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He's back -- after one too many `Men in Black'

Barry Sonnenfeld looks to a big-screen comedy and a TV pilot to raise his stock.

April 16, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

THE director is acting like Barry Sonnenfeld, is talking like Barry Sonnenfeld but ... well, he doesn't exactly look like Barry Sonnenfeld.

There's the trademark cowboy hat and boots, the customary tie and jeans; but there's also a fully grown mustache that Sonnenfeld didn't have even three hours ago.

It was chosen from dozens of bogus beards and mustaches Sonnenfeld's got in a bag that he dips into from time to time -- an amusing and occasional diversion from his main task at hand, "Notes From the Underbelly," a new comedy pilot he's directing.

"I wear them for fun," Sonnenfeld says, peeling off the mustache with a little discomfort.

It's not just Sonnenfeld's hit movies -- "Men in Black," "Get Shorty," "The Addams Family" -- that display an eccentric comic style. The director himself is a complex combination of insecurity and confidence, a tightly wound showman who wants to do well by Hollywood but is among its most refreshingly unguarded critics.

With 1991's "The Addams Family," the former cinematographer for Rob Reiner (he shot "When Harry Met Sally..." and "Misery") and Joel and Ethan Coen ("Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona" and "Miller's Crossing") put down his camera and climbed into the director's chair. Marrying fast-paced, character-driven stories with an arresting and exaggerated visual style, Sonnenfeld in the span of seven years established himself as one of the town's most original and popular comic filmmakers.

As rapidly as his filmmaking star ascended, on the heels of "Men in Black II" it also fell, and the director found himself in the same position as so many middle-aged actresses: trying to prove he still had it. And that's part of what makes his disguise on the set of the TV show "Notes From the Underbelly" seem strange on a different level.

If anything, Sonnenfeld doesn't need a disguise at all -- he's been missing from the movies for four years. With April 28's "RV," he returns, with a film that is intimate by Sonnenfeld's standards and his most autobiographical.

It's a story of professional setbacks, disappointment mixed with relief, new insights into parenting and marriage, and finding laughs amid tough times -- which can describe not only the new movie but the director's filmmaking sabbatical. "RV" stars Robin Williams as a dad who believes by packing everybody into a motor home he can reconnect with his wife and two children. The question now is whether "RV" will allow Sonnenfeld to reconnect with moviegoers, and revive his big-screen career.

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His stresses on his sleeve

THERE are people in Hollywood who are openly gay. There are people in Hollywood who are openly vegan. Sonnenfeld is openly neurotic.

"I had this fear I was never going to direct a movie again," Sonnenfeld says inside a Pacific Palisades home used in filming "Notes From the Underbelly," a 30-minute ABC comedy pilot about pregnancy, parenting and relationships adapted from the novel by Risa Green. "So I thought I better find a TV show and hope it's a home run and it's my dowry."

It's not that Sonnenfeld isn't optimistic about "RV," although his praise, as with so many of his opinions about the film business, is honest and measured. "It's not like I love 'RV,' " he says. "But it's one of my kids."

It's more that paranoia is part of Sonnenfeld's nature; he says he has the same anxious career worries whenever he finishes a movie. That baseline apprehension reaches well beyond his job too: Sonnenfeld travels with enough cellphones and PDAs to fill a small Verizon store, just in case, he says, one of his four service providers is knocked out by some natural disaster or a terrorist attack or, he adds, "I get lost in the woods. I need to know that I'm gonna get to somebody." (Sonnenfeld writes a technology column for Esquire magazine.)

Sonnenfeld also knows that despite directing one of the most popular and influential comedies of the 1990s, "Men in Black," a number of his subsequent projects have sputtered or not even gotten off the ground.

While his last movie, 2002's "Men in Black II," grossed a strong $190.4 million in domestic theaters, it seems to have left pretty much everyone (Sonnenfeld, the studio, the producers, the audience) unhappy. The release of his previous film, "Big Trouble," was postponed by the Sept. 11 attacks, thanks to a subplot in the Tim Allen film about a bomb on an airplane. And even though Sonnenfeld is proud of 1999's "Wild Wild West," the movie was a media whipping post and quickly forgotten.

Any number of proposed movies that Sonnenfeld was tied to either have failed to coalesce or landed in the hands of other directors. Probably wisely, Sonnenfeld dropped out of making Jim Carrey's "Fun With Dick and Jane," which encountered numerous script revisions and reshoots under director Dean Parisot. But Sonnenfeld was heartbroken he didn't end up directing "Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events," ultimately made by Brad Silberling.

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