Reliving the Summer of 1992 Diary - Week Nine
July 16, 2012
Rick Moranis gone done it again in “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid,” and Melanie Griffith keeps kosher in “A Stranger Among Us.”
Honey, I Blew Up the Kid
Nutshell: Relocating to Las Vegas after his last invention snafu, Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) has sold his shrinking ray to a research lab in an effort to develop the machine’s ability to expand everyday objects. When his toddler son, Adam (played by twins Daniel and Joshua Shalikar), is hit by the ray, the little boy begins growing after exposure to electricity, sending Wayne, wife Diane (Marcia Strassman), and son Nick (Robert Oliveri) into hysterics, searching for any way to capture Adam and shrink him back down to size. Also in the mix is babysitter Mandy (Keri Russell), a teen temptress Nick is crushing on, and the villainous Hendrickson (John Shea), who wants the machine’s secrets all to himself, hunting the boy down for scientific study.
1992: When “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” launched into production in 1991, I don’t recall there being much fanfare. 1989’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” was a sleeper smash, providing Disney with a bona fide hit to massage into a profitable franchise, yet the mouse house didn’t exactly jump at the chance to capitalize on their unexpected moneymaker. Unsure where to take the adventures of Wayne Szalinski, the studio fell back on repetition, returning to a case of mad science, only here the central accident would have an opposite effect, terrorizing the genial inventor with an oversized situation of panic. Kind of a blah story if you ask me, especially coming after the imaginative playground of miniature survival arranged for the original picture.
While backed by a sequel-sized marketing effort, “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” didn’t replicate the first feature’s success, released to a collective moviegoer shrug, soon trampled by the competition. While it wasn’t a disaster, the follow-up didn’t carry the same sense of surprise, frustrating a 1992 me with its inability to rise above mediocrity in jokes and special effects. Joe Johnston’s impish directorial touch was clearly missing from the equation, finding the sequel lacking in spectacle and imaginative humor, content to play it safe when something slightly insane was in order to continue the story.
Although they tried to milk a good thing with theme park attractions and a television series, Disney never revived the “Honey” pulse to full strength. A third film, “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves,” went straight-to-video in 1997 (during Disney’s sequelize-everything-dammit period), also marking Moranis’s final live-action acting role. Goodness, there’s a whole lotta sad going on there.
2012: “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” was about a big backyard quest, with critters and discoveries that played up the disorienting scale of humans being miniaturized. “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” is more of a demolition derby viewing experience, pushing aside the original film’s aura of wonder to make a madcap comedy about a gigantic baby that smashes anything in its field of vision. The sense of mischief and awe is stripped from the sequel, which is noisier and less amusing. Considering how beautifully executed the 1989 effort is, it’s a real shock to see such a dip in quality.
Director Randal Kleiser is in way over his head with this picture, electing for blunt acts of baby stampeding to create comedy and excitement, instructing his cast to stand aside and make random faces of horror and astonishment. It’s a tiring routine after an extended opening, with the script hamstrung by the big baby visual, leaving little room to explore the potential of the concept. Again, “Kids” was quite a creative feature that provided a full sense of the dilemma at hand. “Kid” is a one-note gag with half of the film devoted to climatic acts of capture, as Adam works his way to the Las Vegas strip while the adults scramble to shrink him back down to toddler size. I suppose the limited scale of the effort was necessary when dealing with such young stars, keeping matters simple to maintain production momentum. Still, “Kid” looks cheap and ironically small, with unbelievably shoddy visual effects that make “The Amazing Colossal Man” look like “2001.”
Bright side? “Mickey Mouse Club” vet Keri Russell makes her feature film debut here.
Ur, I mean “Mickey Mouse Club” vet Keri Russell makes her feature film debut here.
Genuinely amusing is the interplay between Moranis and Shalikar twins, highlighting the funnyman’s attempts to keep his kiddie co-stars on task. It’s adorable to watch the actor improvise with the boys, working with their impulses to complete scenes. It’s a natural fatherly attitude from Moranis the film could’ve used more of.
“Kid” makes a lot of curious artistic choices, with Strassman’s beefed-up role killing the need to bring back most of the kids from “Kids.” I wonder why the script even bothers to provide a cameo for oldest Szalinski daughter Amy (Amy O’Neill), who’s hustled in and out of the feature in a hurry. The sequel boots away a warm familial dynamic to chase tedious villain shenanigans, forgetting what made the first picture so successful.
I suppose “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” is serviceable matinee entertainment, but coming after such a special moviegoing experience, it’s feels like a giant oversized Adidas step backward for the fledgling franchise. I’m sure the prospect of sequelizing a unique film such as “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” caused many a brain to melt at the Walt Disney Studios, but the premise they ultimately decided on simply doesn’t possess the same joy or exhilaration. It’s not an awful picture, just a crying shame.
A Stranger Among Us
Nutshell: When the murder of a peaceful jeweler rocks a Hasidic Jewish community in New York City, hotheaded Detective Eden (Melanie Griffith) is brought in to investigate. Going undercover to study suspects, Eden is forced to can her abrasive demeanor to blend into this foreign land of religious devotion and community trust, finding attraction to Ariel (Eric Thal), one of her chaperones and a close friend of the deceased. Receiving a vivid education on Hasidic life, Eden finds herself changed by the experience while inching closer to a possible killer.
1992: While normally I would exclude a fringe title such as this, the release of “A Stranger Among Us” actually resulted in a brusque interaction with a customer during a lonely evening at the five-plex.
I learned many things about the public while working at a movie theater, but the weirdest revelation had to be the concept of a person arriving at a ticket booth without a clue as to what they were going to see. Pure insanity. I’m not sure if it’s a drab grab at spontaneity or just complete disinterest in the rigorous process of decision-making, but the occasional stranger would just show up and ask me, the lowly cashier, what flick they should see. Such pressure!
One night, a man in his mid-30s (speaking for his group of friends) made such a request, and I answered with “A Stranger Among Us.” Having viewed the picture earlier in its run, I was happy to share my praise for such a sensitive, eye-opening film from Sidney Lumet about the Hasidic experience. I was 16 and greatly secluded, leaving me susceptible to the film’s efforts to explore a concealed community. I also wasn’t offended by Melanie Griffith’s performance at the time, still intrigued with the actress after “Working Girl” bewitched me when I was 12 years old. I was very pleased with “A Stranger Among Us” in 1992, completely unaware that many were most certainly not.
Mr. Impulsive bought four tickets on my recommendation. Two hours later, he bolted up to me and spit out through tight, white lips, “You really shouldn’t be giving other people advice on movies.” Ladies and germs, my first piece of hate mail.
Thank heavens I got out of that racket.
2012: At 16 years of age, “A Stranger Among Us” was a rich education on the world of Hasidic Jews and their customs. Two decades later, the immersion remains illuminating (perhaps too reminiscent of 1985’s “Witness”), yet it’s easier to spot the clunky elements of the picture, chiefly Melanie Griffith, who’s terribly miscast in the lead role. Her helium-rich voice and Beverly Hills stance make it difficult to believe the actress as a hardened cop prone to blasting away perps without a second thought. She’s not calloused enough to embody such a tough character undergoing a softening of spirit. Why Griffith was even considered for the role is a bit of a head-scratcher. Perhaps her star power was stronger at the time than I recall. However, 1992 was a rough year for Griffith, with a one-two punch of “Stranger” and the January bomb “Shining Through” slashing the tires of her career, and deservedly so. A personable sex bomb with a four-beer sway, Griffith wasn’t meant to stretch much as a performer. Her work as Detective Eden is futile at best, with barely an effort made to bulk up the wet-noodle to full NYC hard-ass hustle.
The rest of “Stranger” doesn’t bother me, delivering a mildly intriguing murder mystery at the center of the film, while the peek into the Hasidic culture continues to be a fascinating snapshot of a world few movies or television productions have dared to enter. Introductions are obvious to help the audience along (the script plays domestic matters as broadly as possible to avoid confusion), while Lumet wraps himself in the fabric of the community, using Detective Eden’s outsider status to explore different facets of the faith and the idiosyncrasies of the population. Shot with golden haze, “Stranger” takes Judaism seriously, interested in offering a deeper appreciation of a highly ordered people. It’s not an especially tight feature, but one that’s gentle with respect and mesmerized by the details, almost shoving Griffith aside at times to inspect routines in full. Flirtations with the mysteries of faith also bring out dimensions to the story, observed well in Thal’s performance as Ariel, a curious character drawn to the puzzle of Kabbalah and Eden’s shiksa sexuality.
Lumet sprinkles a pinch of cop drama magic dust around the picture, with some gunplay and a car chase to spice up the undercover experience. The formula is dependable (presenting James Gandolfini as an intimidating thug, back when that’s all he would play -- oh wait, that’s all he plays), but tends to block the view, with “Stranger” better as an intimate story of behavior than a bullet-happy procedural drama.
Also of merit is Mia Sara’s performance as Leah, Eden’s babysitter and our guide to the Hasidic world. A difficult actress to peg, Sara is relaxed in the role, revealing tremendous personality. She always seemed destined for big things in the industry, yet never quite made it to the show. Forever Sloane Peterson, Sara deserved better gigs than support work in a Melanie Griffith film. Nevertheless, “Stranger” is enriched by her presence.
Lumet and the script at least try to take the whole experience seriously, offering relationship complexity for Eden, with the cop fighting advances from any poor bastard who makes eye contact with her. It’s a shame the producers pinned their hopes on Griffith. With a stronger, feistier performer, “A Stranger Among Us” would’ve established a more bountiful emotional core. Instead, it’s stuck with a permanently detached lead actress who juggles snappy cop jargon and sex appeal with all the concentration of pothead.
Coming next week…
Damon Wayans looks to steal Eddie Murphy’s crown.
A good-to-great title is slapped on a bad-to-awful movie.