Innerspace

November 28, 2012

Remember Fantastic Voyage? It’s the semi-legendary ’60s film in which a seacraft was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a human being. The movie featured that immortal scene in which Raquel Welch strayed outside the capsule and was attacked by phagocytes. At which point her lucky crewmates got to peel the sticky things from her skin-tight bodysuit.

See? You do remember. That poker-faced film became a camp classic almost immediately; now Innerspace comes along to play the premise for out-and-out laughs.

The basic concept is, shall we way, in a similar vein. This time the capsule contains only one man, a daredevil pilot (Dennis Quaid). The miniaturization experiment is supposed to put him inside the body of a rabbit. Instead, he’s injected via hypodermic needle into the body of a part-time grocery store clerk and full-time nerd (Martin Short).

How this happens is, well, complicated. There’s a scheme that involves a madman (Kevin McCarthy) who wants the secret of miniaturization so he can—dare we say it?—rule the world. Eventually, he’ll mainline his own quasi-bionic hit man (Vernon Wells) into Short’s bloodstream to do battle with the little Quaid.

Like Fantastic Voyage, there’s a time limit on Quaid’s tenancy, which lends some suspense. Also a lot of imaginative human interiors. Quaid’s journey is realized by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company; they create some neat internal landscapes, such as Short’s ulcerous stomach and his rushing red blood cells (which look suspiciously like cherry Fruit Loops).

Unlike Fantastic Voyage, the emphasis is on the comedy, and the slapstick opportunities for the gifted Martin Short, who used to do hilarious work on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” His high point is a frug in the manner of Ed Grimley (his pointy-haired “SNL” character) while Quaid plays tunes inside his body.

Since Quaid can talk to Short from inside, Short gets to do some amusing monologues, particularly one in a public men’s room. But somehow this idea seems warmed-over from All of Me, in which Steve Martin conducted a conversation with the internalized Lily Tomlin.

In fact, much of the film has a warmed-over quality. You’d think the best director for this kind of comedy-action blend would be Joe Dante, who lit the anarchic fire under Gremlins. But here Dante can’t get the overall machinery cooking, and I miss his usual feel for off-the-wall details.

The most interesting possibility is proposed when Quaid’s girlfriend, a reporter (Meg Ryan), gets swept into the intrigue, and becomes attracted to Short. Ordinarily, I’d think Dante would want to explore this unlikely threesome, but she goes back to Quaid and the movie drops it.

Innerspace delivers some good bits. Dante still has a fun touch with supporting players; he slips Henry Gibson in, and hands a juicy scene to Kathleen Freeman, who also stops the show with a similar single-scene tirade in the new Dragnet. But Dante seems underinspired, and the movie can’t run only on the rubbery legs of Martin Short.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

A fun movie, but something didn’t quite come to life. I never watched it again, but I have recently re-watched Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, which deserves better than to be relegated to the camp classic category, although there is some of that there. It’s a well-made picture, and very imaginative. I may have been overly influenced by childhood memories of the Mad magazine parody, Fantasteeccch Voyage.

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Three Fugitives

August 15, 2012

Touchstone had the lucrative notion of remaking a popular French comedy into Three Men and a Baby, thereby producing one of the boffo hits of recent years. Now they’ve selected another French comedy, Les Fugitifs, and decided to Americanize it.

This time they brought in the original writer-director, Francis Veber, to do the makeover. Veber’s films, hugely popular in France, have been getting remade by American moviemakers for years; for instance, his hilarious The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe was rather mysteriously (and, as it turned out, regrettably) transformed into The Man with One Red Shoe. This time, Veber himself is accountable.

I haven’t seen Les Fugitifs, but I have seen Veber’s two other comedies starring the amusingly mismatched pair of hulking Gerard Depardieu and mousy Pierre Richard, Les Comperes and La Chevre. Those movies are predictable but delightful comedies, typically French in their regard for classic slapstick.

In Three Fugitives, the remake of Les Fugitifs, Veber has kept his method constant. This time out, Nick Nolte plays the hulk, and Martin Short plays the mouse. They are certainly enjoyable actors to watch, and the discrepancy in their sizes is automatically funny. But Veber hasn’t made the translation all that smoothly; working secondhand, Veber almost appears to lose interest in all but the physical humor.

Two sequences summon up some laughs. The opening has Nolte paroled from a Washington state prison; a veteran bank robber, he is chauffeured to a Tacoma bank by two cops (James Earl Jones, Alan Ruck) who can’t believe he’ll go legit. (Tacoma provides a sunny backdrop, mixed in with a few jarring Seattle cityscapes.) Inside the bank, Nolte is unfortunately taken hostage by an inept hold-up man, played by Short. The police, of course, think Nolte is up to his old tricks, so both men must go on the lam for the remainder of the movie.

In the other good routine, Short dresses up in women’s clothes to pass as Nolte’s wife. It’s an old shtick, but Short is awfully good at it (he checks his wig in the mirror and expertly judges, “It’s a little too bouffant, isn’t it?”). Other than that, this film is merely amiable, although the late Kenneth McMillan has a funny, dreamy quality as a dotty veterinarian. When Veber drags in Short’s mute daughter (Sarah Rowland Doroff), he tips the scales away from comedy and toward the kind of sentimentality that probably plays better with subtitles.

First published in the Herald, February 2, 1989

Veber’s abilities are somewhat mysterious; I’ve seen some of his movies before they opened and thought, “Wow, he’s really lost it,” only to see those films turn into wild successes. I need not add that in the annals of films shot in Tacoma, this one stands plenty tall.


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.