Business Is Business Review
Although Paul Verhoeven began his filmmaking career directing short films (including a commemorative documentary for the Dutch Royal Navy), it was in television with the medieval adventure series Floris (featuring his regular star Rutger Hauer) that he finally made his mark in Holland. The success of that show in the director's homeland enabled Verhoeven to make his first feature film, Business Is Business (a.k.a. Diary Of A Hooker a.k.a. Any Special Way a.k.a. Wat Zien Ik (What's This I See?)) The director had in fact wanted to adapt Jan Wolkers' novel 'Turk's Fruit' for the screen as his debut feature but was overruled by his producer Rob Houwer who was unwilling to tackle such a risky project at that time. Verhoeven was none too keen on making a film based on a novel (by Albert Mol) that was essentially nothing more than a scrappy collection of anecdotes dealing with prostitution in Amsterdam's infamous red light district. He did, however, realise that a commercial success with such a film might allow him to fulfil his ambition of bringing the Wolkers novel to the big screen. Houwer had initially conceived Business Is Business as a straightforward porn movie but a reluctant Verhoeven and his screenwriter Gerard Soeteman instead elected to turn the story into a bawdy sex comedy. Although Business Is Business went on to become one of Holland's most popular films at that time - it was the fourth highest grossing Dutch picture ever - and paved the way for Verhoeven's career as a successful filmmaker, it remains quite possibly one of the least characteristic, not to mention least interesting, films in Verhoeven's considerable body of work.
The 'story', for what it's worth, concerns two prostitutes, Blonde Greet (Ronnie Bierman) and Nel (Sylvia deLeur), who live together as neighbours in the same apartment building. Greet tends to her clients' every sexual whim with business-like efficiency whilst her neighbour Nel never seems to make enough money to please her abusive boyfriend (and pimp) Sjaak (Jules Hamel). The two become friends when Greet defends Nel against some rather brutal treatment at the hands of Sjaak yet Nel stupidly refuses to part company with her boyfriend. Greet tries to help Nel escape Sjaak's clutches by registering her in a marriage agency but, after a disastrous first 'date' with a potential spouse, the two women decide to work together in their chosen profession instead. In a side story, Greet has herself fallen in love with one of her pick-ups (Piet Romer) and secretly yearns for a better life, which she believes he may yet provide for her. However, given that he is already married, a long-term relationship doesn't look too hopeful. And when Nel finds someone she thinks she wants to marry and thus escape her seedy life of prostitution, Greet isn't sure she wants to lose her working partner. After all, "business comes first".
The chief problem with this film is that the story feels so slight and inconsequential I could hardly remember it enough to summarise in the above paragraph. The entire movie is basically a series of comic vignettes depicting various bizarre sexual fantasies loosely tied together by a threadbare tale of two hookers struggling to make a better life for themselves. The plot is virtually non-existent and one gets the sense that nothing in the film is more important to the filmmakers than simply making the audience laugh at the outrageous antics of the two prostitutes and their kinky clients. Even Verhoeven's normally keen sense of social realism is, for the most part, sacrificed to the gags. Unfortunately, the other problem with the film (and Verhoeven mentions it on the audio commentary as a reason for the movie's commercial failure outside the Netherlands) is that much of the humour is specifically Dutch in tone and sensibility. In actual fact, the film's lewd, vulgar style is often reminiscent of many of the British sex comedies made in the 70s and as such, I would suggest that fans of those particular movies will enjoy this film the most. As I am not a fan however, I felt that, despite some reasonably funny moments, much of the humour is too forced and too crude, as if Verhoeven were trying too hard to be both humorous and outrageous at the same time. The scene where Greet's cherished boyfriend Piet takes her to a concert is a good example of what I mean - Greet's bad behaviour at the event and the hostile reaction it provokes from the rest of the audience is both overacted and clumsily presented.
In the most notable scenes in the film involving the hookers' participation in the perverted fantasies of their clients, Verhoeven directs with as much technical ingenuity and sometimes raucous energy as he can muster but the staging still comes across as more silly than funny and/or enlightening. Sex and sexuality are topics that Verhoeven has been typically unafraid to tackle (sometimes in graphic detail) in much of his subsequent work but he seems strangely reticent to do so here. The director has stated that because this was his debut film, he felt the subject matter was just a bit too risqué and sordid to be given the uncompromising treatment for which he would become so well known. Alas, the raunchy, often riotously slapstick humour of Business Is Business is a poor substitute and seems out of place in the Verhoeven canon. One is, therefore, forced to conclude that, although there is great humour to be found in many of Verhoeven's films, outright comedy might not be his forte. (No mention of Showgirls if you please!) Indeed, viewers expecting a realistic and sexually explicit account of the life of a prostitute will be sorely disappointed; this is more like Benny Hill than Katie Tippel, at times closer in tone to an episode of that "I'll buy that for a dollar!" TV show seen in Verhoeven's Robocop than to any of his other films.
Is there a "but", you ask? Well, when I said that this was one of the least characteristic of Verhoeven's films, I wasn't being entirely accurate. Although Business Is Business is unusually bereft of the elements - copious sex scenes, graphic nudity - that one might expect from a Verhoeven film dealing with the subject of sex, the director's decision to make his first feature about the Amsterdam red light district nonetheless demonstrates an early willingness to push the boat out in terms of what can be explored on screen. Furthermore, in spite of the diluting factor of comedy, Verhoeven, to his credit, endeavours to portray the sleazy milieu as realistically as possible, and the sights and sounds of the Amsterdam setting, not to mention the attitudes of the street workers found within, feel generally authentic. In this regard, Verhoeven is aided considerably by the talents of another regular collaborator, cinematographer Jan de Bont whose gritty, often highly stylised photography - particularly evident in the scenes involving the enactment of those farcical sex fantasies - plays the most significant part in making the whole thing (just about) watchable. Indeed, it is in the area of cinematography, in the film's confidently achieved visualisation, that Business Is Business offers the most promising glimpse of the director's (and DoP's) undoubted visual talent.
On the whole then, Business Is Business is something of an acquired taste - it will not convert anyone who already dislikes this kind of movie, and its story is too trivial for viewers who prefer their Verhoeven movies to have more bite (like me). On the other hand, fans of bawdy sex comedies might just lap it up. Admittedly it is difficult to review the film in the context of Verhoeven's work as a whole since it is something of an aberration. Verhoeven himself seems more than a little embarrassed by it, regarding it as merely a stepping stone to bigger and better things so Business Is Business is perhaps best viewed that way. I cannot personally recommend the film because neither the characters nor the supposedly comical situations they find themselves in ever managed to truly engage me. Granted, at just under an hour and a half, the film never outstays its welcome and it does end on a witty and amusing punch line but generally speaking, the performances are nothing more than adequate, the narrative feels half-hearted and the comedy is only sporadically funny. To be honest, even die-hard devotees of the Mad Dutchman might have trouble loving this one.
Presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, the print used here is not in as good a shape as the source materials Anchor Bay managed to procure for their other Verhoeven DVD releases. The picture is quite grainy at times and there are some instances of scratches and white specks. Most annoyingly, however, just after the film begins, an ultra-thin white vertical line appears just left of centre running down the screen and remains for approximately 6 minutes. A more faded version pops up again on and off for about 15 minutes thereafter then vanishes. It's not too distracting - it may not be all that noticeable on smaller TV screens - but it is the main negative mark against the disc itself. Otherwise, the overall image is very good, nicely detailed if a little soft, and the colours, particularly the blues, greens and reds, are deep and strong. Black level is also fine and there is no sign of any artefacts or edge enhancement.
Presented in the original Dutch mono (with optional English subtitles), the audio is, like the rest of the AB Verhoeven discs, perfectly satisfactory. The dialogue sounds clear as a bell and the music score (which, with its twanging guitars and jazzy burlesque piano, really makes the film sound like a cheesy porno flick) is smooth and lively.
[The film itself is contained on 23 chapters and the menus are animated and feature music from the film's score.] I have reviewed all five of the Anchor Bay 'Paul Verhoeven Collection' DVD releases and I take my hat off to this company for making the effort and providing some good extras for each of their discs. Like the other AB releases, the disc contains a still gallery (consisting of 11 images), a theatrical trailer (which lets you know exactly what you're letting yourself in for), a detailed biography of director Paul Verhoeven, and most importantly, another fine audio commentary from the man himself.
Verhoeven admits that he was reluctant to record a commentary for a film that he considers one of his least accomplished yet his observations prove to be as entertaining and illuminating as we have come to expect from him. He discusses his early career and the genesis of the film, his mixed feelings about the end result (despite its commercial success) and his working relationship with long-time associates like cameraman Jan de Bont, producer Rob Houwer and writer Gerard Soeteman. He talks about the deliberate stylistic techniques he uses in the sex fantasy scenes, citing the influence of B-movie horrors and even Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible on the film's editing, lighting and shot design. Verhoeven's choice of atypically conventional, less dynamic camerawork also comes in for some discussion along with his decision to avoid the portrayal of any graphic sex scenes his first time out. Other topics mentioned include the limitations and advantages of shooting on location, the film's low budget, the casting choices, even the research the director undertook - Verhoeven cheekily remarks that he spoke to prostitutes but didn't sleep with them, possibly a mistake since it would have been good for research! Indeed, his remarks are typically blunt, candid and funny - "Perversion [is] something I think is very natural" - and he is never afraid to criticise or poke fun at his creation. Although Verhoeven occasionally spoon-feeds the listener with obvious explanations of what is already apparent, this is still well worth a listen.
A lacklustre debut for the Sultan of Shock, Business Is Business is a poor example of Verhoeven's exceptional talent but I applaud Anchor Bay for going to the trouble of putting together a better-than-it-deserves DVD of one of the director's lesser works. I didn't enjoy the film as much as I wanted to but if you are a Verhoeven completist, or a fan of crude sex comedies, this disc might be worth your consideration.