent the rest of his career running away from, like Gus and Joe from that nasty, nasty gator.