REVIEW: True Colors (1991)

Herbert Ross’ political drama True Colors has a weak screenplay, humdrum direction, and a white-guy-sax musical score that refuses to ever end, but its two lead performances almost manage to save it. Almost, but not quite.

Peter Burton (John Cusack) and Tim Garrity (James Spader) meet at university and quickly become fast friends. Peter is brash, flashy, and on a fast track to a political career. Tim, more cautious and reserved, graduates into the Department of Justice. Over seven years their lives are shaped by secrets, lies, and shocking acts of betrayal.

There is a part of True Colors that honestly is worth your time if you are a fan of either lead actor. Both Cusack and Spader established strong, well-regarded screen careers in the 1980s, and in both cases established them based on playing fairly similar characters from film to film. For Cusack that meant sympathetic and upright underdogs. For Spader, a string of flawed and often mean-spirited yuppies. Based on the general premise of True Colors you would expect Spader to play the overly ambitious political hack, and Cusack the bookish DOJ attorney, but instead they have been cast the other way around. It creates an odd situation where both actors are clearly better suited to one another’s role, but where they are actually more interesting to watch playing against type. They play the friendship as a very close, intimate one as well; viewers who enjoy watching unintended homoerotic subtexts will have a field day with it, particularly how both men become romantically involved with the one woman.

They are also bolstered by strong talent surrounding them in supporting roles. Paul Guilfoyle, Richard Widmark, Imogen Stubbs, and Mandy Patinkin all help elevate the material, which is serviceably directed by Herbert Ross but lacks sufficient intensity or flair. Kevin Wade’s screenplay is actually rather bizarre. Prior to writing True Colors Wade wrote Mike Nichol’s 1988 hit Working Girl, which was a tremendously well-written comedy about a working class secretary beating a rich, privileged boss at her own game. Here the roles feel switched: very early on into True Colors that Peter’s rich dilettante persona is an act. He comes from a background of the working poor, changed his surname to hide his ethnicity, and deliberately ingratiated himself among the rich and powerful to get ahead. The archetype insists that such a character should be sympathetic – in Working Girl the equivalent protagonist Tess (Melanie Griffith) is sympathetic, deeply so – but in True Colors the manipulative behaviour and ambition makes Peter more of a villain than a hero. It’s up to wealthy, privileged Tim to represent the audience and be the principled and well-moralled hero the narrative requires.

In all honesty I am not sure that inversion of the archetype actually works. Perhaps it is the overwhelming number of films like Working Girl that play the opposite way, but True Colors feels inauthentic. Had the screenplay managed to keep a sense of sympathy for Peter it might have worked better, but a few choices made during the film’s third act makes that all-but-impossible. This is a misfire. It is a misfire supported by interesting casting and good acting, but that makes it interesting rather than good.

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