David Bowie’s filmography is one filled top to bottom with hits. Whether it’s the critically-acclaimed The Man Who Fell to Earth, a brief appearance in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, or his performance in Labyrinth that would make the film a cult classic, the Starman’s film career is one that would last nearly as long as his musical one, culminating in over thirty roles across film and television that many remember with great fondness.
But while his film career is defined primarily by his sci-fi and fantasy roles, there are a solid handful of roles where Bowie did the unthinkable, at least in terms of what he came to be known for. There are a handful of roles where he dared to challenge the status quo and be…well, normal.
That concept would sound boring if you were anyone but David Bowie, who skyrocketed to fame on the shoulders of Ziggy Stardust, the alien persona he came up with for himself that still persists to this day. Normal, for Bowie, was out of the ordinary, something that other pop stars bothered with while he was creating new faces and reinventing the musical wheel. As Brett Morgen’s new documentary, Moonage Daydream, proves, Bowie never stopped reinventing himself, and rarely, if ever, stopped to do anything one would have considered standard for the time.
But it’s one of those few standard things in his career that stands out the most to me, as one of the pieces of his long and storied career that I love more than anything. Only two other people I know have ever seen it, and it remains mostly unheard of to this day: a simple, low budget romantic comedy from 1991 called The Linguini Incident.
The Linguini Incident Is a Hidden Gem in Bowie’s Filmography
While the title is rather unfortunate, and has almost nothing to do with the film’s plot, The Linguini Incident is a hidden gem in Bowie’s filmography, a light and carefree piece made for $2 million that I consider the best kind of cinematic comfort food. It lies forgotten or ignored by many a Bowie fan, who often choose to ignore the portion of the singer’s career when it was released, but is a rare point in time where Bowie wasn’t playing someone extraordinary, or pushing the limits of what was possible in music and film.
Landing at a time when Bowie was attempting to “retire” some of his older work on the Sound + Vision Tour, the film fell under the radar for a number of reasons, not least of which was Bowie’s simmering status as a public figure, both as a film star and a musician. Not yet an elder statesman of rock, Bowie had fallen out of favor with the public after his 1987 album Never Let Me Down, and was simmering in what many (with the exception of stubborn Gen Z kids like me) consider one of the lower periods of his career. While he had appeared in The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 — a very, very confusing thing for a Catholic-raised, Labyrinth-obsessed eight year old, let me tell you — he wasn’t on top of the world the way he had been with Let’s Dance in 1983, and had settled back into working as part of a band, putting out two albums with his group Tin Machine.
But when you’re born in 1998, well after the height of Bowie’s fame, and grew up only ever watching his performances on YouTube or VHS, record sales or box office numbers don’t matter to you. You dig up anything and everything you can find to feed your obsession, and The Linguini Incident remains one of the standouts of Bowie’s career for me, not because it’s particularly good, but because it’s fun.
What Is The Linguini Incident About?
Directed by Richard Shepard, who co-wrote the script with Tamar Brott, the film follows Lucy (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring escape artist (yes, you read that right) who moonlights as a waitress at a restaurant called Dali, and is utterly desperate to escape the confines of her job with its ridiculous uniform and even more ridiculous bosses, played by character actors Buck Henry and Andre Gregory. Enter Bowie as a slimy, yet somehow endearing con artist named Monte who claims to be a number of things (including Dali’s new bartender), before the audience realizes that really, he’s just a gambler with a hefty amount of debt to his name.
In typical rom-com fashion, two people who seem like they should have nothing to do with each other are thrown together, with Monte attempting to woo Lucy straight out of the gate. But, instead of embarking on some journey of emotional discovery, the two of them decide that the best course of action is to rob their place of work, with an assist from Lucy’s best friend Viv.
Yes, you’re still reading that right. The catalyst of Bowie’s least popular film is a slapstick restaurant heist. And it is spectacular.
In The Linguini Incidient, Bowie Showcases His Goofy Side
Bowie played “sexy” roles plenty of his times over the course of his career — The Hunger, Absolute Beginners, even Labyrinth, if you were of the awkward age where he became your first celebrity crush — but at no other point did he ever lean into the goofiness that comes with being a rom-com lead. Any connoisseur of the genre knows that, to be a good lead a la Hugh Grant or Richard Gere, you have to be just a tiny bit strange, not quite decent at talking to women and not quite perfectly attractive or well-kept.
And while Monte spends a good portion of the film wooing women left and right, he’s still the one who awkwardly monologues to an audition panel, and jumps out of his skin when he thinks Lucy’s rabbit is eating her head. (It was not.) He’s got Bowie’s signature crooked smile, and at one point, he suggests that the solution to Lucy and Viv’s problems is to do the “sensible thing and all sleep together.” He’s the antithesis of even the stage persona Bowie was performing with at the time, which involved performing shirtless on The Arsenio Hall Show and singing songs with much heavier content than he’d been known for.
All this to say: Bowie decided he wanted to be a rom-com lead, and he went out there and nailed it on his first damn try.
There’s a zaniness present in The Linguini Incident that rarely appears in any of Bowie’s work prior to its premiere. That thread would pop up later, when he cameoed in Zoolander and did voices for children’s films near the end of his life, but everything up to that point had at least some level of seriousness to it, a heft that no one can claim is present in this film. It lands squarely in line with the airiness that ‘90s rom-coms would come to be known for, predating films like Clueless and My Best Friend’s Wedding by a couple of years. One could say Bowie predicted the trend, though really, I think it comes down to his willingness to push himself, to try new things and to test himself just because he could.
The Linguini Incident Shows Off Bowie’s Charm
Part of what makes Bowie so lovable as a performer is the charm that’s present no matter what he does, an attribute that’s in full-swing from the moment he appears on screen in The Linguini Incident. There is no odd makeup to obscure his smile, or bizarre dialogue to put you off from thinking he’s anything but a perfect match for Lucy from minute one. (Okay, maybe some of the dialogue is a little weird, but what do you expect, walking into a David Bowie film? Weird is his brand.) Unlike Jareth, or John Blaylock, or even Screamin’ Lord Byron, Monte is nothing but pure, unadulterated Bowie magnetism, enhanced by the same
space oddity that made all those other characters so memorable and fun.
Shepherd described Bowie’s presence on set as a “beam of light,” and that energy shows in his performance. There’s almost a giddiness to it, Bowie’s excitement at getting to be something other than a pop star or a man from another world bleeding into his performance. You can feel his excitement at trying something new, and he’s all in from the moment he appears. Monte is game for just about anything, even agreeing to marry Lucy and help her with an audition for an all-lesbian vaudeville act (yes, I know), and you get the sense that Bowie’s having the time of his life on camera, which in turn enhances the performances of his co-stars.
Monte Remains a Representation of Bowie’s Oddball Nature
While Bowie stepped away from the strangeness of his past personas in the ‘90s (and would until he experimented on Blackstar just before his passing), the oddball nature he’d come to be known for remains in Monte. It’s that talent at pushing past the traditional sex symbol nature of rock music that lends itself to being a good rom-com lead, to making cheeseball lines sound perfectly natural coming out of his mouth, always dressed in a smile. It enhances his banter with Arquette, who stands toe-to-toe with him in a way only Jennifer Connelly ever really managed before, and makes him lovable despite the fact that he’s trying to marry Lucy for a green card. Being a totally normal guy is out of the box for a man with a career like Bowie’s, and that’s exactly what makes his performance so damn great.
There are certain moments of the film that manage to outshine Monte’s charisma — notably Eszter Balint in her “self-defense bra,” of which I want at least four — but for the most part, even when The Linguini Incident is hinging on nothing but a trope and a prayer, it’s easy to lose yourself in the grin Bowie’s got plastered across his face. His enjoyment seeps through the screen and carries the film, hopping from one off-the-wall moment to another like Sarah on the stones through Labyrinth’s Bog of Eternal Stench. Even though the part wasn’t written for him — Shepard almost insisted on giving him a supporting role — every moment feels tailored to his brand of showmanship, a testament to his ability to succeed by embracing the things that challenged his skills.
And when the film comes to a close, and the romantic part of the romantic comedy reaches a head, that showmanship coalesces into something that even leads in some of cinema’s most iconic films can’t reach: making you believe that Monte actually cares about Lucy. Bowie is able to step up to the plate easily, not shedding the goofiness, but rather pulling its disparate bits together to create the kind of man who you want to root for. While this film does not get what a friend and I unequivocally call “The Pass” — meaning that the third act is indeed spurred on by serious miscommunication — Monte’s evolution from that point on is believable enough that you want him to get the girl as much as you want the girl to succeed in the outlandish trick she’s been maneuvered into performing. (A trick which I will not spoil, because where’s the fun in that?)
Maybe it’s rose-colored glasses, or maybe it’s the fact that Bowie really had fallen in love at this point in his life (his future wife Iman makes a brief but hilarious cameo in the third act), but my one rule for a successful rom-com is that the leads have to share believable chemistry, and boy, does Bowie have chemistry to spare. It spills over the sides of Dali’s giant fish tank that he ends up diving into, and when he looks at Lucy, sopping wet on a staircase, and says, “I’m going to kiss you goodnight, and I don’t want you to panic,” you can feel the electricity coming through your television like you jammed your hand in a wall socket.
So yes, while Labyrinth and The Hunger may continue to top the lists of Bowie’s best performances, I will shove this film at anyone who even so much as implies they want to know more about his career. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not polished — the only way you can reliably find it is by streaming DVD rips on YouTube — but it’s as good a representation of Bowie as an artist as any other, and maybe even more than most. It’s earnest, and it’s fun, and it does exactly what Bowie strived to do over the course of his career: float him just out of his depth, and give him the chance to do something exciting.