hopscotch

 

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One day some years ago, in Someplace, America, a man named Brian Garfield probably had himself a good belly laugh. He probably had no idea how prescient his 1975 novel “Hopscotch” would be, nor what a laughable farce the resulting film would make of the idea of the ease with which one man could cause an international uproar.

Miles Kendig is good at his job. He might skirt the rules a time or two, but in the end he always leaves things better than he found them and he has the honest respect of his co-workers. All of them except for his boss, who hands him a particularly humbling demotion. So he does what any of us would do … hop a flight to Austria to figure out his life in his girlfriend’s well-appointed mountain chalet. The answer is always: Memoirs. Miles decides to publish the details of his last 30 years of professional service. Which is a problem for his former employer.

You see, Miles Kendig is an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.

That he is suave, savvy, resourceful and witty is to be expected. That he is played by Walter Matthau is perfection.

For one generation, Matthau was Oscar Madison. For another, he was Morris Buttermaker. For yet another, he was a Grumpy Old Man. One thing was always the same. That face. Such a hang dog look always seemed too unique to be able to blend in among actual society. But Matthau had an ability to not just look like everyman, but to be every man.

Miles Kendig has the savoir faire of James Bond and the manner of an elementary school principal. Men want to be like him. Women want to be with him. Even his global enemies grudgingly profess their affinity for him. Nonetheless there are still plenty of enemies. Kendig leads them on a chase around Europe, continually dodging the ever-tightening dragnet.  All the while, he is publishing his novel (the titular “Hopscotch”) one chapter at a time, revealing embarrassing state secrets.

When one of the pursuing agents offers the obligatory “you’ll never get away with this,” Kendig replies “don’t bet on it, kid.” And we don’t. He continually stays one step ahead of the law, taunting them at every opportunity. It leads to Kendig finally dispatching his pursuers in a predictable — but still thoroughly satisfying — conclusion.

But the heart of the film is its leading man. Walter Matthau’s Miles Kendig is the putty-faced, jowly successor to Cary Grant’s Peter Joshua in “Charade”. Fitting since Matthau played one of that film’s main villains. Here, he’s all folksy charm and quick wit. He’s Edward Snowden, as constructed by a 1980 Hollywood writer’s room.

Which is to remind you that Matthau’s character is unabashedly revealing sensitive information to the nation’s enemy. It’s just that the information seems to be more personally embarrassing to the people involved than anything nationally shameful. Kendig feels less like Bradley Manning and more like Jim Bouton.

Thirty-four years ago people feared the worst from our leaders. Today we expect it, which causes people to think about the idea of leaked confidential information with the intensity of a paranoiac who realizes that they really are after him.

Thankfully “Hopscotch” is free of any such hand-wringing. Which is probably for the best since it’s a movie about screwing over the boss that screwed you. Not exactly the most patriotic premise, but understandable. It’s enough to make a fella wanna book a flight to Salzburg.