Monday, November 14, 2011

Movie Monday: Memoirs of an Invisible Man

This week's movie is the action/comedy Memoirs of an Invisible Man!

For whatever reason, most of John Carpenter's body of work is available on Netflix WI, which is great for me: I'm such a fan of his that I've been programming entire days of nothing but John Carpenter movies.

One of his most underrated films, IMO, is 1992's Memoirs of an Invisible Man, starring Chevy Chase.
The film opens with narration by Chase, playing Nick Halloway who, indeed, is invisible! As we watch him chew gum and twirl a pencil for the benefit of a video camera, he records his story, starting from the beginning:
Halloway is a stock analyst, but seems to not care too much about his job. In a flurry of activities, Halloway takes off for some drinks at a nearby club, where he meets up with his friend George (Michael McKean), who introduces him to a mutual friend, named Alice (Darryl Hannah):
Its love--or at least lust--at first sight for both of them, and after some passionate groping, they make plans to have lunch later in the week. Alice proves herself to be just as strong a character as Nick, which seems to interest him all the more.

The next day, Nick attends a stockholder's meeting at Magnascopic Labs. Bored to tears, we wanders off to a small room to take a nap. While asleep, a mishap occurs in another part of the lab, causing something unexpected: parts of the building becomes invisible:

Nick wakes up, and of course completely freaks out: he's invisible! It takes him a few minutes before he realizes what's happened to him
A group of government agents, led by the eerily-calm David Jenkins (Sam Neill), descend on the building, and when they spy Nick, they cart him off on a stretcher after he knocks himself out banging into an invisible wall.

Nick wakes up overhearing what Jenkins has planned for him, which is basically a never-ending stream of medical experiments. Not believing Jenkins' smooth talk, Nick escapes onto the streets of San Francisco.

To this point, MOAIM is a decent, if unremarkable, sci-fi thriller comedy. Chase is doing something a tad different here, and while that's fun to watch, its nothing exceptional. But its at this moment that the film could have taken several different turns, and thankfully Carpenter and his screenwriters take the road less traveled:
Instead of just going for cheap gags, Memoirs explores what it would really be like to be invisible: sounds great, right? Well, maybe for a short while, but while on the run Nick discovers how lonely he is: afraid of being caught by Jenkins and his goons (especially after he realizes they know where he lives), he has to wander the streets, always moving. Since no one can see him, he's always at risk of being knocked into, or shoved aside. Plus, he's so, so hungry!

Chevy Chase brings a palpable pathos to the role of Nick, and while there are some gags (he off-handedly foils a purse snatching, much to the bewilderment of the crook and victim), for the most part the film is played straight.

Finally, Nick gets the idea to find the scientist he saw that morning, assuming he might be able to help cure him. He confronts the man at a nearby park, dressed like a bum to avoid being noticed. When the scientist, horrified at what has happened, tells Nick it might take years to undo what has happened, Nick loses his temper and yells: "I want my molecules back!"
This is another scene that could have gone the way movies typically do: instead, the scientist is bewildered at what has happened (the experiments were never about invisibility, this was a random side effect), and actually wants to help Nick. When he spies two of Jenkins' goons aiming a gun at Nick, he jumps into the line of fine, giving Nick a chance to escape.

Nick then decides to try and learn more about Jenkins, and maybe reporting himself to the government. He sneaks into Jenkins' office and sits in a corner, listening to everything. In another great scene, Nick, who has been sitting in the same position all day, stretches his legs. There's a quiet little "snap" as he does, which he fears reveals his presence to Jenkins:
Jenkins, knowing Nick is in the room, tries to bargain with him, while also advising him not to go to the higher-ups: because once he does, he will never be free.

Nick escapes, and hides out at the summer beach home of his friend George. He dreams of living a regular life, while still being invisible. Pretending to be his friend, he orders food deliveries ("My doctors say I need clear food") and contemplates contacting Alice, who wondered what happened to Nick after their first meeting.

Unfortunately, George, his wife, Alice, and a mutual friend arrive at the house to stay the weekend, and can't figure out why the house has been stocked with food. They surmise its Nick's work, and Alice grows concerned. She rebuffs the clumsy advances of the mutual friend, and Nick helps by tossing the guy across the room when he lunges for Alice in her bedroom.

Nick moves into another house down the beach and calls Alice, begging her to come see him (ah, if only). He explains what's happened, and they plan to go into hiding together, Alice showing a grit and devotion that helps Nick fall in love with her.

But all that falls apart when Jenkins and his men kidnap Alice (after overhearing a phone call that tips them off to his location), and demand Nick turn himself in. He agrees in exchange for Alice going free, calling from a nearby phone booth. This is the film's only moment where it uses classic Invisible Man iconography via Nick's disguise:
Jenkins and his men surround Nick, shoving Alice into a nearby cab. Nick tries to escape, but is stopped in his tracks. Jenkins punches Nick in the stomach, but then senses something is wrong: he grabs the bandages, and underneath them is...George! Where's Nick Halloway?

Turns out Nick pulled a fast one on Jenkins, and, in disguise, is driving the cab that picked up Alice. But Jenkins catches up with him, chasing Nick into a construction site. Nick, finally getting a hang of his invisibility, tricks Jenkins once again, leading to his death. Everyone assumes Nick is dead as well, including Alice, but she is startled when she hears Nick's voice in her ear. She--and he--quietly walks away from the whole sordid scene.

Over the end credits, we that Nick and Alice have built a life together, albeit an unusual one:
...the film ends with Nick and Alice's romantic bliss, but there's some melancholy there, too: after all, Nick is still invisible, and, presumably, will always be. The End.

Visually, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is nothing special: shot in a fairly bland way, both in terms of composition and colors, the film still stands out to me because, at virtually every turn, it takes the road less traveled. After all, if all you know about this movie is that Chevy Chase plays an invisible man, you can guess what you're gonna get: lots of prat falls, dumb jokes, Chevy being silly.

And while there is some of that (Chevy dresses up in disguise a lot, reminding one of Fletch), it always winds its way back to taking this story seriously. Since this film was produced by Chase's production company, we can only assume this was his intention, and I thought he pulled it off.

Sadly, MOAIM was not a box office hit, and Chase went right back to the silly crap he's been mostly known for--he followed up this movie with Cops and Robbersons, Man of the House, and Vegas Vacation. Ugh. I guess, on some level, that makes me like this movie more, because its so unappreciated. Again, its no classic, but its a film that tries to break the mold, and succeeds a lot of the time. Originally this film was going to be directed by Ivan Reitman, who wanted it to be more traditionally silly; I guess we have Chase and Carpenter to thank for the making the more serious, and more interesting, film that they did.

Before I sign off, I just want to mention one more thing about how the deck was stacked against this movie. Check out the poster:
I guess Warner Bros. figured "Chevy Chase" in giant letters was not enough to let people know he was in the movie, they had to airbrush his face onto the invisible form, which really makes no sense! How eye-catching would have this poster been if they had just let the invisible man be invisible?!? To me, this ham-handed attempt to make the poster more traditional is a perfect example of the kind of thing this movie, in its own small way, was working against. No wonder it failed.


J Mello said...

Huh. I never knew this was directed by Carpenter. I saw this, once, way back when. Now I am going to have to give it a rewatch. Sounds fun, at least.

And I agree about the poster, but I don't honestly think Hollywood would ever have done it your way.

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Would Chevy Chase have done the poster without his face? Stars can be surprisingly petty about these things.

I had this in my queue for a while, but eventually dropped it. I may have to stick it back in. A similar title I do still have in there is The Man Who Knew Too Little with Bill Murray.

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