Baby Knows Best [LOOK WHO’S TALKING]

From the Chicago Reader (November 24, 1989). — J.R.


* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Amy Heckerling

With Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, George Segal, Olympia Dukakis, Abe Vigoda, and the voice of Bruce Willis.

The biggest surprise in the film industry this season has been the box office performance of what is generally known as “the talking-baby movie.” Last month, only a week after a Variety reviewer plausibly predicted that this “yuppie-targeted programmer is destined for a short life in theaters, and its video future seems likewise limited,” Look Who’s Talking leapt to the top of the national charts, where it has remained ever since.

Having only just caught up with Look Who’s Talking, I must confess that I found the voice-overs of the talking baby, delivered by Bruce Willis, to be the silliest and least engaging aspect of the picture, although the audience I was seeing it with seemed to feel otherwise. I was probably biased by unpleasant childhood memories of the “Speaking of Animals” shorts — a rather odious series made by Jerry Fairbanks for Paramount during the 40s, which consisted of live-action animals with animated mouths spewing out wisecracks, usually in response (if memory serves) to the gag setups of the offscreen narrator.

Fortunately, writer-director Amy Heckerling hasn’t perpetrated anything quite as hideous as the animals’ moving lips. The baby’s comments — which begin with the sperm that fertilizes his egg, proceed throughout the mother’s pregnancy, and continue until the plot ends, when he’s about two years old — are always made offscreen, and are never heard by anyone except us. There are occasional halfhearted attempts to lip-synch these remarks with the gurgles of the on-screen baby, but Heckerling never resorts to animation.

Still, allowing for the obvious differences between babies and animals, I’m not sure that Heckerling’s conceit is all that different from Fairbanks’s. Representing a nonverbal consciousness with words is nothing new: the internal monologues in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the descriptions of astral psychology in Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker are two effective examples that come to mind, but Heckerling’s application of this device is too tacky and simpleminded to qualify as comparably artistic. Having an unborn baby declare “Hey, let’s get a little apple juice down here” when his mother drinks apple juice, or remark to his mother shortly after his birth “Lady, I don’t know about you, but I’m beat,” may be funny, but it has nothing to do with the unknown, the nonverbal, or infant psychology. If such remarks are funny, it’s surely because of the relief they offer from the anxiety one might feel wondering what babies think.

Heckerling seems to indirectly acknowledge this herself in her production-notes description of the film’s inception — an account that becomes steadily more contradictory the further it proceeds: “I used to look at my daughter in her baby seat and wonder what she was thinking about. I assumed she thought the same way I did. You know, sort of cynical thoughts; not cute, adorable baby thoughts. But her perspective would be without any reference points because she was figuring out everything for the first time. . . . Most adults run around intellectualizing and trying to figure out things based on experiences they’ve had. A baby just has to deal with pure feelings. That’s who Mikey is, and he seems to have the adults all figured out.” Having “pure feelings” and having something “all figured out” aren’t very compatible concepts, any more than “cynical thoughts” and “a lack of reference points” are, but the problem of assigning verbal meanings to a baby’s consciousness is certainly real enough, and probably part of every mother’s uncertainties.

A mother’s uncertainties, in fact, may be the real subject of Look Who’s Talking — specifically, an unmarried mother’s uncertainties — and I doubt that the movie would have been so popular if it didn’t voice these concerns (babies, after all, aren’t buying the movie tickets). The baby himself, Mikey, is such an abstraction that it’s hardly surprising that no less than half a dozen real-life babies are used to portray him once he’s out of the womb (including a couple of doubles), and that at least four separate prenatal props or dummies, all of them highly unconvincing, are used prior to that. With a minimum of 10 separate representations — actually 11 including Willis’s voice — Mikey isn’t so much a character as a force to build the movie around, which raises the question of whether the “who” of the title ultimately refers to him or to Heckerling herself.

The unwed mother in the plot is Mollie (Kirstie Alley), an accountant who’s having an affair with Albert (George Segal), a married yuppie who is one of her clients. Technically speaking, it is not so much Albert as biology itself that gets the story rolling. Over the Chantels’ rendition of “I Love You So” — a rock single that is eventually succeeded by a dozen more of similar ilk — an ovum floats through some version of outer or inner space resembling heavenly clouds behind the opening credits. Then there’s a matching cut from this gelatinous-looking cell to a lamp with melting red wax on Mollie’s desk at work, where Albert is insisting he’ll eventually get a divorce. The movie’s title appears over a fleet of spermatozoons swirling through cotton-candy clouds to the strains of another rock single (“I Get Around” by the Beach Boys), accompanied by Mikey’s voice saying “Come on, you kids, c’mon, right down, kids, here we go,” until one of the spermatozoons unites with the ovum, setting off blue bolts of electricity. Finally, writer-director Heckerling’s credit appears over an open toilet bowl, where Mollie, experiencing morning sickness, promptly throws up.

When it becomes clear to Mollie that (a) she’s pregnant, (b) she wants to have her baby, and (c) Albert, who’s now fallen for his interior decorator, has no intention of marrying her, she hastily invents a story for her mother (Olympia Dukakis) and other interested parties about having been artificially inseminated. Discovering Albert’s infidelity only moments before she starts going into labor, she hails a taxi. The driver, James (John Travolta), manages to get her to the hospital in time (after a formulaic mad ride through what is supposed to be Manhattan, although the film was shot in British Columbia). Mikey becomes a good deal more vocal once he’s born, and the film cuts away at this point to clue us in to the thoughts of other babies in the hospital. (There are two later “baby montage sequences” — once with a bunch of babies in strollers and once in a park, where they’re playing in a sandbox.)

James visits Mollie at home, immediately takes a liking to Mikey (“How do you like New York so far?” he inquires, to which Willis replies “It’s my kine-a town”), and gradually insinuates himself into her life. Eager to find a father for Mikey, Mollie has a string of awful dates. James agrees to baby-sit for her in exchange for using her address to establish a residency for his grandfather (Abe Vigoda), who James wants to set up in a new old-folks’ home. The growing rapport between James and Mikey eventually leads Mollie to consider him as a possible sexual partner and husband, despite her doubts about his carefree manner and economic situation. Albert briefly comes back into the picture, only to be thoroughly repudiated by James, Mollie, and Mikey in turn, and after another formulaic action sequence — in which Mikey wanders off and is nearly run over — Mikey says “Dada” to James, this time in lip sync, which settles the matter of Mollie’s future husband for good. A year or so later, Mollie gives birth to a daughter, who talks offscreen just like Mikey, and the closing credits roll past another fleet of happy spermatozoons drifting through vaguely heavenly spaces, this time to the tune of Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby.”

Heckerling’s previous work as director on the promising Fast Times at Ridgemont High was followed by Johnny Dangerously and National Lampoon’s European Vacation, neither of which I’ve seen. She’s adept at comically illustrating Mollie’s fantasies about future husbands with a minimum of fuss, and has a certain sensitivity in handling actors that is especially apparent in her work with Travolta. She also manages to convey a sympathetic grasp of her heroine’s dilemma, which, as I’ve already suggested, is largely what her movie is about. The talking-baby conceit originally struck me as being somehow marginal to this concern — it often seemed unnecessarily distracting or redundant, never saying anything that wasn’t already conveyed through other means — but further reflection about the movie and its unusual popularity has changed my feelings about this.

Consider, for starters, the significance of the use of an offscreen male adult voice. Observers of TV commercials have remarked that this voice suggests the “voice of God” in terms of its paternal authority, its role as ultimate arbiter and adviser, commonly informing a housewife what the correct choices are — or else corroborating the choices she has already made — when it comes to making purchases, running a household, fixing a meal, washing clothes, caring for children, and so on. (To confirm this overall tendency, I recently watched a slew of daytime commercials, and the preponderance of offscreen adult male voices in these ads is staggering; even in the few cases when an adult female narrator is used, the voice of the housewife’s husband almost always comes in to verify the message — to authenticate it, as it were.)

Look Who’s Talking appears at a time when the validity of godlike male authority in such matters is, if not exactly under siege, at least being thrown into question. All the male grown-ups in the picture — from Albert to Mollie’s father to her boss to her various dates to James to James’s grandfather — are clearly established as less than ideal authority figures: selfish, unstable, irritable, flaky, or some combination of the above. James, in spite of his boyish qualities, his flakiness, and his subyuppie life-style, is clearly the most acceptable male figure around, and Mikey is aware of this (as we know from his offscreen remarks) long before Mollie is; but even James is far from ideal as an ultimate male authority: whatever else he may offer, he certainly isn’t godlike.

The ironic thing about Mikey’s offscreen voice is that it gently parodies the function of a godlike male authority figure without ever questioning its necessity. Simultaneously unformed yet wise, “cynical” yet “pure,” this voice preserves the form of patriarchal authority while making it look slightly silly. (This side of Mikey represents the commonsensical side of instinct and impulse that is part of Mollie’s psychological makeup as well, but it’s not something she has conscious access to.) In short, the notion that baby knows best becomes a humorous variation on the notion that father knows best; it never reaches the radical point of asserting that mother knows best. (After all, it is the sperm and not the ovum which is granted a voice from the very beginning.)

Up to now, I’ve neglected a plausible reading of this movie which suggests a much more reactionary overall meaning — the strict identification of the viewer with Mikey/Bruce Willis rather than Mollie. This is clearly the implication of a recent newspaper ad for the movie headlined “Start Your Holiday Early, Gobble Up This Season’s Biggest Comedy Hit,” which shows the baby wearing sunglasses (to suggest Willis) and an Indian headband and feathers (to suggest “native instinct”?) grasping and biting into a holiday turkey. Male self-love and self-interest are currently the most beloved national traits, at least as evidenced by the charismatic leading figures in Batman (Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson), Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen and Martin Landau), and Harlem Nights (Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murphy), and from this standpoint, Mikey/Willis may represent only a more blatant version of the same infantile male narcissism.

I should add that Mikey’s voice isn’t the only representation of godlike authority in the movie. The mainly male-dominated pop tunes churning away on the sound track (apart from Janis Joplin singing “Cry Baby” and Katrina and the Waves performing “Walking on Sunshine”) carry out a related function, simultaneously mocking and fulfilling the notion of eternal verities, and the implicit linking of a woman’s innards with heavenly reaches in the movie’s prologue and epilogue helps to consolidate the overall religious context. Men and gods are still running the show, and the most that Heckerling’s comedy can muster is to undermine their nobility just a little by placing their wisdom in the mouths of babes and teenage crooners.

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