Reliving the Summer of 1991 Diary - Week Eleven
August 01, 2011
“Hot Shots!” makes silly soar, Michael J. Fox takes a rural road with “Doc Hollywood,” and nobody really wants to “Return to the Blue Lagoon.”
Nutshell: A troubled pilot, Lt. Sean “Topper” Harley (Charlie Sheen) has been coaxed back into duty with the U.S. Navy by Lt. Cmdr James Block (Kevin Dunn), who hopes to utilize the flying ace in his well-meaning, but deceitful dealings with an airplane manufacturer. Returning to a place of great sorrow, Topper is confronted by tragic memories, looking to distract himself by romancing therapist Ramada (Valeria Golino) and engaging rival Lt. Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes). When a critical mission to Iraq is ordered, the team is sent into battle, forcing Topper to conquer his demons, get the girl, and return to his Native American dwelling in one piece.
1991: It was unusual to have “Hot Shots!” open six weeks after “The Naked Gun 2 1/2.” Not that the marketplace couldn’t handled the challenge (both films did big business), but the culture of comedy typically requires some breathing room between releases. Two parodies in the same season provoked some discomfort, with both pictures subjected to endless comparison.
Sharing DNA, “Hot Shots!” and “The Naked Gun” were pretty much the same movie after all. Breaking up the ZAZ (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker) squad that founded the whole subgenre with pictures like “Airplane!” and “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” Abrahams decided to strike out on his own with this extended “Top Gun” riff, bringing in Pat Proft to help mastermind the script.
I wasn’t above slapping the two pictures together for inspection, preferring “Hot Shots!” at the time, relishing its joke-per-minute tempo and more contemporary objects of ridicule. It was a fresh reworking of known elements, taking a slightly hungrier direction. Again, both movies were loads of fun, big laughs all around. However, there was just something about the mix of Charlie Sheen and “Top Gun” that connected more successfully in 1991.
2011: After watching “The Naked Gun 2 1/2” a few weeks back and sensing a faint feeling of fatigue about the whole effort, “Hot Shots!” is like pounding a barrel of Jolt Cola by comparison. It’s a wild picture, a lot more animated than I remember, suggesting Abrahams was eager to accelerate the jokes as a way of keeping the properties separate. My youthful self embraced the anarchy and finger-snap timing. My adult self wanted the professionals to take a seat and honestly reflect on the jokes about to be committed to film.
“Hot Shots!” is a humorous picture with a few bellylaughs, but a 2011 viewing reveals a definite comedic schizophrenia about the direction. Trying to remain fully engorged as a slapstick comedy, the picture often goes berserk with physical gags, dialing down the satiric possibilities to pratfall away like a maniac. Silly is good, but “Hot Shots!” is pushy at times, staging head bonks and electrocutions with a Tex Avery fervor, looking to make noise when perhaps something more subtle was in order. There’s even a helium balloon-inhaling gag. Yikes. The film is too eager to please.
While bodies are hurled all over the frame, the finer moments of the movie are reserved for the parody sequences, taking on the likes of “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “9 1/2 Weeks,” and “Marathon Man,” virtually ensuring prolonged parent/child Q&A sessions on the car ride home. “Dances with Wolves” (the new toy in Hollywood at the time) also takes a few hits, with Minnesota native Proft using town names as the native language of Sheen’s tribe. Cute. The movie pantsings are clever, filled with sly winks and body blows, riding that fine line between dopey and studied, holding the film together with some, gasp, structure.
Also amusing in the cast, with, gasp deux, Charlie Sheen making a fine impression in the starring role. Though Golino ultimately steals every scene she appears in (quite a mamma-mia deadpan on this one), Sheen’s the anchor and he’s a solid presence, playing everything with the proper straight-faced commitment, though he’s prone to some mugging. Sheen “gets” the Cruise shui, performing the Tony Scott-lathered bravado with a knowing kick, taking some impressive laughs with him. It’s a shame he’s elected to become one of the most annoying, unpleasant, and irresponsible men in Hollywood today. There was once such promise.
I’m not fully knocking “Hot Shots!” here, just admitting that its sugar content is a little coarse after two decades of absence. A good parody will make a forceful play for laughs, but this movie practically holds the viewer down in a tickle chair, drilling for any reaction. I admire the determination but the effect has worn off some. Maybe it’s Sheen. Maybe it’s my adulthood tarnishing the fun.
Actually, it’s the helium joke. Is this a motion picture or clown time at McDonalds? Sheesh.
Nutshell: Benjamin Stone (Michael J. Fox) is an exhausted Washington D.C. emergency room doctor counting down the days until he can escape to the luxury of Beverly Hills and a cushy job as a plastic surgeon. On his way out west, Stone is involved in a car accident that destroys property in the small town of Grady, South Carolina. Sentenced to community service for the damage, Stone is volunteered for the job of local doctor, seeing a variety of maladies and eccentric locals while planning his escape. However, a relationship with local Lou (Julie Warner) threatens to disrupt Stone’s ride to glory, with the hotshot pulled between the comfort of a bucolic life and the fast lane of L.A.
1991: With “The Hard Way” and “Doc Hollywood,” Michael J. Fox was finally feeling out his box office pull after years of “Back to the Future” and “Family Ties” gave his fame a boost. Without a franchise safety net, Fox was on his own now, taking on an eclectic range of comedies to figure out his marketplace appeal.
“Doc Hollywood” was a bit of a softball for Fox, playing to his straight man strengths with this fish-out-of-water romantic comedy. Not quite the acting challenge, but something cuddly to solidify his commercial appeal. I don’t think anyone was truly expecting the film to find an audience, but it did, acting as the sleeper hit of the season. “Doc Hollywood” played my theater, welcoming a steady stream of audiences sniffing around for something spongy and rural, miles away from the metallic clang of the blockbusters. There was Fox as well, keeping fans satisfied with a role that required plenty of stammering and wiggling.
While not overly impressed with the feature, I was still quite taken with the movie’s benevolence, enjoying its romantic moves and small town comedy urges. It helped to be a major fan of Fox, who could always sell a scene in his own special way, despite formulaic writing and tentative direction from Michael Caton-Jones (remember that guy?). “Doc Hollywood” didn’t offend in the least, but it also didn’t penetrate the senses. I left the film behind two decades ago never imagining a reason to return to it.
2011: What’s immediately impressive about “Doc Hollywood” is its efficiency. The opening 10 minutes of the film zooms through the entire set-up, establishing Benjamin, getting him out on the open road, and parking him in Grady. There’s even an opening title sequence as well. Bravo to Caton-Jones for caring about speed, allowing the rest of the picture to step back some and enjoy the view.
And what a surprising view it is, at least from a good taste standpoint. “Doc Hollywood” is a PG-13 movie, an expected rating, yet the first act reveals two F-words to unsettle sensitive viewers, and there’s some extensive nudity from Warner, who’s introduced emerging naked from a local lake. Apparently, the MPAA was in a good mood the day they rated the picture, but let’s be honest, I’m not complaining. I didn’t complain in 1991 either. Again, I bow to Caton-Jones’s ability to unnerve his audience before attempting to win them over.
“Doc Hollywood” is nothing special. Most of it plays like a television pilot, a “Southern Exposure” if you will, deploying thick stereotypes for cheap laughs, creating a community of illiterates, blowhards, and gossips for Benjamin to get lost within, gradually coming to delight in his rustic surroundings after an initial blizzard of resistance. It’s mild stuff, but the casting is special, with Fox and Warner creating plausible attraction, Barnard Hughes devouring his role as Benjamin’s cranky predecessor, and Woody Harrelson and Bridget Fonda finding appeal as the two Grady residents looking beyond the town borders for personal satisfaction.
Actually, it was wonderful to see Fonda again, who hasn’t acted in nearly a decade. She was an interesting actress and makes a cute impression with a throwaway role here. She also nabs the largest laugh of the movie playing around with Fox’s helpless size.
Squash festivals, pig jokes, and a backseat birth scene. “Doc Hollywood” gets the job done as a mid-tempo charmer, spending a great deal of time with Benjamin and Lou, hoping to explore their flirtations with a little more depth than the average romantic comedy allows. It works, with a hearty sense of character connection established, making the climax less about programmed theatrics and more about two smart, hesitant people finding comfort in an unlikely situation. The film even successfully sells Fox as a romantic figure. Not an easy achievement, with the gooey stuff often hanging awkwardly from such an ace comedian.
Return to the Blue Lagoon
Nutshell: Rescued from a floating grave, young Richard (Brian Krause) is placed into the care of Sarah Hargrave (Lisa Pelikan), quickly made an adoptive brother to Lilli (Milla Jovovich). Lost in the South Seas, their transport is stricken with cholera, forcing Sarah and her children to flee, finding a nearby island familiar to Richard. As the years pass, Sarah teaches her young the ways of life and civilization in the middle of a gorgeous island, with the pair growing into naive, but self-sufficient teenagers. Finding their maturation threatening their tropical routine, Richard and Lilli are faced with a more disturbing challenge when their island home is visited by corruptive English travelers.
1991: If including “Return to the Blue Lagoon” in this diary seems a little strange, well, so was the theater ambiance on the day I originally saw the film.
I realize most kids my age weren’t exactly clamoring to see a feature about googly-eyed kids maturing on an isolated island. However, I couldn’t wait to partake, jumping at the chance to see a sequel to a film that was basically verboten when I was growing up. And there was the whole Milla Jovovich factor. Let’s just say I wasn’t opposed to watching a movie about a teen girl prancing around in a bamboo bikini. In 1991, cheap thrills were a lot harder to come by.
I attended a matinee of the picture during its opening week, expecting a nice quiet showing, perhaps to an empty theater. Instead, there were scores of teen girls. No guys at all. Just me, and showing up alone at an afternoon screening of “Return to the Blue Lagoon” wasn’t exactly reinforcing my masculinity. There was great discomfort shared between both sexes that afternoon.
I’ve been the only white kid in an African-American audience. I once saw Toni Childs in concert. As a heterosexual young man, there was definitely some confusing tension and a few glares in that theater. Yet nothing is quite as disorienting as being a boy in a room full of girls. Thank god I wasn’t wearing a raincoat.
In the darkened theater, all the pre-show discomfort dissipated and I was able to enjoy the film. Again, I was a sucker for sentimental entertainment and “Return to the Blue Lagoon” was a real indulgence to watch at the time. Up to this point, I hadn’t really viewed the original picture in its entirety, and there was a unique thrill in watching its sequel during its initial run. There was also the whole dewy sexual development plot, which I’ll admit was catnip at the time. Themes of isolation and maturity were equally as compelling, especially when spread across perfect beaches and Jovoviches. I fell for the film like a goon, but kept that fandom private for years. However, I only saw the picture this one time, leaving the strange experience trapped in amber.
2011: Make no mistake, “Return to the Blue Lagoon” is an idiotic motion picture. I have no nostalgia for it and feel pretty embarrassed about my youthful gushing. I was juvenile and that semi-innocence of the world is useful for a picture such as this. It’s a film for 1991 teenagers who’ve never seen the original feature, itself a period-specific moviegoing experience of extreme stupidity. The sequel is bad, yet it’s understandably dim-witted. Columbia Pictures wanted another hit movie for a new generation of pushover, curious kids, so they cooked up the same cinematic meal.
Essentially a spin-off of the 1980 movie (taking only a few cues from author Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s original novel), “Return” attempts to rework the “innocents in paradise” formula with two fresh young actors comfortable with bare skin and the delivery of atrocious dialogue. It’s blunt about bodily development and the pubescent urges, projecting it’s purity of spirit to the rafters via two wide-eyed performances from Jovovich and Krause, who spend most of the picture underlining the childlike intellect of the characters.
I suppose the disruption in the formula is the generous invasion of outsiders, making the picture less about remoteness and more about the conquering of consistent threats. It’s a static picture, only coming to life when dealing with growing pains, with tremendous unintentional comedy coming from reactions to bodily functions, sold almost in pantomime. Periods flow, breasts grow, and boners hooooo! It’s all highly entertaining but only if one arrives at the picture’s front door fully relaxed. There’s nothing especially competent about the film outside of the tropical cinematography, leaving the film’s awkwardness and straightforward articulation of danger amusing in a furiously bad movie way.
When all else fails, there’s the youthful pluck of Jovovich and Krause, the two primary reasons anyone would sit through the film both then and now. Good looking and eager to parade their bodies in front of the camera, the pair does their best to live up the high standards set by Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields. I’m hesitant to place any of the film’s failure on their shoulders, since the actors strain so hard to nail the island rube routine. Besides, Jovovich in her jailbait prime? How could anyone resist her timeless beauty.
Whatever soft spot I held for “Return to the Blue Lagoon” in 1991 is gone now. It’s a predictable calcification to the effects of dreamy teen lust, but I think it’s an interesting snapshot of personal development. At 15 years of age, I wanted to live inside this screen world of freedom and loinclothed abandon. Today, I wanted these kids to fall on some coral.
Coming next week…
Jean-Claude Van Damme meets his greatest acting challenge.
And John Candy begins his final descent.