Marshall Brickman collaborated on the witty screenplays of Woody Allen’s best 1970s films: Sleeper, Manhattan, and Annie Hall. The latter won Brickman an Oscar.
Since parting company with Allen, Brickman has been trying to get his own directorial career off the ground. He made two small, neurotic movies, Simon and Lovesick, both fitfully interesting, both commercially unsuccessful.
Brickman seems to have wised up a bit, at least in terms of that ever present bottom line. With The Manhattan Project, he’s harnessed his customarily amusing dialogue to a plot that fits neatly in the teen-science genre that gained currency – lots of cold, hard currency – with WarGames.
You know how, every few years, some teenager somewhere proudly announces that he’s unlocked the secrets of the atom, and by the way has a Tinker Toy A-bomb sitting in the basement of his parents’ house? That’s Brickman’s jumping-off point here.
Brickman’s protagonist (appealingly played by Christopher Collet) also has an edge of Oedipal fervor in making his homemade bomb. See, his single mother (Jill Eikenberry) is being courted by a new scientist (John Lithgow) in town. The scientist is working on a hot new substance that could make the H-bomb look like a Molotov cocktail – but nobody knows that, yet.
Anyway, Lithgow takes Collet on a tour of the bomb factory, without revealing the true nature of the experiments. Collet, a science whiz, sniffs out the truth, and decides he’ll bring a little attention to the hush-hush proceedings by pilfering some of Lithgow’s mysterious new liquid, which looks like Dippity-Do with iron shavings, and building his own bomb.
With the help of his girlfriend (Cynthia Nixon), Collet gets the stuff, builds the bomb, and carts it to a New York science fair, but just then Lithgow gets wind of it, and the FBI and most of the armed forces are called in to collar Collet at any cost.
This plot feels vaguely recycled, and Brickman has some trouble justifying the motivations of his characters. Most of the time, they’re acting in a manner that suits the plot, rather than anything resembling human behavior. This sometimes makes the characters seem dumb. When Collet is being chased by everybody, you wonder why he doesn’t just blow the whistle on the whole shebang by calling up the New York Times.
But Brickman makes up for a lot of this with his frequently hilarious dialogue (and the skill of his actors in delivering it). There’s a good laugh in almost every scene.
And he ends the film with a fine suspense sequence, as Collet brings his live bomb into the lab, and he and Lithgow must disarm it. Once again, a bunch of things about this sequence don’t make logical sense, but it’s easy to be caught up in the breathlessness of fighting the clock. It also gives Lithgow a chance to show off a little. Brickman loads the scene with nervous-funny lines, which Lithgow does just splendidly.
While The Manhattan Project doesn’t seem like an entirely personal project for Brickman, it’s certainly an entertaining summer movie (and it gives him the opportunity to slip in some pointed observations on the subject of nuclear research and production). It should do well, which ought to free Brickman to do the sorts of films that are perhaps closer to his bone.
First published in the Herald, June 1986
Yes, well, except for a 2001 TV movie, this was the end of Brickman’s feature-film directing career, so my clairvoyant skills are nil here. Whole lotta plot synopsis in this review, too. I have no idea whether teens still make atom bombs in their basements, but apparently I thought so at the time.