Released in February of 1989, Her Alibi earned a whopping half-star rating from Roger Ebert and lead actress, Paulina Porizkova, was nominated for a Razzie.
“This movie is desperately bankrupt of imagination and wit, and Tom Selleck looks adrift in it. He plays a detective novelist, named Blackwood, who has run out of inspiration. So he goes to criminal court for fresh ideas, and there he falls instantly in love with Nina (Paulina Porizkova), a Romanian immigrant who is accused of murdering a young man with a pair of scissors. Blackwood disguises himself as a priest, smuggles himself into jail to meet Nina, and offers to supply her with an alibi: She can claim they were having an affair at his country home in Connecticut at the time of the crime.” — Roger Ebert in his review of Her Alibi (1989)
As with many negative things in life, the bad reviews are a problem of perspective. Much like I hated Footloose when I rented it from the video store as a thirteen year-old who took all older teenagers very seriously, I loved the movie seven years later when I caught it on television and realized it was hilarious and metaphorical in all the best ways possible. It was also an early sign of a doomed relationship when the guy I was dating at the time negged me for loving it! Pro-tip, only date people who graciously give you the space to love campy things!
Okay, back to Her Alibi. We’re going to approach this from the perspective of literally everything is a joke whether or not the movie is in on it. This starts with the opening credits, which has some Clue-worthy theme music. It also features a lot of fake book titles. If you regularly read this blog, you know I’m already a sucker for that. More importantly, the book titles let you in on a very important aspect of this movie: it isn’t take itself that seriously.
Much of the narration in this film comes from Tom Selleck’s character writing his latest novel in a detective series. The titular detective is “Peter Swift,” reminiscent of Tom Swift from the same syndicate that brought you Nancy Drew and The Hard Boys. These are airport novels with corny titles. The cover that features a football helmet bears the title “The Dying Position.” The one with a theater setting is called “Looks Like Curtains.” My personal favorite features a stained glass window of a nun with a giant syringe in the foreground. It’s called “The Dying Habit.” You get the picture.
The film opens with a murder in a New York City apartment building. The only leads are that the victim was a student whose downstairs neighbor heard an argument in a “weird language.” Meanwhile, Phil (Tom Selleck) meets with his editor (William Daniels a.k.a. Mr. Feeny) to discuss his four-year long writing dry spell. Shortly thereafter, Phil heads to court where he sits with a group of other writers, eavesdropping on arraignments for inspiration.
When Nina (Paulina Porizkova) enters the courtroom, Phil develops a crush (and a sudden rush of writing inspiration). There’s just one catch — remember that dead body from just a few minutes ago? They think Nina and a pair of nine-inch scissors are responsible.
Dressed as a priest, Phil visits Nina in jail and offers her an alibi. He will pretend to be her lover and she can come home with him to Connecticut. (They work out this deal while Phil shouts at her across the room with a correctional officer just on the other side of the door. Very stealth.) Understandably, Nina plans to ditch Phil as soon as she is released. Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of thugs waiting for her as she leaves the jail, so she goes to Phil with Connecticut anyway.
Phil’s Connecticut home is a lovely old farmhouse with lots of vaulted ceilings and stone-facing. True to the promise he made in the jail, he gives Nina the guest room and doesn’t attempt to do anything creepy. He mostly just cooks poorly and writes his novel in his head.
The recurring joke of the movie is that Phil is fairly paranoid, who were it not for the power of lust would probably never take a risk at all. We see this paranoia frequently juxtaposed with Phil’s narration of Peter Swift’s daring exploits. As the night wears on, Phil becomes increasingly terrified of Nina, which is understandable given that she’s an accused murderer who throws a giant knife at his head — to kill a bug.
Isolated in Connecticut, Phil interprets almost everything Nina does as an attempt on his life. He’s so jumpy he falls into the pool while taking out the trash because he catches a glimpse of her through the window. She’s painting her face entirely white. Clearly murderous stuff. But who can’t relate to a(n) (un)healthy dose of paranoia these days?
One day, Nina rides her bike to a local shopping center. While there, she narrowly escapes the thugs from earlier and rushes home to Phil, who is just about to leave for the barber shop. She’s afraid to be alone, so she insists on cutting his hair herself. Phil reluctantly agrees to let her use the presumed murder weapon so close to his major arteries. And we get this sexy haircut scene in return:
Shortly thereafter, Phil teaches Nina how to use a bow and arrow — you can see his new level of trust after having survived the haircut. Unfortunately, shoots him in the ass. One harrowing drive to the hospital later and Phil is paranoid again.
Eventually, Phil works up the courage to ask Nina point blank if she committed the murder. She refuses to answer. He follows her downstairs and sees her brandishing a pair of scissors through a crack in the door. As Phil attempts to barricade himself in his room, Nina appears behind him with a rose. She was only using the scissors to remove the thorns.
We then learn that Phil’s been in a bit of a rut since his wife left him. And taking an attractive accused murderer home might be some kind of subconscious attempt at DIY exposure-response therapy. So does Phil finally trust Nina? He does until a bomb explodes behind him in the kitchen while Nina is a safe distance away in the pool.
Phil asks a writer friend to use her connections to research Nina’s past. He also begins listening in on her conversations. Unfortunately, the only thing Phil’s able to glean from his pocket Romanian dictionary is that Nina has mentioned something about a funeral.
In the next scene, Nina makes dinner for Phil’s entire family. She says it’s a Romanian custom where the youngest woman makes dinner for everyone and then takes a walk while they eat it. When Nina leaves for her walk, Phil gives a little portion of the food to the cat before the rest of the family sits down for dinner.
As it turns out, Nina’s walk consists of fleeing with a friend in a car. Meanwhile over dinner, Phil laughs with his family about all the times he thought Nina had tried to murder him. He then goes to the kitchen and finds the cat, dead. He returns to the table and announces that Nina poisoned them all, but the family thinks it’s another joke. The cat’s dead body quickly proves otherwise.
As the family heads to the hospital, Nina returns to the house so that she can tell Phil the truth about everything — which you may have guessed does not include poison. Alone with Phil’s laptop, Nina reads the novel he’s been writing.
Just as the family arrives home after having their stomachs pumped, a neighbor approaches and explains that his wife saw the cat get electrocuted outside and left its body by the door so as not to interrupt their dinner. Nina then confronts Phil for depicting her as a murderer in his new novel and leaves him for good.
Phil later learns from his contact that Nina’s family of famous acrobats has disappeared in the United States after trying to defect from Romania. It turns out the “funeral” from Nina’s phone call is The Funeral of Grimaldi.
Dressed as a clown, Phil finds Nina at the funeral. This must be sort of a Sandy/Danny at the carnival moment because they both instantaneously overcome their trust issues. They’re chased by the Romanian thugs but fight them off just in time for the lead detective to show up. And good news: Nina’s family’s asylum has been approved! Oh and that dead guy from earlier? He was trying to help them to defect and wasn’t as lucky as Nina and Phil when it came to escaping the thugs.
And what good 80’s movie doesn’t roll credits with a Randy Newman song?
This movie is not quite suspense, not quite romantic comedy (though it’s probably trying to be both). Think of it as a TV movie version of Romancing the Stone. Whether or not you like this movie really comes down to whether or not you’ll get a laugh out of Phil’s corny narration because his novel truly is terrible. Personally, I find tight shots of Tom Selleck mixing a chocolate milk while his voice over says “Swift poured himself a bourbon” to be nothing short of hilarious.
This post is part of the Third Annual So Bad It’s Good Blogathon. For the full roster of posts please click here.