Tuesday, 17 April 2012

VHS Quest #16. Almost Heroes (Christopher Guest, 1998)

The original theatrical poster for Almost Heroes (1998)

Back when I was just a wee sprog (let's say between the ages of 8 and 12) there was no place I'd rather spend summers than Rainbow Video, my local rental store. During school holidays they'd introduce an offer whereby you could hire any five tapes for five nights for £5 (I'd imagined this privilege was designed exclusively for me, not fraying parents desperate to glue their kids to the telly), and with that the seeds of my film obsession were planted. Posters littered the store's walls, the smell of days-old coffee and buttered popcorn wafted out from behind the counter, and from upstairs crept the confounding aroma of sun-cream (oh yeah, the top floor was a solarium), ensuring that the sci-fi tapes stacked beneath the stairs remained permanently untouched. Actually, all of the tapes were stockpiled in the back room, and each film's cover art transferred into plastic sheeting, later categorized by genre and/or actor. It was during this time that Friends (1994 - 2004) was playing at its peak, and therefore each of its stars had their own sub-section next to the endless volumes of season tapes. This period led to the discovery of many guilty pleasures. Affection for Charlie's Angels (McG, 2000), Romy And Michele's High School Reunion (Mirkin, 1997) and Six Days Seven Nights (Reitman, 1998) arose from these confused years, as did a deep, deep love for Almost Heroes. They do say love is blind...

Honestly, Almost Heroes might be the best charity shop find I've ever had, not because of the film's quality, which we'll get around to, but because of the sentimental value this particular tape holds. Avid collectors will recognize the feeling; pennies for memories is a staple of the modern VHS experience. But watching this tape was an experience deeply reflective of the 25p it cost me, for Almost Heroes is the broadest, flattest and most insipid 'comedy' I can ever remember seeing, and attaching any material charge to it should be in breach of humanist laws. It's the cinematic equivalent of being promised a one-way ticket to the holy land and then being excreted from a plane, without a parachute, into the parched outback, forced to spend days wandering its vast, empty expanse and having vultures peck at your skull until finally - FINALLY - the possibility of insanity can release you from the trek's utter inanity. The film's director is Christopher Guest, best known as the writer/director behind Waiting For Guffman (1996) and A Mighty Wind (2003), but what he found funny in this screenplay - penned by Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe and Boyd Hale - is beyond me. Looking back it's easy to see what I found funny, aged 10, as the movie is crammed wall-to-wall with pea-headed innuendo and slapstick, with most scenes ending in either Matthew Perry's gurning or Chris Farely's lewd rollerball falling over his and/or other people's feet. Guest feels like little more than a hired hand here, and I'm frankly amazed that he allows his name to remain associated with such terminally unfunny dross.

The year is 1804, and Leslie Edwards (Perry) is leading the first expedition to the Pacific Ocean. The problem is that this timorous, toffee-nosed twit has no knowledge of the seas or, well... anything outside of his crockery cupboard, and therefore requires an associate. With absolutely no suggestion of their history, Edwards saves the brash alcoholic Bartholomew Hunt (Farley), a veteran tracker, from public hanging. They quickly assemble a ragtag crew which includes the zany French interpreter Guy Fontenot (Eugene Levy) and his Indian wife Shaquinna (Lisa Barbuscia), whose name I actually had to look up and double-check, because the film simply requires that she bathe nude and never, ever suggest a personality. It'd be nice if I could tell you that a plot kicked in at this point, but Almost Heroes just wanders without a clue from Point A to Point B, stopping along the way to piss in the face of audience goodwill. The events which grace it's 90-minute running time couldn't even be called sketches, as that might suggest an attempt at humour. The film isn't even decent enough to establish Shaquinna as the clich├ęd love interest she plainly is, as Guest and co. employ their single female character as mere window dressing, requiring nothing of Barbuscia except to be stagnant and pretty, passive to the waves of sexism crushing over her, and the final cut (boy, does this print feel butchered) doesn't even provide the actress with the obligatory heart-to-heart scene in which she can fall hopelessly - and unbelievably - in love with our protagonist. In fact, I'm not even sure that's achieved by the final frame.

In the interest of fairness, Eugene Levy is fantastically deadpan as Fontenot, whose silly accent/mustache combo raises all of the film's giggles. The actor's screentime amounts to no more than five minutes, but that's all he needs to steal, rise above and make watchable the material. Everything outside of that screentime is a barren comedic wasteland; a dystopia of aborted half-jokes which have somehow been allowed to limp before the camera. For example, Kevin Dunn's cameo as the horny conquistador Hidalgo. The gag here seems to be that he wants to kidnap and bed Shaquinna, but the damsel is saved by Bartholomew, who offers her as the prize in a drinking contest. He wins, passes out, and the scene cuts to black. Where's the joke, I ask you? Consider another scene with Bartholomew, where he is tasked with locating an eagle's egg to save his pal Leslie from the ailment formerly known as plot convolution. So off he goes, climbing a tree to the nest, foregrounded against the worst green-screened landscape ever committed to celluloid, and steals an egg. Throughout the course of this gag he brutally assaults an eagle, maims a wild boar for bacon (to fry alongside the two eggs he can't resist eating) and then mounts the tree a third time. We expect the eagle to come back and abide by the rule of three, resulting in some silly punchline or slapstick extravaganza, but Guest just cuts to the next scene. Literally every setup goes like this, and none of them are connected by any thread of a plot.

Well, at least the scenery is pleasant, with locations such as California's Big Bear Valley providing the impressive vistas which our adventurers traverse. They never feel 1804 accurate and unexplored, granted, but at least some thought has gone into making the film look half-decent. Maybe if it weren't so inexorably, unforgivably, excrementally unfunny, that might actually account for something, but seeing as it is, it doesn't, and the only thing left to recommend is Eugene Levy's mustache. Now ask yourself... is that really worth 25p?

The full VHS Quest lineup can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty sure I saw this in a junior high history class. Don't remember much about it.

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