John Belushi, according to the new film Wired, was either the comedy genius of his time or “Just another fat junkie who went belly-up.” Both opinions are rendered, but substantial evidence is provided only for the latter.
Probably that’s because it’s easy to show wanton self-destruction, not so easy to suggest the talent that lay beyond that. In a film biography of a singer, the songs can always be dubbed in and mouthed by an actor. For a film about a comedian, the actor must capture the charm, timing, style of the comic. Thus Michael Chiklis, who plays Belushi, has an incredibly difficult task, especially since the subject is so fresh in our memories.
Wired can’t get past that central problem.
It’s based on the book by Bob Woodward, a book that was a bestseller and an object of scorn for Belushi’s friends, as it depicted the unpleasant and drug-ridden last years of the shooting star. Announcement of a movie version, inevitably, brought even more nasty feelings; during filming a year ago Dan Aykroyd declared that he had witches working to hex the project.
As it turns out, the film version is a good deal more interested in encouraging pity for Belushi than in damning him. (It’s not interested in naming names; many have been left out.) But it’s a weird item in any event, a sometimes audacious mix of A Christmas Carol (without the happy ending), Hollywood critique, and anti-drug statement.
Belushi dies at the beginning of the movie, then leaves the morgue and is picked up by a Puerto Rican taxi driver (Ray Sharkey) – actually his guardian angel – who takes him on a “ride through your life.” They go on a non-chronological journey through high and low points in Belushi’s years of success, ending up in the bungalow at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont where Belushi died in 1982.
There are some offbeat ideas here, in the way Belushi’s morgue sheet becomes a toga like the one he wore in Animal House, or the Japanese coroner who mutates into Belushi’s samurai character.
The comedy sequences are mostly drawn from Saturday Night Live sketches, which appear unconnected to anything else in the film. And there are a few songs by the Blue Brothers, Belushi and Aykroyd’s soul-singing team. The songs are pointless, the sketches, inept. Chiklis looks uncannily like Belushi (and he ably mimes the gruff voice and roving eyebrows), but he has no comic touch. Gary Groomes plays Aykroyd in an effective impersonation.
Bob Woodward is himself a character in the movie (played by J.T. Walsh); he even turns up in a strange fantasy sequences, at Belushi’s death bed. Director Larry Peerce and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch seem to view Woodward’s investigating as something less than admirable. When Belushi’s corpse spots Woodward talking to his friends, the angel says, “He’s gonna do for you what he did for Nixon.” There may be an interesting movie on the loose in here somewhere, but it doesn’t quite make itself heard.
First published in The Herald, August 25, 1989
This is the final theatrical film in the curious career of Larry Peerce, who worked mostly in TV after his initial success in the 60s. And it’s the first theatrical film for Chiklis, who has done well for himself since; evidently the witch’s hex did not affect him. The picture flopped.