(PG, Paramount Pictures, 88 minutes, theatrical release date: July 23, 1993)
The moment Prymaat Clorhone implores her "genetomate" Beldar, puffing an entire pack of cigarettes with an exaggeratedly nervous pacing, to "phone home" to their home planet of Remulak, you could easily be forgiven that you stumbled into F.T. the Franco-Terrestrials. It's such a random, slight pop culture nod that only emphasizes how far removed the Coneheads are from their late-1970s popularity on Saturday Night Live in the post-Wayne's World assembly line of Lorne Michaels-produced spin-off movies. In 1983, there were plans for a Rankin-Bass cartoon series based on Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin's pyramid-shaped…I mean, flindar-resembling exiles which ultimately fell by the wayside, leaving Aykroyd to make his bones in blockbusters like Trading Places and Ghostbusters as well as unexpected dramatic turns in Driving Miss Daisy and My Girl, occasionally stumbling into the occasional flop, such as the buddy cop pic Loose Cannons and his fatally grotesque directorial debut Nothing But Trouble.
Coneheads did not do much to reverse Aykroyd's fortunes, being a critical and commercial borp mip despite many commercial tie-ins, namely through Subway, and a soundtrack album which spawned a hit pleasure tone spewer in the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Soul to Squeeze," which led to Dan and Jane becoming guest video jockeys on MTV for a programming block (alas, I don't believe they played the 1981 Frank Zappa song "Coneheads"). And since Coneheads was the only feature spawned from the vintage SNL years, the world was spared the sight of Eddie Murphy returning to his Buh-Weet persona to sing "Bwane Eat on da Wane" or the reunion of those pre-Roxbury "wild and crazy guys" themselves, The Brothers Festrunk. The world may never know.
Both the characters and the movie come off in retrospect exactly like the flyover, fish-out-of-water types seen in the opening credits. The McGuire Air Force Base locate an unidentified aircraft, its occupants of course being Beldar and Prymaat, and duly open fire, causing it to plunge into the Hudson River. They gather themselves up by lodging at a nearby motel, with Beldar proposing that they assimilate into their peculiar unfamiliar environment while they await a rescue vessel to arrive in, oh…seven zerls, approximately 16 Earth years. Turns out an entire roll of toilet paper constitutes cerebellum-stimulating congestibles for our hyper-logical Remulakian overlord.
Also not helping the movie's timeliness was the fact that by 1993, we already had both Matt Groening's The Simpsons and Barry Sonnenfeld's adaptation of The Addams Family, with its sequel arriving the same year as Coneheads. Watching these pointy-domed if all-American totems show up the square life of the modern family was not exactly fertile ground for brilliant satire. If Coneheads could be said to bring anything new to the table, it would be a purely analytical subtext equating the Coneheads' gradually upward suburban mobilization to the typical immigrant experience.
It took a whole lot trying just to get up that hill.
Indeed, the antagonists are not your usual black-suited Central Intelligence authorities but the INS branch of governmental affairs, led by the dementedly dogged Gorman Seedling (Michael McKean, joyously deadpan). And even he is just a lackey seeking to climb the bureaucratic ladder to Washington, where he would be promoted Assistant Deputy Commissioner were it not for a nagging loose end involving one Donnie DiCicco, the black-market identity purchased for Beldar by initial employer Otto (Sinbad), owner of an appliance repair shop. Aiding Mr. Seedling in this deportation case is Eli Turnbull, which is most certainly not Steve Martin reprising his taxman role from the 1970s skits but a smarmy brownnose played by David Spade, one of a dozen SNL stars from the past and then-present (Adam Sandler, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, the original Connie Conehead performer Laraine Newman) given bit parts throughout the film.
Chief among them is Spade's late cinematic foil Chris Farley as Ronnie, the flop-sweating mechanic who courts teenage daughter Connie (Michelle Burke) once the family settles for good in Paramus. Indeed, most of the rare positive raves concerning the film were directed towards Farley, who many saw as the second coming of John Belushi on either the big or small screens. Farley brings a nervous, wiry charm to his stock role which merits his promise despite his unfortunate passing in several years, whereas the beatific Burke gives younger viewers a more accessible adolescent perspective.
The brightest moments remain those between the impeccable team of Aykroyd and Curtin, each bringing warming, warped dimensions to their previously caricatured television personalities even as they dive back deeply into their familiar tics. Their meals consist as ever of mountainous "mass quantities" of bacon ("seared strips of swine flesh"), eggs ("flattened chicken embryos") and Eggo waffles ("gridlike breakfast slabs"), although their palates aren't too rejecting of window cleaner and dust bunnies. Their hyper-defined colloquialisms and mock-Klingon jargon allow for ample one-liners, such as when Beldar admits that his mission failure will surely not appease their Highmaster ("He will surely cut off my plarg and hand it to me") and also to scare off Ronnie after he exhibits the unwelcome behavior of a flandap, or "an uninvited grasper of cone," as Prymaat defines it.
A bizarre sweetness develops in the presence of the new-and-improved Mr. and Mrs. Conehead, which culminates in the familiar act of marriage-spicing shenanigans passed on to Prymaat through multiple women's magazine articles. Both Curtin's feral growl and Aykroyd's goofily lovestruck reaction to the Senso-Ring tossed atop his noggin are funny enough to invoke canker sores.
This sense of comedic goodwill goes into mentalion surge to compensate for the episodic and predictable nature of the plot, which eventually does involve a homecoming when the Coneheads return to Remulak and Beldar is sentenced to "narfle the Garthok" (challenge a carnivorous, tusked beast in a gladiatorial capacity) by the merciless Highmaster (Dave Thomas from SCTV) for his supposed treason. The Garthok itself is a refreshingly primitive stop-motion creation in a sea of computer-animated sub sandwiches and prosthetic buttocks, but for much of the film, director Steve Barron gets a surprising amount of mileage from two simple special-effects showcases: his leading actors.
The Dublin-born Barron, of course, began his directorial career through the early years of music video and is of great renown for directing handfuls of iconic early MTV staples ("Take on Me," "Money for Nothing," "Billie Jean," "She Blinded Me with Science," "Don't You Want Me," etc. etc.). Compared to Penelope Spheeris, who had enough credentials within the rock scene to bring a personality to her work on Wayne's World, Barron is of a more nostalgic science fiction mind, thus the distinctly Harryhausen appearance of the Garthok, the ironic use of a clip from Star Trek at the onset and all manner of playful camera angles and wide shots. The soundtrack itself is also part of this wistful fabric, with A-ha singer Morton Harket turning up to croon Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," the giddily-received appearance of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" (see if you can recognize the actresses playing Connie's friends without reading the credits, and know they all went to high school together again) and, in a fun little touch, Paul Simon's 1973 hit "Kodachrome" scored against a montage condensing Super 8-shot home movies of Connie's childhood.
But the joke of the original SNL series remains refreshingly free from revision, that the Coneheads are all-consuming, all-American and, in spite of their eccentricities, all-too-human. They know heartbreak as the busting of their blood valve chambers, and come to grips with their endless "chromobonding" for each other with inhumanly verbal and emotional precision. They get along well with their blunt-skulled neighbors (played to perfection by Jason Alexander and Lisa Jane Persky), face temptation (one of Beldar's driving instruction students is a desperate debutante played by Jan Hooks) and socialize at both pep rallies and Halloween costume balls with bemused glee. They aren't as severely self-contained as either the Addams or the Simpsons, which gives Coneheads the advantage of a very, very strange nobility.
Greetings, Earth citizens. I will enjoy you.