Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Wizard (1989, Todd Holland)



Todd Holland directed many hilarious episodes of The Larry Sanders Show and several good episodes of Twin Peaks, so I at least knew this would be competently staged pablum. There's discernible skill on display in what he admitted at a New Beverly Cinema screening was simply grist for Fred Savage's potential film career and Nintendo payola. Despite the a heartwarming spin on Rain Man for kids with Nintendo in Reno substituting cards in Vegas, the screenplay was apparently written by David Chisholm with video games as an incidental skill chosen because kids play Super Mario and not poker. Once Nintendo was chosen by Universal to supply the games, the exclusive tie-in potential multiplied and two scenes were created which give this film its infamous reputation for campy crass commercialism: a climactic tournament of the soon to be released Super Mario Brothers 3, and a run-in with a bully who wields Nintendo's disastrous peripheral waste of money, The Power Glove - a futuristic looking glove which supposedly enabled what the Wii now does: motion controlled gaming. The latter is especially hilarious, yet Holland reigned in the entire rest of the film with the banal professionalism of a director who, as he described, pitched himself to the producers as someone whose ignorance of video games guaranteed their inclusion wouldn't happen at the story's expense. Unfortunately this principled approach leaves only a smarmy kids movie in which children go on the run to teach their parents a lesson and eventually triumph by outsmarting the cretinous boob adults who surround them, cracking wise all the way. Will Seltzer is particularly annoying as the missing child locator who hates kids and the parents he's ostensibly supposed to be helping.

The scenes to do with Nintendo are the only reason anyone remembers this tripe. There is also a fine pitch for the Universal Studios Theme Park when the moppets are chased through the King Kong ride and past park employees dressed as Frankenstein and Charlie Chaplin. There's never enough blatant tacky promotion of Nintendo to keep things interesting, nor even an attempt to work video games into the kids' characters - despite their mutual hobby, not once does Fred Savage roll his eyes and exclaim "Game Over, man!" which is disappointing. Compared to that other great landmark in product placement feature filmmaking Mac and Me, which had ET knockoff aliens being brought back from the grave with Coke and McDonald's, The Wizard is tame. Mac also had a total lack of respect for the audience, which ironically makes it more entertaining in retrospect. Despite Luke Edwards' character having some kind of post-trauma mute autism, his handicap is never exploited tastelessly the way Mac's wheelchair using lead boy was thrown off a freaking cliff so Mac could save him. Unless you count the funny moments when Fred Savage, like Tom Cruise, uses his savant brother to hustle "video heads" on the road to Reno for quick cash. In a delightful turn of ignorant screenwriting and child wish fulfillment, said vidiots are businessmen who bet money with 12 year olds over Double Dragon. If only there were more such nonsense to liven things up, instead of being quickly parsed plot functions! Having video games mentioned in "real" media, like movies and television, used to happen so infrequently it would send gamers into fits of ecstasy comparable only to comic book readers when some magazine interview with a famous person revealed they had a favorite super hero.

The retro hipsters in the theater with me had to wait good and long for a few seconds of Nintendo footage on 35mm to cheer. After the infamous Bully-With-A-Powerglove scene there's a good long wait until the Super Mario Brothers 3 scene, which somehow makes it all worth it if you catch a viewing with a crowd of game dorks. These are the only two scenes in which Holland has to try making people playing video games seem exciting on screen, and in this one the game is neither competitive for multiple players nor has been released. The film at least acknowledges this, before having one of Edwards' friends yell out tips about hidden secrets she couldn't possibly know. How? Why? Easy, for the kids at home to try when they buy Super Mario Brothers 3. All the rapid cuts between possibly the greatest game ever made, Fred Savage's reaction shots and the histrionic actor playing a way overexcited video game MC are what finally elevate The Wizard to high nostalgia camp, but only for the moment. There's no reason to recommend the film in full, the rest is too dull by comparison. Everyone with a career is simply, competently phoning it in, from Fred Savage to Lloyd Bridges as his dad and Christian Slater as his older brother. Everyone without a career is mugging like crazy, especially the aforementioned child bounty hunting villain who somewhat resembles a whiny Clarence Boddicker. Only Jenny Lewis as Savage's love interest registers any kind of charisma, selling their eventual obligatory PG love scene where Savage alone cannot.

View the best bits on YouTube and skip this, the funniest video game trash movie classic of all time is Joy Sticks.

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