Chuck Lumley (Henry Winkler) is one of life's downtrodden. He used to have a high flying job as a stockbroker until it all got that bit too much for him, so now he holds a position as a morgue attendant, which may not put him in a privileged role but pays the bills and keeps him in his pokey New York apartment. His fiancée is Charlotte (Gina Hecht), but she is so neurotic that lovemaking is no fun with her complaining about her perceived weight problems that she does not have, or asking Chuck to check for prowlers as she worries they may not be alone when they try to get down to business. However, Chuck's neighbour down the hall is Belinda (Shelley Long), a prostitute he met at work when she had to identify her murdered pimp, and they will get to know each other better...
Ron Howard and Henry Winkler, along with writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, had found success on long running seventies sitcom Happy Days, yet by the eighties the show may not have been dipping much in popularity, but they were certainly looking around for something a little fresher to do as far as work went - there were well over two hundred episodes of the thing by the time it ended in 1984. Howard had long expressed an interest in directing, and had jumped at the chance when Roger Corman fulfilled that dream by giving him a feature, Grand Theft Auto, to look after, but it took around five years later for Howard to helm a theatrical movie again, and Night Shift was it, a saucy comedy in the vein of the other, more adult humour that had emerged in the late seventies.
He took Winkler with him for a role at one hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction to The Fonz who had made him famous, as he essayed the straight man role to a new talent, making his debut as a lead, Michael Keaton. He entered the plot when Lumley is relegated to the night shift at the morgue, his new co-worker who is brimming with ideas about how to get rich, most of them unworkable (feeding mayonnaise to tunafish for the two foods to be combined in the can?!) until he settles on pimping, or becoming a "love broker" as he would have it. And it just so happens Belinda is looking for a new employer as are her fellow prostitutes left bereft when the pimp died, so this looks to be sorting itself out to the benefit of everyone, not that Chuck can tell Charlotte about his new venture in moneymaking.
This really should have been the jumping off point for a wild, ribald farce, yet the whole affair was weirdly polite, as if nobody's heart was in telling dirty jokes or depicting anything sexual when it was all held at arm's length away from the characters: Britain's Confessions of a Window Cleaner was nearer the knuckle than anything here, in spite of prostitutes featuring in American comedies more than ever before around this stage. Take Keaton, he really should have been absolutely unstoppable, yet for the most part he's even less anarchic than the Bugs Bunny persona he appeared to have been envisaged as (Chuck was the Mickey Mouse, if you were keeping score). The result of this was one of those odd eighties projects, the outrageous film for conservative people, that settled for mild rather than pushing hard for wild.
On the other hand, it was also veering close to the urban hell genre, with Chuck negotiating every other person in his life as if they were put on Earth to wind him up and nothing more, seeing him bothered by buskers, nearly attacked by a large dog every time he tries to get into his apartment, booted to late nights by his boss's nepotism, suffering the unthinking lack of sympathy from his girlfriend and her family, and so on. If Ganz and Mandel had pursued this further Night Shift could have stolen the thunder of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, but as it was their basis in television sitcoms showed all too plainly, with none of the jokes exhibiting the wit the plot required and most of it surprisingly bland. They and Howard had the hang of this by their next collaboration on mermaid comedy Splash!, so you could regard this as a dummy run for that hit, taking an interest in seeing various talents before they made it big, bigger in Howard's case, or smaller in Winkler's case until his undoubted talent for comedy made him a late career fixture of television humour once again. Music by Burt Bacharach.