Friday, June 6, 2014

The Wizard (1989)

(PG, Universal Pictures, 96 mins., theatrical release date: December 15, 1989)


Ladies and gentlemen...

The year is 1988, and one movie proved the most influential in the history of cinema. It was an act of revolutionary proportions which changed the way Hollywood executives and all-American moviegoers perceived the idea of entertainment. It revived an art form diagnosed with rigor mortis with the defibrillator of imagination. Nowadays, it's still spoken about in hushed, revelatory tones by people who duly recognize a sacred totem when they see it, putting it on their must-see lists with the same awe reserved for the likes of Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Psycho, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, or any number of beloved cultural benchmarks. The movie I refer to isn't Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Beetlejuice, no, for they are all but charlatans by comparison to the true figurehead of film in 1988.

Yes, the definitive cinematic event of that year was the one...

...the only...

...MAC AND ME!!!

What, you think I'm fooling? This isn't April 1, and my name ain't Marty motherf***ers!

Paste Magazine recently unveiled their list of the 100 Best "B" Movies of All Time, and what movie holds the #52 spot on their countdown. Mac and Me! Forget Dolemite, Sharknado, Basket Case, or either the 1958 or 1988 version of The Blob. Hell, their list doesn't even think to include the likes of Pieces, Rock & Roll High School or anything associated with the name "Herschell Gordon Lewis." Who needs Mondo Macabro when you've got Sci-Fi Channel-era Mystery Science Theater 3000 as your encyclopedia of schlock! Yeah, I consider it a pretty lame list overall when you consider Mac and Me the middle man in the entire spectrum of "So Bad, It's Good."

But give that movie credit where it's due, for Mac and Me did do something audacious enough to deem it memorable: It made corporate sponsorship the bedrock of feature-film production. All of the Paul Rudd/Conan O'Brien hipster jokes in the world can not drown out the sadistic laughter of Ronald McDonald as he openly mocks your gullibility in assuming this was just another harmless E.T. clone. We all laugh at it now only to counter the repellent cynicism of the world's first feature-length commercial, and one designed mostly to shill for junk food and artificially-sweetened beverages. This is the in-flight entertainment for the those morbidly obese spaceship passengers from Wall-E.

(To be fair, though, maybe the laughter is designed help to burn off the calories from having eaten a Big Mac value meal. Healthy living!)

Mac and Me flopped on its lardass theatrically, and in an orderly universe, its failure should have become etched in stone and made the law of the land. That clearly didn't happen, because a year later, Nintendo committed the exact same mistake with The Wizard, another case of promo porno disguised as family fun.

Look, I get nostalgic for old-school Nintendo, too. The temptation to play Super Mario Bros. 1-3 or Bomberman or Bubble Bobble is like a pitifully codependent romantic relationship, only with bruised fingers instead of blackened eyes. But for the love of God, I watched The Wizard for the first time in years and I can't believe this has such a forgiving cult following. You'd think that the suits over at Nintendo would choose not to associate themselves with such a dour, dumb and derivative motion picture as The Wizard, a film distressingly preoccupied with irresponsible preteen runaways from broken homes, old men in Speedos (don't say I did not I warn you), and child molestation humor. Blecch!!! It would be like if Hollywood made a Britney Spears vehicle with cheap pretensions of being the female equivalent of a Lemon Popsicle film. 

Oh, wait...they did!

The premise revolves around an adorably autistic little boy named Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) desperate to run away to California, having just been spotted by the police treading lonely across the Utah desert and duly returned to his icy caregivers, Mr. and Mrs. Bateman (Wendy Phillips, Sam McMurray). The former convinces his wife that his stepson should be institutionalized, the only voice of protest being Jimmy's 13-year-old half-brother Corey (Fred Savage). Unable to sway his apathetic single father Sam (Beau Bridges) and older brother Nick (Christian Slater), Corey decides to run away from home and take Jimmy with him on a trip to, where else, but "Cawifornia."

Attempting to go a longer way than their $20 will allow, Corey perks up when Jimmy amasses a 50,000-point count on the Double Dragon arcade game in the bus station. A third party appears in the form of Haley (Jenny Lewis), a ginger-haired tomboy who fails to best Jimmy after making a wager but still tags along after pointing out that there is gold in them thar hills, namely the $50,000 first prize of the big Video Armageddon tournament happening in three days at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

The three underage hitchers/grifters pursue their destination, but not without a few necessary enemies in their path. The Batemans hire a sleazeball bounty hunter named Putnam (Will Seltzer) to retrieve Jimmy, and there's also the matter of one Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson), an older teen and ultimate consumer...master of Nintendo who can presumably beat Lucas with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the miracle of gaming known as the Power Glove.

The introductory scene with Lucas is rightfully considered a moment of camp, thanks mostly in part to Vinson's zombie-like approach to playing a role meant to come across like an Old West bandit. The musical score even quotes Ennio Morricone briefly on the synthesizer, right before he utters his deathless recommendation of the junky Power Glove ("It's so bad"). It's futile to repress a chuckle there, just as much as it is hard not to applaud when Haley punches Corey in the face for acting more handicapped than his charge. Because the trouble with The Wizard is that by the 15-minute mark, I was already feeling inconsolably depressed.

Co-producer and sole screenwriter David Chisholm has written a story which brazenly incorporates Nintendo into nearly every intimate character moment. Nick tries to reach out to his absentee father whilst sharing a king bed in a motel only to hook up his NES console in frustration and start therapeutically playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The joke comes the next morning when Sam himself begins showing signs of vidiocy, boasting of "scroll weapons" and "mega-turtles." A heart-to-heart where Haley confesses her mother's gambling addiction and the desire for a better life for her trucker dad prompts Corey to forcibly equate her angst to The Legend of Zelda. And because this is another totem to cynical 1980s commercialism, there are two montages set to anemic dance-pop (Paul Carrack, no!) including an extended plug for the 1-900 Nintendo Power game tip hotline.

This is essentially a deification of an 8-bit cultural phenomenon comprised of two-bit filmmaking tactics. Just as Mac and Me perfunctorily leeched off E.T. for its hand-me-down plot, The Wizard reeks of a preteen plagiarism of the previous year's highest-grossing movie, Rain Man. Aside from the road trip seriocomedy and Jimmy's cloyingly precious mental illness, which is far less expressive than Raymond Babbitt, there's even a pit stop in a Reno casino in which the brothers and their Girl Friday amass a large sum of money at the craps table ($400, and their adult accomplice receives only a tenner...greedy little twits). There are also concessions made to the idiot savant of Tommy, the climactic studio lot chase from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (as well as their dinosaur park) and the truancy-tracking humiliations of Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The dreary sitcom mannerisms of Chisholm and director Todd Holland also eat away at the movie's lifeline. Whatever nuances and natural qualities Fred Savage brought to Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years are wasted on a petulant, dopey wet noodle of a leading role. Corey is too much of a whiny brat even in scenes of high drama, and the superficiality and sketchiness of the brothers' relationship leave Savage stranded. Luke Edwards as Jimmy fares little better, embodying all the worst qualities of Hollywood stereotypes of both cutesy-talk tykes and socially-stunted invalids. Just as unfortunate is the decision to counter the smart-alecky precocity of Corey and Haley, who speak less like contemporary children and more like 1940s screwball constructs, by reducing its adult population into nitwit adolescents. The Batemans may as well be pod people for all the sensitivity they present towards the obviously-traumatized Jimmy, and the less said about the imbecilic, sub-Dukes of Hazard road rivalry between boorish Sam and the weaselly Putnam, the better.

But it's all worth it once Jimmy makes it to Video Armageddon for the much-ballyhooed showdown and big reveal of the never-before-seen Super Mario Bros. 3, right? Wrong again. Holland's incompetence ruins this, too. For one, there's a surreal disconnect between what progress is charted by the tournament's overly-hammy MC and what is clearly happening on the screen. You don't need to have played Mario 3 as a child to see that "world 2" is actually "world 3" even though the info bar still lists it as "world 1." And the opportunity for tension in watching Raccoon Mario robbed of his power, a frustrating development in any Mario game, is completely wasted. It comes off like a half-assed attempt to turn a three-way gaming bout into a boxing match, with Corey and Haley screaming at Jimmy to "Get the star!" and "Find a warp!" to the point where you wish they'd just cut the crap and focus on the appealing novelty of seeing the game in a widescreen theatrical format.

The Wizard smacks of glib, dubious miscalculations from nearly all involved. It's joyless as an adventure, stuck in the mud as a celebration of the joystick and contrived to such unclean lengths that you'd swear the screenplay was written entirely in cheat codes. With the exception of the lively Jenny Lewis, who managed to parlay her kiddie spunk into a brilliant adult career as a singer-songwriter, everyone is stuck on cruise control, although Savage himself may actually the most guilty of that given the Rain Man associations. To be fair, Holland and Savage would actually go on to direct great episodic TV, respectably, with The Larry Sanders Show and Party Down. Such a second wind seems to have blown past Christian Slater and even the mighty Lucas himself, Jackey Vinson, whose real life registration as a sex offender makes Haley's spurious cry of "He touched my breast!" all the more queasy-making now.

At least Jimmy doesn't inspire mass breakdancing at the 7-11 just by beating the high score on Metroid. I'm trying to be more thankful for minor mercies.

1 comment:

  1. I am surprised at the cult following of this film as well, it is crass commercialism for sure and hardly any fun at all. I am also surprised at "The Monster Squad" following but the latter is far better. I have forgotten all about Jackey Vinson.