There's plenty to focus on in the meantime. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are likable guides to the world of the dead, a wry bureaucracy that's also playground for Burton's creature creation and makeup departments. The movie could work as satire if it wanted to, something like Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" set in H.P. Lovecraft's New England. There are waiting rooms and labyrinthine corridors of the dead civil service and a manual for the newly deceased. To go between worlds, Baldwin's character must take a shovel to the foam grass and plywood ground of his scale model of his town, and it's tempting to search this for parallels to the tacky redevelopment going on in the dead couple's home. But really, the whole conceit is too intriguing and lighthearted to serve as earnest commentary or sharp-edged ridicule. The movie speculates that, really, being dead isn't so bad if you can just learn to work the system and get along with people. Being alive isn't so bad either, as long as you don't trample heedlessly over the dead. Having seen the fun that Baldwin and Davis's characters are having after death, it's easy to relate to Winona Ryder's goth girl character, who can see them and decides she prefers them to her snobbish and striving parental units.
A fair amount of plot is squeezed into the movie's 90 minutes, but it all boils down to the question of when somebody is going to say "Beetlejuice" three times and bring Michael Keaton's fast-talking con man out of the scale model and into the real world. Even if you can't catch everything he says-he speaks in clipped grunts with a highly variable cadence-you'll walk away impersonating him. This character, from his clothes to his growl to his lurching and reeling body movements, is a touchstone of movies not unlike the the Tramp in the 1910s and Jack Sparrow in the 2000s. Beetlejuice is a villain, but that's just a slight tweak. There's a line of evolution (not to say improvement, since they're all great) through these male, clownish, unlucky, gregarious, vagabond immortals (it is not to be thought that the Tramp aged between 1914 and 1936.) Keaton is so in tune with his creation that he doesn't need a lot of screen time to make a lasting mark on the culture, but the movie is smart enough not to cheat him out of a grand sequence in the final act anyway.
Oddly though, by the time the finale comes around, the high point has already been reached. And it doesn't involve Beetlejuice at all. It's the scene where the living characters become possessed and dance around a dinner table lip-syncing Harry Belafonte's calypso song "Day-O." Catherine O'Hara shines here, acting with every face muscle and every body muscle but keeping them totally separate. The glamorous costume clothes, the blue lighting in the room, the bizarre sculptures in the background-this scene is an ingenious fusion of styles held together by Burton's pop-art sensibility. If this were all the movie had, it would be worth watching. But "Beetlejuice" is a series of original moments like this. It is so much fun, and over too soon.
...I guess this movie works for the vast majority of people. Sadly, I cannot count myself among them. There's a line this movie crosses, and once it does, there are two reactions: 1. you can delight in the zaniness, or 2. you can be completely revulsed by it. Because there's no way to be left unaffected by this movie. By the end, it's so far out into left field ... if you go for this sort of thing, then by all means, enjoy the living daylights out of it. But for me - ehh.
The line that the movie crosses is when the married (but dead) couple find themselves in a ghost waiting room of sorts. The whole idea held together pretty well up until this point, but after this scene, the film becomes a laundry line of Tim Burton heaving ideas against the wall ... very few of them stick. By the time a party is possessed by the live-in ghosts, causing them to sing and dance around the dinner table, the disconnect was complete for me. It's a funny scene, yes. But not in a "this is a legitimately humorous scenario" sort of way, more in a "how on God's green earth did Tim Burton attract actors to put themselves through this? And how did they keep a straight face through the proceedings? And did they fully appreciate the LSD trip they helped Burton bring to life?" Et cetera.
There are movies that I fully enjoy because of their imagination and invention. Coraline, for example, is a movie that is, undeniably, very strange. But I can appreciate the movie because it manages to harness its weirdness into a satisfying experience. Beetlejuice is simply imagination for the sake of imagination. Another layer of makeup on that extra? Pile it on! Staple another piece of felt to the wall? Why not, it's all good!
It doesn't help that the film has aged about as well as a Harry Harryhausen's production. In fact, this seems like Burton's direct homage to Harryhausen's work. I mean, the claymation is a dead giveaway. I guess those types of movies have their charm, and I guess that is why a lot of people enjoy Beetlejuice. Imagination can go a long way (or in my opinion, it can only go so far). Simply put, this is the kind of movie that is not for everyone, and I'm one of the people it is not for. I could barely make it to the end credits. I wasn't unentertained, but I was left feeling vaguely insulted by the whole thing.
Beetlejuice is an exorbitantly surreal, constantly bizarre, laughably demented, and disconcertingly stupid piece of lunacy. It is, thankfully, bolstered by solid performances from a pre-Batman Michael Keaton, a pre-Jack Ryan Alec Baldwin, and a pre-Cutthroat Island Genna Davis. But at the end of the day, you will either find Beetlejuice to be an appealing mess, or an appalling mess (?).
"I've been reading that book and there's a word for people in our situation: ghosts." 3/10