Tin Men (1987)

Battling aluminum siding salesmen in Baltimore. That one sentence description doesn’t really tell you what this film is about. So allow me to fill in the gaps.

Director Barry Levinson made four films about his hometown of Baltimore, each representing a different time. Tin Men takes place in 1963, which still feels a bit like the 1950’s but the times are a changing.

In 1963, life in America was pretty good, the standard of living was rising, the music was good (but would be even better when the Beatles showed up), people gathered to talk about what they saw on TV the night before, and cars still had those distinctive fins.

Levinson gives us a story that full embraces the time-frame, as his films do, filtered through three characters whose lives are about to collide.  Danny DeVito plays Tilley and Richard Dreyfuss is BB Babowski, each working for an aluminum siding company who will engage in any scheme or dishonesty to get a sale. Each also drive a Cadillac and eventually form a triangle with Tilley’s wife, Nora (Barbara Hershey).  As good as DeVito and Dreyfuss are, Hershey is even better.

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When Cadillacs collide

Tilley and BB first meet when their Cadillacs collide, BB is leaving the car dealer with his brand new car at the time. This literally set them on a collision course for the entire film, to top each other and inflict as much car damage or emotional payback as possible, which is where Nora enters the picture.

Levinson started as a comedy writer for The Tim Conway Show and The Carol Burnett Show. This lead to writing films for Mel Brooks, and partnering with his wife Valerie Curtain to write films like Inside Moves, Best Friends and …And Justice For All.

In 1982, Levinson wrote and directed Diner, which proved to be a sleeper hit with a young and mostly unknown cast like Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Steve Gutenberg and Tim Daley.

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Tilley extracting revenge on BB’s new Cadillac

Most Levinson films are really ensemble pieces, and Tin Men is no different.  It is a collection of odd-ball characters who will dazzle you with a critique of Bonanza, which has nothing to do with the story, but provides these comedy nuggets that add flavor to the period.  Levinson recreates the early 1960’s period, with a bit of 1980’s flavor (Fine Young Cannibals), heaping on the style and showing how people were chasing the American Dream, and a sweet deal on aluminum siding to get their home into Life magazine was the ticket.  Right from the beginning. Tin Men has an attitude of fun and boldness.  Convincing someone that they need aluminum siding takes panache and cunning.  It’s no wonder that the Home Improvement Commission is investigating the business.

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BB and Nora

Tilley and BB ramp up the abuse they heap onto each other, as a dented fender quickly escalates to broken headlights and windows, and then seducing Tilley’s wife.  Instead of a touchdown dance, BB is told by Tilley to keep his wife, she’s an albatross around his neck.  BB feels like he’s been taken somehow.  When Barbara gets home after being with BB, she finds all of her clothes and personal items all over the front lawn.  With nowhere to go, she returns to BB to stay with him, something he is not prepared for, but gives in.  What began as revenge, now has deeper consequences.

The Home Improvement Commission is lurking in the background, holding hearings and beginning a crackdown on unscrupulous business practices.  Tilley meanwhile has IRS tax problems, and even though he has kicked Nora out of the house, he doesn’t want BB to have her.  BB is adjusting to having Nora living in his apartment, he’s not used to being in a committed relationship, and it’s grating on him. He goes to see Nora at her office, she’s clearly pleased to see him, but he’s there to tell her of the ways she is getting on her nerves. She suspects he wants her to move out, but he says they shouldn’t do anything drastic. He’s clearly not used to a relationship like this. He doesn’t want her to move out, not really. He kisses her goodbye and starts to leave, stops, turns, goes back to her and kisses her deeply.

Things get even more complicated as BB’s partner has a heart attack and decides to leave the business for something more stable.  This gets BB to thinking about his future.

Tilley tells Nora that BB is really a tin man, a fact he has hidden from her, not knowing that he was actually going to fall into a relationship with her.  Nora is livid, and backs her car into BB’s recently repaired Cadillac.

BB goes looking for Nora and ends up at Tilley’s house. Tilley waylays him and pelts him with eggs and tomatoes when he wakes to. At the police station, it’s Tilley that is up on charges for assault.

Tilley’s bad luck continues, his house padlocked by the IRS, and is let go by his employer.

BB appeals to Nora, he’s fallen in love with her, despite his reservations about settling down.  He wants to marry her, which even surprises him.

Later, BB admits to Nora that he went to see Tilley, and he played a game of pool to win the right to be with her.  He lost the game but isn’t about give her up.

Both BB and Tilley are called before the Home Improvement Commission.  BB doesn’t care, he’s ready for a change.  Both have their licenses pulled, ending their careers as tin men.  Tilley has his car repossessed.  BB offers him a ride, where they talk about what to do in the future.  Friends.

Tin Men is a very funny film, although it has a few very big laughs, the humor is more subtle and engaging.  The film is very episodic as it follows the lives of Tilley and BB, how they interact with Nora, and how they see their own careers, and lives, reaching a fork in the road.

Neither Tilley or BB are classically likable characters but we grow to understand them and grow to like them, as they begin to like each other.  Poor Nora has to contend with both of them, and eventually gets them both to better understand what she wants in life.

For a guy who wrote broad television comedy and then worked on Mel Brooks film comedies, Levinson as a gentle character touch, able to find the complexities and have them engage in believable behavior that puts a smile on our faces. Watching BB and Nora fall in Love is worth the ticket.

Levinson populates his film with veteran performers like Seymour Cassel, Jackie Gayle, J.T. Walsh, Michael Tucker, John Mahoney, Richard Portnow and Bruno Kirby. If you don’t know the names, you know the faces and they add texture and fun to the film. Their late night gatherings, breakfasts and pool games where they talk about television shows, what they had to eat yesterday, new cars and getting laid, are funny and have very little to do with the story but you enjoy being around these characters.


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