Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Joe Dante, part VIII: That's not a baby—that's a Mister Potato Head!


An inoffensive, indeed, often-pleasing curio from the deepest parts of the 1980s.

Directed by John Landis, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Hoton, Robert K. Weiss, and Joe Dante
Written by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland
With "lots of actors," according to the opening title card, and I imagine you feel like reading a four-line list of performers almost as much as I feel like writing it

Spoiler alert: mild

What to make of such a thing as Amazon Women on the Moon, a comedy anthology featuring the work of five different directors, fragmented and scattered about its runtime?  It prompts all sorts of questions, like "who was this made for?", "why did they think anyone would care?", and "huh?"

We've stumbled across it here, of course, because it was a film (or a film-shaped object) with Joe Dante's name in the credits.  And yet I'd eagerly wager that there's not a single theatrically-released Dante joint any easier to forget than the one unveiled between Innerspace and The 'Burbs.  (Q.E.D.: I did forget, which is how I reviewed The 'Burbs before I even noticed I'd missed something.)

Fitting enough—Dante's participation seems to be almost entirely incidental.  One might suppose, then, that it was the brainchild of its two credited screenwriters, Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland; but I don't believe for a second that they were the only ones involved in shaping this anthology's script.  Besides, it seems likelier that the real instigator of the project was the erstwhile John Landis, for it was he who shepherded Amazon Women through its production—perhaps in the hopes of replicating the career-sparking success of his first comedy anthology, Kentucky Fried Movie, which put him on the map back in 1977.  A decade on, maybe he needed something easy.  (And Amazon Women certainly has the complexion of a movie that tested nobody in the slightest way, which is both its signal charm and the biggest reason it's really easy to shrug your shoulders at it.)

Recall that, for Landis, 1985 (the year the film was shot) wasn't just eight years later, it was a whole different world.  It's probably too much to call it the beginning of the long twilight of his career—not least because that's a terrible and mean-spirited pun, but also because, for the moment, he was still a working director.  Nonetheless, it's probably not a complete coincidence that the production timeline for Amazon Women matches up with the professional and legal troubles that had accrued to Landis as the result killing three people on the set of his other anthology movie.  It's speculation, I guess, but it's relatively clear that Amazon Women was something fun to do in between major projects, and while he waited to see if he was going to director's jail (or, for that matter, literal jail).

Regardless, though patently intended as a trifle (Universal had it in the can for two years before they finally dumped it in 1987), it was treated like a real movie anyway.  Naturally, it couldn't hold up.  It was released to public indifference and some decidedly mixed reviews: Ebert straight-up fucking hated it; Siskel opened his brief notice with the line, "Reviewing this cleverly titled trash is akin to presenting a public service announcement"; and it's kind of hard to tell if Janet Maslin at the Times enjoyed it or despised it (though she might have easily done both).  Taken as what it is, though—and taken overall—it's a better-than-decent 90 minutes, blessed with a certain mood that always keeps it engaging, whether it's being actually funny or not.  Which is a good thing, since often enough, it ain't.

Amazon Women is, at heart, a kind of structural exercise—half-ingenious, half-lazy, and with a lot of overlap between the two.  Though essentially just an excuse to throw about twenty different sketches at you, in the manner of an episode of SNL, it doesn't just do them one after the other, which is why I'm compelled to say "in the manner of an episode of SNL," rather than being more direct about it, and saying "excruciatingly identical to an episode of SNL."

The vignettes, variously directed by Landis, Dante, Peter Horton, Robert K. Weiss, and Carl Gottlieb, are presented through the lens of a parody of late-night cable television, and everything hangs from the idea of a meta-viewer (that is, us) watching an after-midnight showing of what might well be the direst 1960s B-movie ever made, Amazon Women on the Moon, and, inevitably finding it boring, channel surfing in our semi-conscious state.  Now, for the benefit of my younger readers: channel surfing was what we did before the invention of Netflix and Hulu and modern pornography.  It sure as hell wasn't a superior vector for acquiring actual entertainment, but it did have a certain magic to it, and capturing this sensation is the best thing that this anthology has going for it, bar nothing.  It lulls one into a sleepy complacency, so that it kind of doesn't matter if you are being entertained—rather, you're being just-barely-stimulated, which does indeed have a hard-to-describe quality all its own.

But, then, the haphazard treatment of Amazon Women's central conceit is probably the single worst thing about it: it's about half an hour before the titular movie starts, which inflicts all sorts of unnecessary problems upon the production.  So, eschewing its own movie-within-a-movie for what seems like ages, Amazon Women opens up instead with a pseudo-funny live-action cartoon starring Arsenio Hall, of all people.  It involves every inanimate object in his apartment declaring war against him, much in the style of an old Warner Bros. short—up to and including the creation of a man-shaped hole when he accidentally smashes through a solid surface.  The difference is, it's dreadfully unfunny.  If Arsenio Hall was ever supposed to have any penchant for physical comedy, he must've demonstrated that somewhere else.

Oh, I know: the trap of reviewing anthology movies is to grind through the segments, rather than treating the movie as a cohesive whole.  Neither method is really all that feasible with a movie like this one, but especially the first; even if it wouldn't balloon the review out to an unsustainable length, it'd get tedious awfully quickly.  So, instead, let's talk about one of the fun things to keep your mind active during Amazon Women's proceedings: trying to guess who was responsible for what.  In accordance with the premise, the vignettes aren't preceded with title cards; it's not till the end credits that you get to see if you were right.  (As a practical matter, of course, this could only mean "guessing whether Landis or Dante were responsible."  I don't wish to be a total dick, but I'm sure I can't be the only person who'd never so much as heard of Horton or Weiss before—the former was an actor on Thirtysomething, the latter a compatriot of Weird Al—whereas I'd only heard of Gottlieb because he helped write Jaws.)  Anyway, it's a fun game.  If you're like me, though, you'll get most of your guesses wrong.

Take "Amazon Women on the Moon" itself: it is, in every particular, an obnoxiously good approximation of a mid-century spaceflight cheapie.  The difference is that, somehow, it's even more stilted—altogether, it's an impossibly bone-dry, laugh-free parody of everything despicable about the worst films of its subgenre, from the working-class "comic relief" with no good Goddamned business on a spaceship (but he does have a monkey), to the lead so robotically-stolid you want to ask him to divide a number by zero to see if his head explodes, on down to the goofy-ass Code-era "sexiness," which tended to manifest in movies like these as some kind of sad, weirdo misogyny, without ever getting to anything especially arousing to justify it.  (Now, "Amazon Women" evidently takes its purest inspiration from Queen of Outer Space, which I've never actually seen—but you could draw a line, starting with George Pal's Destination Moon, continuing on through shitty echoes like Journey to the Seventh Planet, and finally ending on this, whatever the hell it is, and the line you drew would be completely straight.)

Okay, the hair kind of gives it away.

So, being such a good replication, and knowing our director's favorite hobbyhorses, you'd say, "clearly, Joe Dante directed this one."  But no; it was one of Gottlieb's contributions.  As was "Son of the Invisible Man," and that just made me angry, because I was sure that must've been Dante—oddly enough, with all the various Old Hollywood genre riffs Amazon Women gets up to, Dante was only behind one of them.  (It's the one where Carrie Fisher gets syphilis in the 1940s.  It's occasionally remembered for this reason, though it struck me as mightily dull; "Invisible Man" is much better, turning on the most obvious and the finest joke you could do with a man who thinks he's turned himself invisible.)

You'll have a higher success rate identifying Landis, who offers the broadest vignettes—the funniest thing in this movie is "Hospital," which announces itself as Landis' by starring American Werewolf's Griffin Dunne, showing up here as a doctor who's misplaced a baby, and is presently trying to hide his malpractice from its increasingly-panicked parents.  (Landis also gets "Blacks Without Soul"; I'd have guessed this one correctly from the title alone.)  Landis does one of the worst, too—for "Mondo Condo," Arensio's debacle, was his responsibility, after all.  Yet I'd have sworn this must've been Dante as well.  Bad Dante, but still.

But Dante was busy with the cleverest bits of Amazon Women—the ones that really stick out as being legitimately inspired.  (Now, whether Dante put his own cleverness into the movie, or simply got lucky with the smartest vignettes, who could tell?)  Well, either way, there's a genuine Python bent to Dante's best sketches here: "Critic's Corner" involves the conceit of a pair of Siskel-and-Ebert types turning their withering gaze upon a viewer of their program, with depressingly-funny results; when we return to this channel later, we find that the story has continued on to the man's funeral, which Robert Picardo has convinced the widow to turn into a comedians' roast.  Dante gets darker still, with "Video Date," wherein a man rents a POV porno that's been customized to his name—only to find his reverie quite brutally disturbed when the comely young woman's actual lover enters the picture, with both a handgun and a broken heart.  ("Video Date" and "Critic's Corner" surely aren't the only sketches to play around with metafiction, merely the most successful: "Murray in Videoland," another Gottlieb bit, prefigures Stay Tuned, and isn't even that amusing.)

The other standout, however, comes from Horton.  That's "Two I.D.'s," which, in its way, predicts the social media panopticon: before a woman (the ridiculously attractive Rosanna Arquette) agrees to go out on a date with a man (the adjectiveless Steve Guttenberg), she runs a background check on him—and, yes, it's a painfully thorough one.  (Horton balances himself by having the worst segment of all, this being "Unknown Soldier," about a war that was fought without any bodies being misidentified, so they've got to make one before they go home.  It is powerful lame.)

The flick's padded out with several vignettes that try harder to look like bona fide television programming.  "Blacks Without Soul" hews proper to the premise, appearing as an advertisement for a dubious charity of the same name; so do Dante's "Bullshit or Not?" (an Unsolved Mysteries riff) and Gottlieb's "Pethouse Video" (another porn-inflected conceptual joke, putting a naked model into the most jarringly banal situations—now, that's "banal," son, with a "b").  Regardless of how rigorously each sketch sticks to the conceit, though, Amazon Women's abiding sense of humor, as you've no doubt guessed, is ferociously devoted to the cause of the one-note joke.  It could've been unbelievably terrible, then; luckily, it's usually quick enough that when scenes die, it doesn't matter much.  (There are big caveats, though.  Like "Unknown Soldier," Dante's "French Ventriloquist Dummy" is an exception to the general rule: it goes on well past the point its unfunny joke has failed, and it's just ugly, wasting Dante's perennial collaborator Dick Miller in the process.  These were both deleted in the theatrical cut, and boy, was that ever a good move.)  But the overall experience of Amazon Women is one of coziness: the channel-flipping structure, and the general good-naturedness of the project, don't necessarily recommend the thing, but I can think of literally hundreds of worse ways to spend an hour and a half.

Meanwhile, in terms of Danteology, I like to think it prepared him for The 'Burbs.  Amazon Women got him away from the high budgets and high expectations of his post-Gremlins run, returning him to something he tended to do very well, just not often—namely, pure comedy.  And if it helped, it was surely worth it.

Score:  6/10

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