National Lampoon’s Vacation

August 8, 2012

This Vacation is a pretty tame vehicle for Chevy Chase, with only a few utterly gross and tasteless gags to liven up the general dreariness. One of the best—and most extended—of them has Chevy’s family (en route from Chicago to wonderful WalleyWorld in Los Angeles) dropping in on some severely inbred cousins somewhere in the Midwest. Randy Quaid invests his best grungy slobbiness into the father (Brother? Uncle? Yucch!) of the clan, amid many one-liners about kissin’ cousins (the young actors who play his mutant offspring are truly frightening-looking).

Chase retains his sense of comedic timing, and Beverly D’Angelo, as his wife, has a charming presence. She is, I’m afraid, the victim of two of the most absurdly gratuitous excuses to get the leading lady buck-naked in recent screen memory: the first is a pathetic Psycho shower-scene thing that goes nowhere; the second is her skinny-dipping response to hubby’s late-night rumba with a gorgeous young vixen in the swimming pool of the local No-Tell Motel (a response that makes absolutely no sense based on what has come before). Poor Beverly. Things really must be bad for actresses in Hollywood.

The gorgeous young vixen is played by Christie Brinkley, a model and, for years, Bunsen Burner to American Malehood as the swimsuit girl in Sports Illustrated‘s annual libido issue. Hate to say it, fellas, but the truth must be told. She’s terrible.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

The movie hit people of a certain age just right, and there was that scene of Chase falling asleep at the wheel and just driving along blissfully, which had a certain surrealist commitment. At least I think that was in this one.


Fletch

May 17, 2012

Rarely has a screenplay been tailored for a particular star as smoothly as the script of Fletch has for Chevy Chase. Andrew Bergman, who co-wrote Blazing Saddles and wrote the script for the funny The In-Laws a few years ago, adapted Gregory Mcdonald’s bestselling novel, and it’s clearly been styled exactly for Chase’s talents.

I’ve never read any of Mcdonald’s Fletch novels—the hero is a newspaper reporter who goes sleuthing—so I don’t know how much of a disservice this reshaping might be to the literary figure. Mcdonald himself is reportedly pleased with Chase, and has said that the spirit of the character is in the film.

If that’s true, then the books must be overrated, because the movie Fletch is pretty thin stuff. Bergman’s screenplay (perfunctorily served by Michael Ritchie’s direction) contains plenty of screwball one-liners, and Chase delivers them with his cool deadpan and impeccable timing.

This means that the movie produces laughs (enough to justify Universal’s decision to postpone release until the lucrative summer season—this film will be popular). But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good movie, and Fletch, frankly, isn’t. There’s nothing underneath the surface wisecracks—you can’t get involved in the film as anything but a stand-up comedy routine.

Chase plays a master-of-disguise reporter (and dedicated Los Angeles Laker fan—in one scene he dreams he’s playing ball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who is dragged into a plot to fake the murder of a wealthy industrialist (Tim Matheson). Chase also falls for the guy’s gorgeous wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). Somehow this all ties together with a big drug-traffic story that Chase is rooting out, which involves a Los Angeles police chief (Joe Don Baker).

It’s a typically convoluted detective-movie plot—but it never matters in any significant way. The show is Chevy and his patter, and the movie is fun to watch, even if it seems to evaporate a half-hour later. In particular, there are a couple of running gags—especially one involving a bigoted country-club member, to whose account Chase charges all his meals—that show Bergman’s talent for building comic ideas.

If only the movie had a solid core, these talents might have really put it together. But Fletch is a fluffy exercise, and it falls into that all-too-large category of comedy films that are not so much movies as flimsy vehicles.

First published in the Herald, May 30, 1985

Nothing against Michael Ritchie, by the way, a talented director, but I didn’t get much of him in this one. It was indeed a big hit, and coughed up the sequel, Fletch Lives.


Spies Like Us

May 16, 2012

Within a few weeks, someone is going to write a lengthy thinkpiece on the national anxiety about American-Soviet relations, and how this anxiety has manifested itself in the current crop of Christmas movies.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to be me. But the evidence is there. Rocky IV depicts our indestructible national hero going toe-to-toe with a Russkie fighter, with director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone throwing in a humanistic message at the end. And White Nights presents a blatant portrait of the Evil Empire as a Russian defector is held against his will.

Now, here’s Spies Like Us, which takes an admittedly pixillated view of the U.S.-Soviet standoff. In its own way, it actually goes further than the other films, because it dares to portray a nuclear war—not to mention the failure of a “Star Wars” defense system.

But let’s not take Spies Like Us too seriously. It’s a farce from the “Saturday Night Live” alumni association, teaming Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd with director John Landis, who has often worked with members of the gang (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places).

Chase and Aykroyd are inept low-level employees of a certain American intelligence organization. They’d like to be field agents, but they haven’t got a chance of making the grade. Unless….

Unless the organization needs a diversionary squad, a pair of decoys to distract attention from their real agents—”A couple of men you wouldn’t mind wasting,” as one executive puts it. It’s a situation tailor-made for our boys.

So the guys are put through a quick training session and shipped off to the friendly climes of Pakistan, where their arrival is met by a couple of KGB agents. Shrugging off this obstacle, they’re captured by Afghanistan soldiers, who mistake them for doctors and ask them to perform an emergency appendectomy on the son of the head honcho.

It goes on like that, eventually leading Chase and Aykroyd to the Soviet Union and a huge nuclear warhead that could, as Aykroyd puts it, “Suck the paint off your house and give your family a permanent orange Afro.” At this point, Landis and company somehow contrive to have the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of these two comedians.

That’s no small task, and Landis has pulled it off passably well—the film moves at a healthy clip, and seems to contain more one-liners than the standard “SNL” outing. Chase has plenty of opportunities to show off his verbal dexterity, and he gets the majority of the funny lines. He also gets love scenes with Donna Dixon, who in real life is married to Aykroyd. For his part, Aykroyd is more natural on screen than he’s been heretofore.

They’re the show, but Landis has crammed funny bits throughout. Entry into an underground nuclear war room, reached through a drive-in movie, is obtainable only by reaching for a Pepsi, with startling results.

An old Ronald Reagan musical gets a pointed barb. Cameo parts are taken by B.B. King, directors Michael Apted and Costa Gavras, and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python. A desert argument between Chase and Aykroyd is interrupted by Bob Hope, getting in his usual 18 holes before the apocalypse begins.

Hope’s presence is not accidental. Spies Like Us would love to be compared to the Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. It’s not in their loopy league, but as holiday offerings go, it’s an acceptable try.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Funny what you learn by reading these reviews—I thought I hated this movie, but apparently it had some moments. Clearly, it should have been remade in about 2004 or so, but that prime moment has passed.


Three Amigos

May 14, 2012

Three Amigos is the latest “Saturday Night Live” reunion masquerading as a movie, and like many such projects, it is all package, no inspiration. It’s so bad it produces two reactions: It makes you uncomfortable, and it makes you sorry for the people on screen, who sometimes literally have nothing to do.

The amigos of the title are a trio of dense movie actors who have gained some slight popularity in a series of programs during the 1920s. Known as “The Three Amigos,” they dress in sequined suits and ersatz Mexican hats and ride in to save villages in the last reel.

One of their movies is spotted in a small Mexican village by peasants who just happen to need immediate help, because a marauding bandit is terrorizing the village, as marauding bandits are wont to do. So, the peasants send to the Three Amigos, thinking they are real lawmen.

Shades of The Magnificent Seven, except that this boils down to The Insipid Three. The Amigos takes the challenge—the invitation has been garbled in transmission, and they think they’re on their way to a lucrative gig.

The Amigos are played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short (the latter a brilliant sketch actor, from “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” whose first film this is).

Their casting would indicate that the film is meant to be funny, but most scenes vaporize before they’re over. The script, by Martin, “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, and musician Randy Newman, is so lean on funny ideas that the actors are going purely on their own invention. And there is precious little of that on view.

John Landis directed; he’s participated in such things before, all the way back to the Belushi days of Animal House through last year’s Spies Like Us. Landis appears to be utterly indifferent to the proceedings—almost contemptuous, actually—and he allows scene after scene to fall flat. The occasional songs (by Newman) go nowhere, and Short and Martin singing a fey tune called “My Little Buttercup” in a cantina full of roughnecks is the kind of routine that makes you start looking for the man with the hook.

There is only one scene that is original: the Amigos camped at eventide in the desert, feasting on some barbecued bats while huddled under an obviously painted sky, next to plastic cacti. They seize the moment to croon a Western song, and the animals of the desert join in. This scene is not so much funny as it is weird, but at least it doesn’t dissolve before your eyes.

The only redeeming aspect of the film is the presence of a lovely actress named Patrice Martinez, who plays the Mexican peasant girl with a sly and knowing air. When the bewitched Martin bids her adieu, he whispers, “I’ll come back some day,” and she looks at him evenly and says, “Why?” As a sendoff, I can’t improve on that.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

Over the years I have noticed that this movie has fans, maybe even lots of them. I don’t get it. Despite the presence of funny people (and Martin Short was coming off some glorious TV stuff at that moment), I found the movie absolutely stupefying. And it’s hard to enjoy even the dumb jokes when you’re irritated with a movie wasting some very good people.


Funny Farm

January 25, 2012

Does the prospect of another Chevy Chase movie fill your heart with trepidation? Make your toes curl? Prompt you to look around for a place to spit? Believe me, my friend, you are not alone.

Chase has made a lot of bad movies over the years, and lately he’s also been bad in them, his once-fine sense of timing apparently gone. However, Chase seems to have cleaned up his act a bit (including a much-publicized layover at the Betty Ford Clinic), and his new film, Funny Farm, finds him in surprisingly good form.

Maybe that’s because Funny Farm isn’t a “vehicle” but a real movie, with some semblance of story, structure, and character, qualities that have been treated cavalierly in some of Chase’s previous outings. There’s even a top-line Hollywood pro, George Roy Hill (The Sting, The World According to Garp), in the director’s chair.

Hill, unlike many of Chase’s directors, is actually capable of setting up a shot so that the camera angle is an enhancement of the joke (and is sometimes the joke itself). This is true even of the moments in the film that are clearly designed to take advantage of Chase’s slapstick reputation (all of which are gathered in the movie’s awful coming-attractions preview). And Hill is not a sketch director; he requires that some sense of character be evident for the comedy to work.

The premise itself is none too original; it’s the one about the successful city couple who decide to chuck it all for the simple country life. Andy (Chase) is going to create that novel he’s always meant to write, and Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith) is going to fix the place up and start a family. Right. Everything, of course, goes wrong; the movers get lost, the neighbors are nasty, the corpse of the previous owner turns up in the garden.

This is well-worn comic material—you half expect Ma and Pa Kettle to come wandering out from behind a tree, ready to teach the slickers a thing or two—but it’s well-worn because it usually works. The neat twist here is that while Andy suffers from serous writer’s block, Elizabeth writes a warmly received children’s book. Her book is about a squirrel from the city named Andy, who endures a series of misadventures in the country, and is run over by a truck at the end of the story. Of course her husband is thrilled.

Chase assumes his proper place in the universe: not as a mugging funnyman, but as a regular guy to whom bad things happen. At least as important in the film’s comic scheme is the performance of Madolyn Smith as his wife. She’s got an expressive face and body for comedy, and she matches Chase step for step. I’ve been waiting for this actress to break through in movies ever since she laid an unbelievable kiss on John Travolta in Urban Cowboy, and I’m happy to report that this starring role may just do the trick.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The film turned out to be a surprise box-office flop, so nothing much happened for Madolyn Smith, who doesn’t have many subsequent credits; Chevy Chase retreated to some sequels, but the decline set in about a year later. It was also George Roy Hill’s final picture. But darn it, this is actually a credible movie, and the kind of thing Chase might’ve saved his career with if he’d started a while earlier. Sometime in the decade I remember him speaking wistfully about how critics always bombed his movies but adored Steve Martin’s quirkier projects. There’s a reason for that, and Funny Farm is what might have been.


National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

December 23, 2011

In time, it seems, everyone goes soft. Even Chevy Chase. Who would have thought that the smirking smartass of the original “Saturday Night Live” crew would eventually go all gooey and squishy on us?

But it has happened. In Chase’s new film, the story of which he developed with screenwriter John Hughes, there has been a decided shift toward the sentimental. Whereas the original National Lampoon’s Vacation was cruelly funny (for instance, the family dog was tied temporarily to the rear bumper of the car, then remembered about 50 miles later), the new one, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, is soft at its center.

Oh, another house pet gets killed (the cat chews a bit too lustily at the lights around the tree), but this is minor gratification. While it catalogs the terrors of a Christmas vacation, spent at home with a large family, the film also aims in the direction of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s not a good blend.

Some of the early going, in which it is established again that Clark Griswold (Chase) is the most hapless buffoon in America, is mildly amusing. When Clark attempts to string up 20,000 Christmas lights around the house, Chase gets to do some of his patented physical comedy.

Even then, there’s no sense of how to build a silent comic sequence. Doesn’t anybody know how to do this anymore? (The film is preceded by a short that salutes the 50th anniversary of Bugs Bunny—three minutes containing more well-executed gags than in the entire running time of Christmas Vacation.)

After that, the movie draws humor from the onslaught of relatives. Included is the moronic and severely inbred cousin from the original Vacation, again played by Randy Quaid. Quaid stays true to the utter grossness of his character, and thus is a welcome presence. The veteran character actors who play members of Griswold’s family have little to do, except endure jokes about their bodily functions and bad toupees; once again, that lovely actress Beverly D’Angelo is wasted as Clark’s wife.

In the end, Clark discovers the true meaning of Christmas. Everything ends, amazingly, with hugs and kisses and warm yuletide feelings. (Except for the cat, who simply ends up warm.) Some people could pull this off, but Chevy Chase was funnier as a smartass.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1989

And it’s a kind of Christmas classic for some, which I guess proves the effect of countless cable-TV iterations upon the human mind. Despite all this, happy holidays.


Fletch Lives

November 23, 2011

The title is Fletch Lives. So they claim. If Fletch didn’t live, there wouldn’t be much of a role for Chevy Chase, who has taken on the part of novelist Gregory McDonald’s sleuthing reporter for the second time. (1985’s Fletch was the first.)

Actually, Chase’s performance seems to contradict the title; he’s barely alive in the role. He’s lost some weight and he’s disciplined again, but he doesn’t appear terribly engaged by the material. Even the ostensibly wacky disguises that Fletch enjoys with regularity are given half-hearted interpretations.

At the film’s opening, Fletch discovers he has inherited a plantation in Louisiana. He imagines a stately life for himself; perhaps he’ll raise chitlins. “Their fur is quite valuable,” he guesses.

He quits his job in Los Angeles, and move to his new home. When the comely estate lawyer (Patricia Kalember) turns up murdered in his bed, there’s clearly a mystery to be solved. Eventually, it is solved, though the solution is surely indecipherable to any average audience member. I don’t have a clue as to what it was all about, except that it had something to do with a vulgar evangelist (R. Lee Ermey), his daughter (Julianne Phillips, Bruce Springsteen’s ex), a crackerbarrel lawyer (Hal Holbrook) who dresses up in Confederate Army uniforms, and a sharecropper (Cleavon Little).

But then the mystery is just an excuse for Fletch’s different routines. Chase pretends to be an evangelist, whereby he heals a man’s migraines by slapping him violently in the forehead; he also impersonates a prissy Northerner named Harley, purported heir to the Harley-Davidson empire.

If Chase is uninspired, there are still some amusing bits; director Michael Ritchie’s taste for satire comes out in spurts. An early dream sequence has Chase imagining his palatial mansion and strolling the grounds, singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while flanked by hundreds of dancing extras, including a cartoon hound and bluebird. And at one point he dons a white sheet and joins the Ku Klux Klan members who are outside on his own lawn, trying to scare him out. The head Klansman mutters, “Cross won’t burn, nobody home…things aren’t what they used to be.”

The whole exercise seems so routine as to merely fulfill some contractual obligation. The ad campaign is much more inspired: a takeoff on the original Gone with the Wind poster, with Chase hunkered over a bodice-bursting Southern belle as Atlanta, or something, burns. Nothing’s on fire in Fletch Lives.

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

It sounds like this should have been funnier than, apparently, I thought it was. This was a year after Funny Farm, which was a rare instance of Chevy Chase being involved in an actual movie that had some kind of life and for which he was uniquely suited (and, alas, it flopped); so in ’89, his career was about to lose its thread.


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