Skip to main content

If I had eyes and teeth, I’d be a whole head.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man
(1992)

(SPOILERS) A huge box office bomb for Warner Bros, but unlike the later Escape from L.A., its problems can’t really be laid at director John Carpenter’s door. Indeed, it sounds as if he brought exactly the right instincts to the project (“North by Northwest meets Starman”); it’s almost entirely the presence of Chevy Chase that does for Memoirs of an Invisible Man, a vanity project the star had nurtured but which proved entirely ill-fitting and scuppered his serious thesping designs as quickly as they took form.

Perhaps Chevy envied the success of the likes of Bruce Willis – or sometime co-star Steve Martin – who turned himself from a comedy-ish guy into a serious dramatic lead, although the genesis of Memoirs of an Invisible Man came prior to Die Hard, when he got Warner Bros to buy Harry F Saint’s novel of the same name. Why the studio felt this would remotely work or that they should indulge Chase may seem hard to fathom, but as William Goldman notes in Which Lie Did I Tell? he was the world’s number five box office star in the mid-80s.

Certainly, Ivan Reitman, initially attached as director, baulked at the straight-drama directive, and the studio went with Chevy in a him-or-me ultimatum. William Goldman had been very much of a mind with Reitman on the tone (the screenplay, rewritten, is also credited to Dana Olsen and Robert Collector) and his take on the ridiculousness of Chevy’s intention, to explore “the loneliness of invisibility”, has accordingly become the plaque to hang around the picture’s failure.

Although, I’ve never been convinced by Reitman’s directorial chops, even as a comedy director; he felt he had another Ghostbusters in the offing – doubtless he felt the same about Evolution, and look what happened there. Goldman was initially placated regarding the star and director coming at the project from different directions, with CAA suggesting “Just write the script. It will all sort itself out”. It didn’t. Goldman had to admit Chevy had a point, thematically, on the presumption that being invisible wouldn’t be a bed of roses – it had, after all, sent previous transparencies completely loony – but he came back to the harsh truth that while he liked the star, and the theme had merit, “I just didn’t want to investigate it with Chevy Chase” who had become famous through “playing a goof who had trouble with stairs”.

So Carpenter came in, worked with the new guys on rewrites, and directed Chase and Daryl Hannah as his romantic leads. Both of whom were, apparently, nightmarish to work with. More importantly, since its what’s up there on screen that counts, they entirely don’t work as a romantic couple. Carpenter’s quite right to make the movie essentially a chase, but Chase isn’t Cary Grant (although he did occasionally put me in mind of cardboard version of Warren Beatty), and whenever the picture stops for the love story or the contemplative elements, it sinks like a stone. Chase made a virtue of deadpan narration in the Fletch series, but his serious approach to the voiceover here is a killer. He has neither the range nor the gravitas, and while some of his quips are decent, they’re very much asides.

The irony is that, production-wise, this is pretty impressive. Carpenter has six-time Oscar nominee William A Fraker as his DP (The President’s Analyst, 1941 and WarGames amongst others) rather than his pal Gary K Kibbe. The special effects are, for the most part, quite special (the semi-visible lab, invisible Chase silhouetted in water – the practical effects, however… well, Chase in makeup looks like something out of Welcome to Marwen, and his blackface, turbaned taxi driver is… unfortunate). The score, by Shirley Walker rather than Carpenter, has a dramatically rousing Flight of the Bumblebee motif during pursuit scenes. It looks great and is highly polished, basically. Carpenter’s taking his time, and when you aren’t concentrating on Chase being in it, the flight of the protagonist and cat-and-mouse games work well.

It’s also helped considerably by Sam Neill’s villainous Jenkins; the actor knows he’s playing a less suave James Mason and has a lot of fun with the part on that basis. Carpenter was doubtless on board with the shadowy government vibe (also present in surrounding pictures They Live and Village of the Damned), and their unscrupulousness is a lot of fun (Stephen Tobolowsky is Neill’s nervy superior, while Jim “Bishop Brennan” Norton plays a scientist on the wrong end of Jenkins’ clean-up operation).

There’s also strong comedic support from Michael McKean and Patricia Heaton as Chase’s friends who show up at their beach house while Chevy’s hiding out there, along with Hannah and English rotter Gregory Paul Martin. The latter has ungentlemanly intentions towards her and also delivers the best line, regarding Chevy’s likely fate (“He’ll probably wash up on the shore one day all bloated and eaten by crabs” – it’s all in the delivery).

The frustrating thing with Memoirs of an Invisible Man is that you can see how it could have worked, both as a comedy and a straight chase thriller, but it ends up as neither fish nor fowl, failing to up the ante sufficiently to succeed as a thriller and stymied by Chevy’s presence in the romantic stakes (at one-point Neill refers to him as “cool, imaginative, elegant” and you’re “Huh?”) Carpenter had detoured into low-budget fare because of issues with studio control, so arguably knew what he was getting himself into here; as a production, it’s one of the most accomplished pieces with his name on it, but as a complete movie, it’s crippled by a (self) miscast star and a screenplay that needed to decide what it wanted to achieve. As some one says at one point of the lab, “It’s not what it is. It’s what it isn’t”.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.