Films

Fighting for laughs

Brian D. Johnson July 20 1998
Films

Fighting for laughs

Brian D. Johnson July 20 1998

Fighting for laughs

Films

Now that Godzilla, Deep Impact and Armageddon have dumped their megaton payloads—without quite setting the world on fire—along comes a summer blockbuster for kids, one that turns Godzilla’s “size does matter” slogan on its head. Small Soldiers reduces the save-theworld scenario to toy-town scale.

The world, in this case, is a suburban house under military siege by an army of plastic action figures. The basic concept is Toy Story with teeth. Toy Story was an animated fantasy about low-tech toys that come to life, Pinocchio-like, in a boy’s bedroom. Small Soldiers is a live-action movie about high-tech toys that come to life, not by magic, but by technology run amok—a platoon of lilliputian Terminators with silicon-chip intelligence.

Though clever, sporadically funny and tenaciously entertaining, this action comedy has neither the originality nor the universal appeal of Toy Story. And Small Soldiers is not for small children. It is too long (nearly two hours), too urbane and too vicious. Its ideal audience, presumably, is a preteen boy at the hormonal crossroads. But the film laboriously panders to parents as well as kids. It is a war movie with an anti-war message. And, smartly in step with the summer of The Truman Show, it has a satirical premise mocking the evil genius of globalized capitalism.

A military corporation called Globotech Industries has moved into the toy business. Using a computer chip designed for military weaponry, it creates a new line of “toys that play back.” An action figure named Major Chip Hazard (the voice of Tommy Lee Jones) leads the Commando Elite, a squad of GI jokers programmed to destroy an enemy line of toys called the Gorgonites, peace-loving creatures searching for their lost homeland. The story’s teenage hero (played by Canadian Gregory Smith), gets an advance shipment of the new products while minding his father’s old-fashioned toy store. Overnight, the toys bust out of their packages and the mayhem begins.

Littered with ironic asides, including a blast of Wagner from Apocalypse Now, the movie is a pastiche of well-worn devices. A mutant breed of dominatrix Barbie dolls is

lifted straight from Toy Story. Director Joe Dante cannibalizes his own Gremlins (1984). And the plot plays like an adolescent upgrade of Home Alone, with the toys inventing an arsenal of baroque weaponry from household objects such as nail guns, chainsaws, corn-cob holders and toasters.

While the gimmickry is ingenious, the story is lame, especially the coy romance between the boy hero and an older girl next door (Kristen Dunst). As her overbearing father, the late Phil Hartman is a treat. But his performance is just one of many nifty parts assembled into a clunky product.

It is ridiculous what a moviegoer has to put up with these days just to have a few laughs.

There’s Something About Mary is the latest gross-out romp from director brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the frat-boy farceurs who made Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin. It is a defiantly tasteless romantic comedy about

a surgeon babe being stalked by a bunch of losers who think that the best way to a woman’s heart is through fraud.

Ben Stiller plays Ted, who gets asked to the senior prom by the girl of his dreams, only to get his family jewels painfully caught in his zipper on the big night. Still obsessed with her memory 13 years after that disastrous first and last date, he hires a crooked private eye named Pat (Matt Dillon) to track her down. But when Pat finds Mary (Cameron Diaz)—now an affluent surgeon living with her mentally challenged brother in Miami—he falls for her himself.

With systematic vulgarity, the movie manages to offend just about every sensibility in sight—making fun of withered breasts, gay promiscuity, tortured dogs, the disabled and the mentally handicapped. The humor, though, is more crass than cruel. To the movie’s credit, there are at least two howlingly funny scenes—the business with the zipper, and an outrageous masturbation gag that sets a taboo-busting precedent in the mainstream portrayal of bodily fluids on-screen.

But gags are not enough. The bursts of physical comedy—the fishhook in the mouth, the drugged dog catching on fire— never create the rolling momentum of laughter generated by a good script. The movie, a prolonged exercise in sophomoric irony, shambles along at an annoyingly slack pace. As the stalked love object, Diaz is given little to do except smile and look cute, as if waiting to be crowned the new Meg Ryan. And although Dillon makes an amusing sleazeball, and Stiller a likable nebbish, neither rises above the material with, say, the dumb genius of a Jim Carrey. There’s Something About Mary, but not nearly enough.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON