Sunday Editor’s Pick: Breaking In (1989)

by on February 20, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Feb 24 at 7:30* & Sun Feb 26 at 9:00 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]

*Screenwriter John Sayles in-person on 2/24


Anthology inaugurates a new screenwriter-centric series and chooses director and independent film legend John Sayles as their first subject with “From the Pen of: John Sayles,” thru March 1. The man himself stops by on Friday to discuss his collaboration with beloved Scottish director Bill Forsyth. Breaking In was Forsyth’s sole film in which he did not work from him own script, and it resuscitated star Burt Reynolds’ career after a series of schlock.

Sheila Benson thought it a brilliant pairing, for the Los Angeles Times:

The pairing of director Bill Forsyth and John Sayles, this time as a screenwriter, to create the delightful “Breaking In” seems so felicitous you wonder that it didn’t happen sooner. These are both men who know when to leave well-enough alone and when the smallest grace note will set a scene tingling.
“Breaking In” is decidedly minor-key, done on the notes between the solid, expected chords. Like everything Forsyth has put his hand to, but especially “Local Hero” and “Comfort and Joy,” the humor as well as the character development is cumulative. Forsyth is in no hurry to crank up the voltage; he’s assured enough to let the observations pile up until the audience does his work for him, chortling when they can foresee a reaction because they understand the characters so well. And Sayles has given him gorgeous characters.
To hear Burt Reynolds’ comic timing when it’s being calibrated to a minisecond is an absolute joy, and there are more than one of those moments lurking here. Siemaszko, whose forte is unpredictability and a certain irrepressible energy, gives absolutely full measure as Reynold’s sparring partner. Besides, there’s always the danger that Mike will be a little more of the wacko than even Ernie expects. It gives this luxuriously civilized movie its edge.


Time Out Film Guide:

Forsyth’s second American picture (the first actually shot in the States) is a gentle comedy about a couple of guys who happen to break into the same house at the same time. Mike (Reynolds) is an old-time pro, but Ernie (Siemaszko) is a kid, only in it for thrills. Declaring he’d sooner have a partner than a witness, Mike sets about showing Ernie the ropes. Despite the caper movie framework, John Sayles’ screenplay is not as far from That Sinking Feeling as you might think. Forsyth has a rare talent for locating the comic in the real world. His heroes and heroines never quite fit in, and who can blame them? There’s something funny going on: a guard dog more inquisitive than aggressive, a Christian hostel with thousands of dollars in its safe, a poetic prostitute who muses, ‘What would I do with your balls were they mine?’. Reynolds reminds one of the easy charm he commands when he doesn’t force it, and young gun Siemaszko is marvellous as a likeable schmuck who wants only to belong; together they’re poignant and very funny. A subtle, masterly film, a series of life lessons which never ducks the moral ironies, no less precious for their simplicity.

Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

An aging burglar (Burt Reynolds) takes on and trains a younger partner (Casey Siemaszko) in a quirky and likable 1989 comedy directed by Bill Forsyth and scripted by John Sayles. It’s warm, engaging, and very agreeably acted (Reynolds hadn’t been this good in ages); most of the focus is on the warmth that develops between the old pro and his student in crime—a little bit like the rapport between older and younger men found in some of the movies of Howard Hawks—and Sayles’s refreshingly nonjudgmental script has plenty of small-scale pleasures of its own.



Dave Kehr for the Chicago Tribune:

More than anything, “Breaking In” suggests a Howard Hawks film that the old master never quite got around to making. It is, like many of Hawks` movies, a story of male bonding through professionalism-of partnership as the highest degree of friendship.
The screenplay, by the craftsmanly John Sayles, never follows up the deeper suggestions in Mike`s character, which is a shame-he seems to inhabit the same spooky outsider territory where Forsyth`s most memorable characters live. Instead, “Breaking In” becomes the story of his apprenticeship to Ernie, as the older man instructs the younger in the skills and subtleties of his trade. Sayles` script is full of the inside details-how to carry nitroglycerine in your shirt pocket, how to cut a hole in a roof without letting the plaster fall-that are crucial to the enjoyment of the genre. It`s also full of Hawksian elaborations of the professional code: what is and is not permitted, the rules and regulations one accepts to be a member of the club. Warning Mike away from “straight Janes,” Ernie arranges a double date with a pair of prostitutes (memorably played by Sheila Kelley and Lorraine Toussaint), professionals themselves. “It ain`t love,“ Ernie notes without regret, “but it`s as close as you and I are gonna come.”
Forsyth`s best quality as a filmmaker may be his apparent passivity-his ability (no doubt carefully created) to always seem as if he`s just dropping in on his characters, looking on as they just happen to drift by his camera.


Jack Ryan in his book John Sayles, Filmmaker:

Breaking In, directed by Bill Forsyth, the Scottish filmmaker whose droll, dry sensibility can be both funny and melancholy, was an original screenplay of Sayles’s, and it follows the old-fashioned buddy movie genre. Forsyth matches Sayles well. They created a film with substance. Sayles actually wrote the script for Breaking In ten years before it was filmed. He liked the story but was reluctant to direct the material himself. Moreover, he did not want to simply sell the script – until, that is, Forsyth signed on to direct the film.
The breaking-and-entering story reveals Sayles’s observation on generational distinctions. Mike covets material goods, although he learns about life by the end of the film. Breaking In shows signs of Sayles’s sense of humor. For example, Ernie tells Mike about his old partner in order to teach the kid how to act once he has completed a successful robbery: “He drank like a fish, smoked three packs a day, and he chased women. He wasn’t a serious person.” In another telling bit of dialogue, Mike’s laywer Tuccy explains to him that if convicted to ten years, one serves six, and if sentences to six, one serves two. “It’s like logarithms.” says Tuccy. Perhaps the funniest scene in the film belons to Carrie, as she recites an ode she wrote to Mike’s testicles. Overall, Breaking In is a funny, easy-going film, made with a tone similar to that of Sayles’s own directorial work.



Vincent Canby for The New York Times:

“Breaking In” has a lot of the appeal of a 1949 Oldsmobile convertible that still looks almost new and drives like a dream, if none too fast. Speed is not of the essence here. Both the Scottish-born Mr. Forsyth, the director, and the quintessentially American John Sayles, who wrote the original screenplay, have spent a lot of love and care on this project. They have created a comedy that seems to be an old-fashioned buddy movie, though it never behaves in the manner of anything you’ve seen before, except maybe Mr. Forsyth’s ”Gregory’s Girl” or ”Local Hero.”
“Breaking In” is too fragile to be loaded down with second-hand significance. It’s a comedy of character and timing, especially timing. Mr. Forsyth’s comedy is always a beat or two behind or ahead of expectations. His films can legitimately be compared to shaggy dog stories in that the point of a gag is sometimes that there is no point.
Comic sequences meander through seemingly unrelated details to achieve their resonance. An unexpectedly friendly Doberman pinscher is the key figure in the elaborately staged break-in of a supermarket. The overheard conversation between two amusement park guards is what one remembers most vividly when Ernie and Mike stage their final and grandest maneuver. The movie is an accumulation of wonderfully buoyant, sometimes irrational details that would be throwaways in more conventional comedies.

Steven Rea talks to Forsyth for the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Breaking In opened nationwide in about 350 theaters. Before Breaking In, says Forsyth, “I don’t think I’ve made a film that opened in any more than about 10.”
The director hopes Breaking In reaches “this American audience that I haven’t seemed to reach. It was becoming a fixation: How do I get to this audience? . . .
Breaking In is quite good from that point of view because when I read it, the characters and situations seemed familiar to me, they were interesting. At the same time, the way the financiers were talking, it seemed possible that it might reach a larger audience.”
Foysyth’s experiment in mainstreaming wasn’t without its battles, however. He says the studio, the Samuel Goldwyn Co., applied “endless pressures to make the characters more likable and to soften things, to sentimentalize things. But you just have to be continually alert to them and resist as much as possible.”
“I try to make movies which have a sense of realness about them,” Forsyth says. “And in terms of working in daily life, realness is composed of both darkness and light. It would be artificial for me to make a film which was purely comedic, or one which was dark in a melodramatic way. I try to avoid the extremes.”


Daniel Cerone talks to Forsyth and Siemaszko, who Forsyth noticed waving in the bakcground of Biloxi Blues, for the Los Angeles Times.
Kenneth Turan profiles Reynolds, upon the film’s release:

Mr. Reynolds, whose first reaction when told Mr. Forsyth wanted to meet him was “you’re kidding,” had the director down to dinner in Florida. After the usual pleasantries were exchanged (“I told him I loved ‘Gregory’s Girl,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘You’re the one!'”), Mr. Reynolds said that even though he greatly admired John Sayles’s script for “Breaking In,” about the quirky relationship between a wary, aging safecracker named Ernie and his youthful quasi-protege (played by Casey Siemaszko), he told Mr. Forsyth, ”There’s not a part in it for me.”
“‘You can play the old man,’ he said. I told him Ernie was 10 years older than I was, and he said, ‘I can’t wait. I want you to do it.’ He reminded me, ‘You’ve never struck out with a good director,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but I got a couple of singles and a pop-up.’ I was amazed he’d seen anything in my work that conjured up this guy. To this day I don’t know what he saw. I wouldn’t think anybody would think I was a guy who couldn’t get a date.”
A witty, infallibly courteous man who can’t help being troubled by the notion that “people think I’m this retarded Trans-Am driver,” Mr. Reynolds is also honest enough to admit that even though the experience of making ”Breaking In” was “enormously satisfying,” it was also “a meal that tasted better after the picture was over.”
Mr. Reynolds was troubled by the two and a half hours of makeup the role required. “I originally thought, ‘Sure, a little gray in the temples, a David Niven role,’ ” he recalls ruefully. “But on the set Bill kept saying, ‘A little older, a little older.’ ‘Are you sure he’s 62?’ I said. ‘I think he is 105.’ ‘” After having his hair grayed and thinned so his scalp was visible, applying specially made uneven yellow teeth and wrinkled artificial skin, the effect was such that ”when I got off the bus for the first time, people said, ‘He looks terrible. It’s amazing what they can do to him on film.'”

Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Bill Forsyth is the master of the small gesture, closely observed, which reveals the personalities of his characters. He doesn’t deal in big-scale plots and actors who shout a lot, but goes instead for the comedy that can be found in the way people cover up their weaknesses and distrust their strengths. In the Forsyth universe, people don’t question reality. They accept a situation and begin to see what they can get out of it.
“Breaking In” has received publicity because Reynolds plays an older man for the first time, but his age isn’t really relevant, and he doesn’t seem all that elderly, anyway. What’s important is that he is a loner, a disciplined professional who has his hands full with this goofy kid. The actual caper in “Breaking In” is not particularly elaborate or surprising, but then this isn’t a caper film, it’s a character film. And the characters are revealed almost tenderly in the closing scenes, which had best not be revealed.
“Breaking In” has been billed as a comeback for Reynolds, but maybe it’s simply a well-written, well-directed picture. Reynolds has a comfortable screen presence and can act, when that seems appropriate, but he derailed his career with a series of lame-brained action comedies directed by and co-starring his pals. This time, in the Forsyth universe, he shows the warmth and quirkiness that made him fun to watch in the first place.


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