This is a movie that couldn’t exist with any other cast. The dialogue is often hilarious–and not generically so but in a way that’s rooted in the characters and their specific enthusiasms and preoccupations. And the movie overall is a lot sweeter and funnier than any film about two morgue workers becoming goodhearted pimps should be. But it’s easy to believe that none of those virtues would hold up without the cast–without, in particular, Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, and Shelley Long. The three of them manage to have the kind of simultaneously crackling-but-relaxed chemistry that recalls some of the great two-guys-and-a-girl comedies; sure, it would be hard to get any further away from something like Design for Living or The Philadelphia Story in terms of form or story, but the character dynamics here make the films all stand together despite that. Night Shift has the mind of an eighties comedy but the heart of an Old Hollywood romp.
Henry Winkler plays Chuck Lumley, a kind of anti-Fonzie–it’s a milder and less satiric touch than Alexander Payne casting Matthew Broderick in Election. Chuck is a morgue attendant, having retreated to the business because his Wall Street career was tearing him to pieces inside. He’s meek and unassuming without being a total caricature; likewise, his pain-in-the-neck fiancée, with her need for him to check the apartment for intruders before they could possibly have sex, is nicely specific in her weirdness. Chuck is nice, but it takes a while–and a lot of testing–before he can prove that his kindness is genuine and active and not just a byproduct of other people steamrolling over him. His path to self-knowledge is aided by Bill (an electric Michael Keaton, in a star-making performance), a new hire and self-proclaimed “ideas man” who seems to exist perpetually at eleven. Keaton plays Bill with both knife-like sharpness and puppyish, childlike sincerity; he is, hands down, the best part of the movie. Shelley Long rounds out the leads as working girl Belinda, goofy and charming and comfortable in her own skin. Like Chuck, she could be a cliché–the “hooker with a heart of gold” is as familiar a trope as the “mild and uptight man who needs to relax and gain confidence,” and an even less layered one–but Long makes her feel human, and it’s hard not to be fond of her.
Lighthearted pimping and at least one requisite eighties gay joke will make this not a movie for everyone, but if you can get behind it, it’s energetic and delightful, with Keaton’s manic charisma making him a movie star right there in front of you. (His turn here is like the push-in on John Wayne in Stagecoach: immediately, the camera loves him, and the audience responds to it.) Once Bill and Chuck’s scheme gets set in motion and the trio are spending a lot of screen-time together, the appeal is pretty damn irresistible.