Sunday, March 18, 2012

We Have Plenty Of Time

Time seems like more of an issue the more time that goes on. One of the pitfalls of getting older, I suppose. On my Facebook and Twitter pages I’m always posting anniversaries of various films that opened on a certain day, not for any particular reason but maybe I just think some films deserve to be remembered more than they are. Of course, some of those films I post about don’t really deserve to be remembered but maybe I just need to anyway. Maybe as time goes on I need to do it even more. And this is still the case when it’s a film I don’t really have any particular attachment to. One day recently I discovered we had hit the 20th anniversary of John Carpenter’s MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, a film I actually saw on opening day, and for whatever reason I felt compelled to watch it for the first time in years. The early part of ’92 wasn’t even a period in my life I have any real fondness for, so go figure on why. Very little reason for any of this. Very little reason for things when it comes to time.

Based on the excellent novel of the same name by H.F. Saint, the film was a pet project of star Chevy Chase for several years before it finally got made, obviously an attempt by him to branch out beyond goofy comedies but its disappointing box office pretty much put an end to the hot streak he was on during the NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION period leading to his legendarily unfortunate 1993 talk show. It’s a pretty loose adaptation out of necessity—the book takes the ‘memoirs’ part of the title literally as it covers years of the main character’s life, going into minutia of the travails of this invisible man and his discovery in how in some ways he was always invisible to the world. It’s a metaphor that is certainly there in the movie though not as much as it could have been, something which was probably inevitable—a faithful adaptation of the book would have to be extremely experimental which wouldn’t exactly fall into the heading of high concept effects driven star vehicle for Warner Brothers but it still feels like there are thematic possibilities in the material that the movie never fully capitalizes on. There’s a certain amount of NORTH BY NORTHWEST to be found in the story of an ordinary man suddenly on the run and in writing about the 1966 Gregory Peck vehicle MIRAGE recently I couldn’t help but think there were some vague similarities in its portrayal of dehumanization in the modern world to that film as well. But it never feels like MEMOIRS had as much interest as putting such thought into its themes as screenwriter Peter Stone did in writing MIRAGE and, for that matter, maybe if they were going to ape one of these films they should have taken that concept of following such storylines even further—not enough of consequence really happens during the 99 minutes of this INVISIBLE MAN so it never achieves the necessary weight, certainly nowhere near what the book achieved and as a movie it feels like the production chose to focus on the complex invisibility effects which are undeniably impressive although it feels like all that came at the expense of something.

Nick Holloway (Chevy Chase) is a stock analyst who meets the beautiful Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah) while out at dinner with friends. Instantly in love and hungover the next day in despair at not being able to see her again for another few days, while attending a shareholder’s meeting at Magnascopic Laboratories he locates a sauna and lies down for a badly needed nap. But an accident causes some kind of computer meltdown and, after the building is evacuated by everyone but Nick, much of the structure disappears, suddenly rendered invisible. When Nick awakes he is invisible as well and must escape the clutches of mysterious government operative David Jenkins (Sam Neill) who instantly realizes the benefits of having an invisible man under his control could be. Though Nick flees to his apartment back in San Francisco, it doesn’t take long for Jenkins to track him down and soon Nick is on the run, desperate to be turned back to normal, with no one he can trust and nowhere he can turn until fate brings Alice back into his life, making her maybe the one person who won’t give him away.

MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN moves along at a decent clip and features a star who seems eager to make his performance which he’s only onscreen for part of the time work but after a promising beginning it never clicks into any sort of high gear with too much of the plotting feeling like nothing that hasn’t been done before (I almost wrote ‘hasn’t been seen before’ then stopped myself) and a slightly impersonal feel to the production as if scenes were being shot under some kind of compromise of tone that everyone involved begrudgingly approved on. In his memoir “Which Lie Did I Tell?” screenwriter William Goldman recounts his involvement with the project back in the 80s when Chase was already attached to star (even the very first paperback edition way back then mentioned such a film was coming) and Ivan Reitman was on board to direct. Goldman recalls that Reitman saw the project as a chance to make another effects driven comedy in the GHOSTBUSTERS vein while Chase was intrigued by exploring the concept of ‘the loneliness of invisibility’. Goldman saw an inevitable clash between the two coming but was onboard for several drafts and recalls he felt that exploring the loneliness of invisibility was even a good idea, maybe just not one that went well with Chevy Chase. The project at this stage eventually fell apart and he states that he never saw the final version—credited as Screenplay by Robert Collector & Dana Olsen and William Goldman, based on Saint’s novel—so who’s to say how much of whatever he provided remains.

In some ways what the film ultimately is feels stranded in between the more thoughtful version of this story found in the source material and the goofy invisible man movie with Chevy Chase that I can imagine the studio would have preferred—as a result some of those elements feel a little crammed in up alongside a conspiracy plotline that doesn’t build up quite enough steam. Even some minor points of the story feel not entirely thought out or maybe are just the result of a studio wanting to make the material more commercial—in the book the character of Nick Holloway was a blank turned into a literal blank with no one close in his life to really miss him once they wait five minutes, something the film loses by having him meet Alice before the accident and since there’s an obvious attempt to make Chase into a Cary Grant-Gregory Peck charming leading man he can’t quite be so nondescript to the world--even when he’s shocked by the callous behavior his friends display towards his disappearance nothing they say is really all that upsetting so it’s as if the film doesn’t want to deal with any sort of actual emotion that would be brought on by this predicament either. Plot strands from the book do turn up but in a different context, robbed of the minutia of detail that made it strike such a chord (seriously, it’s a excellent book that I’ve read several times over the years and I highly recommend you seek it out)—Holloway inhabiting homes of people away on vacation becomes him bunking down in a friend’s beach house for a long stretch of narrative where not enough happens and the way he invents a person who no one wants to admit they don’t remember so he can score in the stock market becomes just a mere plot point which doesn’t add much of anything beyond a convenient out for the end of the movie. By the final third it really just becomes essentially a chase picture. With invisibility effects.

Here’s the thing—the book gives the reader page after page from the character’s point of view detailing his predicament, his loneliness and isolation, even down to questioning his own sanity at times but there’s not much of a way to dramatize that in a film, or at least not the version that this film is trying to be, so all we really get are shots of an invisible man wearing a hat or smoking a cigarette, as well as the discovery that what he eats isn’t going to be invisible as well. The special effects are mostly excellent but sometimes feel a little show-offy in how they’re staged as if it was felt that was the only purpose of a given scene. Too often it feels like instead of addressing story and character time on the set was spent determining how much Chase should be invisible in scenes versus how often the star, the one whose name is above the title on the poster, would be visible for the audience. It pulls off this tactic about as well as can be expected but, ultimately, so what? The loneliness the character feels, as much as you can sense Chase is putting his all into the narration, never means very much and even when Nick Holloway blurts out in anguish some of what he’s going through, like how he can even see through his eyelids when he tries to sleep, it doesn’t have any real effect. There’s also a brief dream sequence where he imagines everyone able to see him which is at least an attempt at something unusual but it still feels a little too isolated from everything. The film has parts that are intriguing but they don’t come together in a way that sticks.

Good things pop up in scenes throughout that seem like they would be part of a movie that worked better, particularly the triumph of production design that makes up the striking image of the partly gone building where the accident first occurs. And there’s pleasure of John Carpenter staging certain moments through his anamorphic prism, making full use of the Scope frame in a way that few other directors ever do but, I suppose a result of it being a director-for-hire situation, there’s never very much in the way of a Carpenteresque moment or sequence of shots edited together that click together in the way we’d expect from him. The old INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS town name Santa Mira used in HALLOWEEN III does turn up (so does a mention of Bodega Bay, the setting of THE BIRDS which actually exists but it feels like a Hitchcock reference anyway) as well as certain half baked government cover-up plot threads but not much else that feels like John Carpenter. And while it’s always nice to see San Francisco in a film (the novel was New York) it can’t really be said that the film does anything particularly noteworthy with the setting, also unfortunate considering the eye the director usually has. Too much of the script just feels not quite there yet and the plot doesn’t really build to anything, as if at the start of the third act the film lost interest in itself and simply decided to wrap things up quickly with end credits appearing before the actual fade out and, I suspect, maybe before people had realized that the film had actually ended.

Maybe part of the problem is that even more than being a Chevy Chase vehicle, even one in which he’s not wisecracking as usual, the film at times feels like a demonstration of state-of-the-art invisibility effects and since this sort of thing has been surpassed by now by the likes of HOLLOW MAN (probably a worse movie, but that’s neither here nor there) that means what the film is now twenty years after it was made just isn’t enough. It always seems interested in those effects—how the film was sold, after all—more than the potential of the story and what it all could mean, the ‘loneliness of invisibility’ and separation from the rest of the human race that apparently attracted Chase as a character study. I remember it feeling undercooked back when I saw it on opening day and hasn’t done much for how it plays two decades later. Which, considering some of the people involved, feels like kind of a shame.

If Chevy Chase wanted to do something different with this role, well, points for trying. He’s not at all bad and the nature of this partly there-partly not role would be difficult for anyone but as willing as he seems his voiceover narration feels a little bit too much like he’s trying to put a serious, film noir gruff into his voice and it makes things a little distracting, making it a little more evident that we're not getting much inner life into this guy. Daryl Hannah does her best with an underwritten role, a character who is strangely given an extensive background when she’s introduced but not very much else afterwards, so she’s really just The Girl even if she rarely ever looked better onscreen although I can’t help but think she seems visibly uncomfortable in the skimpy attire she wears during the dream sequence. Sam Neill is excellent as Jenkins, coming off as the total personification of how the character was portrayed in the book, a bad guy with his own agenda whose wheels in his head always seem to be clicking away to figure out the next move on the board. He feels like the one actor Carpenter was totally in synch with so no surprise that they worked together on IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS a few years later. Stephen Tobolowsky turns up as Jenkins’ superior with little control over his operative (if memory serves, Tobolowsky was in just about every movie released in ’92), Michael McKean is Nick’s friend George, Patricia Heaton is George’s wife Ellen, Rosalind Chao from a million things is Nick’s secretary, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA’s Donald Li is a cab driver and Carpenter himself makes a rare onscreen appearance as a helicopter pilot.

This has been a strange time for me, one where I find myself paying attention to a movie that attempts to address what sort of effect we ever have on other people and how much time we ever have in trying to make a connection before loneliness closes in. Unfortunately, what the movie turns out to be has very little to do with those promising themes. I guess there’s always the book for that. One other strange and unfortunate thing about MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN is that there is so little John Carpenterness to dig into on it, particularly when compared to a few of his films that I’ve written about in the past. I suppose that Chevy Chase is as close as this film, billed as ‘A Cornelius Production’, has to an auteur as possibly glimpsed in that dream sequence where people fawn over him as he plays the piano and the overall attempt to make him into an old-style leading man. All these years later, his film career pretty much over (his unbilled role in Stephen Frears’ HERO aside, it never felt like he never had much interest in trying the character actor route) Chase is now seen on NBC in the hugely underrated (as far as the Nielsen ratings go) COMMUNITY which thankfully returned to the lineup this past Thursday and was one of the highlights of what was an odd, intense week for me as I tried to write this. And now another week is beginning. And I feel a little invisible myself. That part of it never ends.


Adam Ross said...

I saw this opening weekend as well, and remember how the special effects was talked about on HBO, Entertainment Tonight and elsewhere (they really played up how he had to get blue makeup in his mouth). I haven't seen it since or really heard anyone speak of it much until now. I remember that first act really cooking along, and that effect on the laboratory building was another highlight of the early trailers.

I may have to check out the book, I remember seeing the paperback of it in my dad's bookshelf in the late 80s.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

My problem with this movie was that Chase wasn't invisible, he was just a rich, drunk, entitled jerk. He would have been supremely unlikable, except, you know, he's Chevy Chase.

I guess if he had been trying to play a character it might have been different, but this might as well have been The Invisible Fletch.

John Alday said...

I really loved the book on which the movie was based. When I was younger, I thought the movie was solid but paled in comparison. I do wish Chase had at least tried character work a few more times. He was pretty funny in his few scenes in Dirty Work.