Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), the oft-ignored yet stupendous film about a jaunt through a terrible night in SoHo, is an inexplicable experience where nothing is literal, and where each interlocking detail becomes upended and reversed by dream logic and surrealism.
The film is unlike anything else in Scorsese’s catalog and is designed to be disorienting though its premise is simple. A man just wants to go home from SoHo -- what’s so challenging or interesting about that? The answer comes in the form of closeups focused on unimportant details, blurring the lines between what is important and what isn’t. The unlikely becomes likely, details change, and the power of suggestion propels much of the drama that fills the technically simple plot with constant suspense. A bad evening out becomes a Kubrickian Eyes Wide Shut-esque experience. And much like Dorothy attempting to get home from Oz, a string of fantastic and unusual occurrences involving rich and odd characters blocks the way.
Paul (Griffin Dunne) is a word processor who doesn’t seem the type that gets out much, longing for an experience that can break him away from the mundane similarity of his daily life. He sits alone in a coffee shop reading Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” when Marcie (Rosanna Arquette), the woman at the next table, strikes up a conversation. A minute later she’s gone, but not before giving him the phone number of the place she stays -- the warehouse apartment of her and her bagel and cream cheese paperweight sculpting roommate. Of course, not hours later, he calls. A maniac cab driver who speeds through the streets without reason, like the uncontrolled motion of a raging Kansas tornado, whisks Peter off to SoHo -- the artsy and foreign part of the city where he’s not used to being. It doesn’t take long before his night starts to go awry and he longs for nothing more than to return to his simple, controlled life.
Especially after typical first-date smalltalk evolves into Marcie telling stories about being raped, and how her husband was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the point of shouting “Surrender, Dorothy!” when they engaged in intercourse. And her roommate, the curious and sexy sculptor Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) may or may not even actually exist.
Paul is greeted by colorful characters who don’t serve as his allies but claim they want to help him, and most of which he tries to help in return. A guard won’t allow him access to the Berlin Club. A barkeep (John Heard) attempts to trade him keys in exchange for subway fare. Kiki expresses an interest in fire and burns, much like Oz’s Scarecrow has a preoccupation with being set on fire; later, a lonely man displays hesitance towards a homosexual experience as if harkening the Cowardly Lion.
Eventually Paul’s series of misfortunes find him mistaken with a robber who has been looting apartments in the area. A woman named Gail (Catherine O’Hara), a variant spelling of Dorothy’s last name in Oz, appears as Paul’s last hope only to become his biggest nemesis. After he evades her, Gail soars around the city pursuing Paul in her Mister Softee truck (broomstick), with an angry mob of New Yorkers (flying monkeys) in tow.
When Paul finally returns to the Berlin Club, he finds it quiet and empty except for one person - June - who the barkeep says “is always there.” He attempts to appease her, advocating that she is his last hope for escaping the mob. In the club’s basement, where June lives, she covers him in paper-mâché like the rusted Tin Man, freezing him in place. In a twist of fate, he’s kidnapped by the actual neighborhood burglars who mistake him for a piece of art, and like the hot air balloon ride that whisked Dorothy out of her dreams and back into regular life, Paul is driven across New York and falls from the burglars' truck in front of his place of employment, shattering in the street. He’s returned back to the function, routine, and normalcy he sought to escape, now with a renewed sense of appreciation.
The two stories are obviously unique but share the similar narrative of someone wanting to go home. After Hours doesn’t leave much to discern in the way of message or meaning compared to its more magical predecessor, but that’s okay. It exists as a bold and innovative narrative in its own right, a stylish and screwball comedy that winks to the familiar without dwelling on it. It’s a Scorsese-clad exploration of New York as the closest reality people have to the wonderful absurdity of Oz.