July 21st, 1989
Nutshell: Perennial losers George (“Weird Al” Yankovic) and Bob (David Bowe) are offered an opportunity to run their own UHF station. Taking the channel from worst to first, the station attracts the attention of a local network affiliate owner (Kevin McCarthy), who sets out to destroy the duo’s success.
1989: “Weird Al” Yankovic was a playground staple long before “UHF” came around. His decade-long hit streak of music parodies built him an impressive reputation with kids everywhere, which, in a certain way, culminated with the release of “UHF,” Yankovic’s starring debut. The film was positioned as a big screen event, despite a low-budget and Yankovic’s cult appeal. “UHF” was also handed a primo summer release slot (it nearly had the weekend to itself), encouraged by a wild marketing push that promised a flume ride of slapstick and Yankovic-frosted absurdity. In a summer of serious blockbusters doing serious business, “UHF” was an oddball offering, but I’m sure that’s what releasing studio Orion was counting on.
While not a devotee of Yankovic’s sillyheart brand, I held a passing interest in his horseplay at the time, much like any other young boy. Fitting into the Mad Magazine school of minor league comedic rebellion (and local library soul food), Yankovic filled a need for misbehavior and pop culture defiance, not only though the music, but his nerd superhero outfit of glasses, fro, and mustache. “UHF” was the blockbuster that was sure to push Yankovic to the next level of dominance. It was the motion picture that would launch a bold new star.
And then the picture died at the box office. Slaughtered, actually. Opening in 11th place without any major competition. The world wasn’t ready for “Weird Al” omnipresence just yet. Or perhaps it was just politely refused.
“UHF” was a juvenile fairy tale and played sharply as that. It was warmly received in my neck of the woods, cheered on as an attractively silly thing that offered Yankovic fans recognizable pleasures and newcomers…well, it helped to be a Yankovic fan. Though manufactured with a universal screwball language, I’m sure the film triggered a few parental supervision boiling points that summer, making for a few tense return trips home from the theater.
2009: Yankovic was a peripheral character to me back in 1989, but the last two decades have revealed the man to be a legend, with a legion of fans that adamantly refuse to give up on his brand of humor. “UHF” has maintained an amazing life in underground circles, and I suppose that’s worth a round of applause. You don’t see supporters of “No Holds Barred” demanding a DVD release, now do you.
Revisiting “UHF” was like slipping into an idling DeLorean and taking a trip back to a time when screen silliness wasn’t primarily concerned with speed. Nowadays, comedy is swift and allegedly clever, with the like of YouTube and Twitter allowing everyone a chance to bust out parody or mockery within seconds of inspiration. Cinematically, the thinking extends to the Friedberg/Seltzer filmography, where jokes are rooted in the latest pop culture trends and humiliations, churned out yearly to keep up with finger-snap attention spans. Watching “UHF” again was a reminder of a time not too long ago when lampoons reached out a little further, often for obscure targets, and screen comedy was less self-conscious -- the movie didn’t have to be the hippest thing in the room, just funny. Yankovic and director Jay Levey share a real affinity for the ridiculous and that’s what “UHF” is: a long strand of absurdity, broken down into various weirdo tangents for easier consumption.
The picture mimics Yankovic’s bite-sized portions of jesting, and while I wasn’t roaring on the couch during my home screening, I was consistently smiling. It was a kick to observe the fearlessness of “UHF” as it stabbed wildly for yuks, often through parody, ludicrousness, or slapstick. The script’s ingenious plot allows for Yankovic to take his imagination anywhere, and the finished film reflects a man offered an artistic blank check. The feature swerves and swoops, deploying a pre-internet confidence that allows Yankovic to poke at movies decades old, or toss in one of his famous music video lampoons with a mid-movie “Money for Nothing” digression. “UHF” is literally everything but the kitchen sink, and while it doesn’t always hit the sweetest notes of inspiration, it maintains a lovable spiritedness and offers the odd gut-buster. And dumb guy humor. “UHF” has some of the best dumb guy humor around.
The character of Stanley Spadowski isn’t exactly the most refined piece of screenwriting, but Michael Richards is a scream here as the station’s moronically proud janitor, who becomes a beloved children’s television host, though careful to negotiate toilet cleaning duties into his contract. Still lean and pre-Kramer (and N-word), Richards dives into the role with his every spastic, wet-noodle instinct, stealing the film away from Yankovic (not all that hard), turning Stanley into an endearing character of unfiltered, pinballing stupidity. And he never breaks character, never winks, and remains a fool from his introduction to the end credits. He’s pure boob, and I’d like to know how the hell the Academy overlooked this work. Denzel Washington my ass.
“UHF” killed Yankovic’s big screen career, forced him to recharge his creativity, and contributed to the downfall of a movie studio. 20 years later, it remains an enduring faint glow in the hearts of fans and basic cable subscribers, and rightfully so: it’s a lively, unassuming, entertaining piece of work. Perhaps its initial failure was the best thing that could’ve ever happen to it.
Shag: The Movie
Nutshell: In 1963, four uptight southern belles (Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Annabeth Gish, and Page Hannah) travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to cruise for boys and enjoy the last days of life as teenagers, days before the great sweep of adulthood sends them into different social directions.
1989: “Shag” didn’t register as a must-see picture during its brief release, and it never quite caught my attention on VHS either. This was a television experience for me, and only in distanced parts, met with slight disinterest. “Shag” always came across as a shameless “Dirty Dancing” clone, which, in hindsight, just doesn’t sound like much of a reasonable objection. There’s an intriguing gap in my memory with this picture, and when you consider the film stars Phoebe Cates, my disinterest makes absolutely no sense. A film with four attractive lead actresses (some more than others) walking around in bikinis and underwear. Clearly my antennae failed me.
2009: While assuredly financed with hopes to recreate the “Dirty Dancing” financial windfall, “Shag” has more in common with “American Graffiti” and its world of cruising, end-of-innocence worry, and hesitant sexual inexperience. It’s not a horrendous feature film, but “Shag” never works itself into a suitable dramatic lather, instead relying on a wistful party atmosphere to conjure smiles from the viewer, buttered with a few dance sequences that lend the picture some liveliness.
The actresses are passable in their inquisitive roles, though my heart goes out to Gish, who plays “Pudge,” the requisite “fat girl” introvert who’s not actually anywhere near obesity. Still, she beams sweetly, with more vixen-like behavior tackled by Fonda and Cates. The ladies form a workable bond of teen foibles and boy-crazy panting, but the real star of the show is the Myrtle Beach atmosphere. Boardwalk scenes are evocative, generating a salty, summer night mood that’s hard to leave behind, especially when the film is pursuing a rote screenplay of contrivances and winded comedy. “Shag” hunts a loose atmosphere, perhaps even farcical at times, where the characters face their future, rotating through romantic partners and lessons of self-worth. Sitting through “Shag” in its entirety left me impatient with director Zelda Barron, who masters little moments of the film, but botches the overall impact. “Shag” hopes to speak to a few generations at once, but only really captures a specific mood of ‘60’s teendom and encroaching adulthood. Everything else just blurs into tedious confrontations, ridiculous lustful sway, and fleeting nostalgia.
The film was more enchanting the way I initially saw it: in tiny, indistinguishable fragments.
Coming next week…
Tom Hanks in the film that almost made him quit acting altogether.
And Hollywood’s most promising teaser campaign, wasted on a lifeless horror sequel.