Thursday, August 6, 2009


Tastes and times have changed drastically since 1961 when Fred MacMurray originally introduced the super-elastic stuff called ‘flubber’ to film audiences in Walt Disney’s “The Absent Minded Professor.” In the high-tech, 1990’s Disney remake “Flubber” (*** out of ****) reinvents itself as an animated, gooey-green, silly putty blob of flying rubber that talks and dances. Actually, flubber resembles a combination of the Pillsbury Doughboy crossed with the shape-shifting water creature in James Cameron’s 1989 fantasy thriller “The Abyss.” Inventive, excessive, but tolerably entertaining, director Les Mayfield’s remake of “The Absent Minded Professor” will captivate both young and absent-minded audiences. Happily, “Flubber” succeeds as a resilient special effects laden tour-de-farce. Sadly, the remake lacks the wit, warmth, subtlety, and comedic irony that distinguished its black & white predecessor. The spectacular morphing effects of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic Company and the visual wizardry of Peter Crosman, Tom Bertino, and Douglas Hans Smith cannot offset the film’s hopelessly befuddled plot.

The John Hughes screenplay based in part on Bill Walsh’s script for “The Absent Minded Professor as well as the Samuel W. Taylor short story “A Situation of Gravity” follows the zany efforts of a scatterbrained university chemistry professor. Dr. Philip Brainard (Robin Williams of “Popeye”) accidentally cooks up a gravity defying concoction called ‘flubber.’ Generating its own perpetual motion, ‘flubber’ has uses limited only by the imagination. Unlike the limp lump of ‘flubber’ in “The Absent-Minded Professor,” the ‘flubber’ “Flubber” radiates a mischievous personality, but the filmmakers never solidify its amorphous character. Not only will Brainard ‘flubber’ rescue Medfield College from bankruptcy and closure, but ‘flubber’ will also redeem him in the eyes of the long-suffering sweetheart that he wants to wed: Medfield College President Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden.)

Brainard heads up Sara Jean’s you-know-what list. Three times in a row he has left her stranded at the altar! If things aren’t bad enough, Brainard’s old academic nemesis Wilson Croft (Christopher MacDonald of “Thelma & Louise”) lurks in the background. Oil and conniving, Croft plans to pilfer Brainard’s fiancée as well as take credit for his ‘flubber’ formula and the millions of dollars that it is sure to reap. The professor’s next bigger enemy is perhaps his worst: corrupt businessman Chester Hoenicker (Raymond J. Barry of “Mad City”). Hoenicker’s bratty son Bennett (Will Wheaton of TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) flunked Brainard’s class. Consequently, Bennett got suspended from the basketball team. Initially, all that Hoenicker sought was a simple change of grade so Bennett, the top hoopster on the Medfield basketball team, could resume playing. When Hoenicker senior learns more about ‘flubber,’ he joins forces with the equally avaricious Croft to rip-off Braniard’s discovery.

Women have come a long way since the 1961 original. Disney has promoted the fiancée from being the college president’s secretary to the college president! Although Sara Jean presides over Medfield, she cannot keep it out of the red without the help of a good man. “Flubber” implies that women indeed have come a long way, but not far enough to get by on their own wits. Moreover, Sara Jean’s romance with Brainard appears to occupy her every waking minute instead of the financial crisis that threatens her small, private college. Her priorities appear demeaningly misplaced. WEEBO, Brainard’s flying female computer, serves as a sort of bad girl here who gets her just comeuppance for tampering with Brainard’s social life. At one point, WEEBO creates a cyber-Siren image for herself to detract Brainard from Sara Jean.

“Flubber” boasts brilliant, state-of-the-art special effects. Brainard has a marvelously nifty gizmo called WEEBO, a multi-media computer housed in a flying saucer that serves as his secretary. Fred MacMurray had to settle for an antiquated housekeeper and a mutt with flying ears. Anyway, WEEBO figures vitally in the plot. As splendid comic relief, WEEBO makes a great foil in the best Disney tradition. Added humor is derived from the anthology of familiar Disney symbols that appear as short-hand on her video screen. WEEBO dotes on a film clip from the 1958 Frank Sinatra potboiler “Some Came Running” featuring Shirley MacLaine. Jodi Benson of “The Little Mermaid” provides WEEBO’s voice.

Interestingly enough, WEEBO has a crush on her creator and deliberately refuses to remind him about his wedding because she is jealous. Here’s an incredibly portable computer that can travel great distances and perform any number of tasks. At one point, WEEBO visits Sara Jean and explains her jealous behavior. Actually, WEEBO resembles gizmos from the 1987 movie “Batteries Not Included.” The professor could have licensed the manufacture of WEEBOs and used the profits to part the river of red ink engulfing Medfield College. The answer to their problems was right under their noses long before Brainard created flubber. That is why “Flubber” is uneven. WEEBO is so much more rational than its creator that the flying computer could easily have replaced flubber!

“Flubber” sounds like a can’t-miss-hit from this description. If anything, “Flubber” proves that absent-minded audiences appreciate movies with an absence of drama. The original movie contained a richer plot with a variety of nuances that heightened its hilarity. “Flubber” smears on obvious slapstick to churn up laughs. John Hughes’ script relies on his tried and true “Home Alone” routines. Hughes deserves the blame for this half-baked farce. For example, Hoenicker’s henchman, Smith (Clancy Brown of “Starship Troopers”) and Wesson (Ted Levine of “Silence of the Lambs”) are clearly stand-ins for the Joe Pesci & Daniel Stern duo from the “Home Alone” comedies. Brainard’s flubber clobbers them literally in the form of a golf ball and a bowling ball. Smith gets nailed by a non-stop golf ball, while a hard flying bowling ball wallops Wesson. When either object strikes them, these goons hit the deck like pole-axed ten pins.

Another previously Hughesed plot device is the little boy who’s frightened of flubber. Every time the little boy’s father assures him that he has nothing to worry about, the little guy gets flabbergasted. Hughes apparently tried to replace as much of the original as possible with his own kiddie antics. Flubber itself might even qualify here as a Macaulay Culkin clone. The entire military-industrial Cold War subplot is gone, along with the prom dance sequence, the warehouse ruckus, and the bouncing villain scene. Compared to the original villain, the scheming insurance magnate Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn of “Dr. Strangelove”), Hoenicker lacks notoriety. Certainly, Hoenicker neither humiliates nor embarrasses poor Professor Brainard as Hawk successfully managed in “The Absent-Minded Professor.”

Not that “The Absent-Minded Professor” was immune to criticism. When Fred MacMurray’s professor mutates into a man of action in the last half hour of the original, there was nothing empty-headed about his dealings with either the villainous Alonzo Hawk or the Pentagon. Unbelievably, director Les Mayfield and Hughes have left out the scene where Brainard tricks Hawk into jumping up and down with flubberized shoes. Wisely, however, the filmmakers have kept in the basketball scene and the flying car. A red 1963 Ford Thunderbird replaces the vintage Model T.

Although Robin Williams captures the essence of this addle-pated protagonist, the role stretches his character beyond the limits of reasonable behavior. “Flubber’s” professor acts more acid-minded than absent-minded. When Williams’ professor explains his foggy memory, he justifies it as his consuming love for Sarah Jean. How all consuming his love be if the guy keeps leaving the girl standing at the altar? Granted, the jealous WEEBO throws a cyber wrench of sorts into Brainard’s calendar. The happy ending pulls a slick variation on Brainard’s incorrigible absence, but tarnishes the luster of his self-professed love for Sara Jean. Williams seems relatively sedate throughout “Flubber.” He delivers a straight-faced, in-character kind of performance. Obviously, he bottled up his madcap improvisional talents so as to underplay his looney professor in a way that offsets flubber’s scene-stealing special effects. Brainard demonstrates a chemical dependency astronomically off the scale. He’d rather labor in his lab than confront the realities of life. Arrayed with many computer-driven robots and novel gimmicks, the house where Brainard lives recalls Pee Wee’s domicile in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.” Inexplicably, the filmmakers have changed the professor’s name from Ned to Philip. Why such an insignificant change? Presumably, Disney assigned flubber top marquee value because audiences might have confused its original title “The Absent-Minded Professor” with the Eddie Murphy comedy “The Nutty Professor.”

Director Les Mayfield of “Encino Man” and “Miracle on 34th Street”) and scenarist John Hughes cannot make up their own minds about flubber. Flubber has endless possibilities, and its embryonic personality can be playful but occasionally snappish, too. WEEBO accuses Brainard of giving flubber “too much free will.” Flubber never seems to live up to its potential unless it is exploding, flying through rooms, and cronking noggins. Most of the humor comes from how flubber reacts to different situations more than how Brainard applies it. Because they never define the nature of flubber, its wide open character lacks dramatic clarity. For example, the filmmakers don’t set any limits to what flubber can do. Perhaps Mayfield and company chose green as flubber’s lime-green color because the special effects were so expensive.

Flubber seems like a mild mannered gremlin, and the filmmakers spend the better part of “Flubber” devising its myriad applications. Wesson’s squirt gun antics with Brainard are probably the most relentlessly unfunny example of a movie that overdoes itself. Every time Hoenicker orders Wesson to hand over Brainard’s water pistol, Wesson appropriates the mob land meaning of Hoenicker’s commands. When Hoenicker tells Wesson “to let him have it,” Wesson drenches Brainard in flubber water. This joke goes on far beyond what the scene required. The gratuitous, kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley dance sequences that interrupt the story are gorgeous, but how to do they relate to the story? Why didn’t the filmmakers use the opening credits as a stage for this elaborate terpsichorean masterpiece? Ultimately, flubber’s potential seems half-formed.

Credit goes to director Les Mayfield for the get-up-and-goo pace of dizzy Disney film. He does a find job of seamlessly integrating the over-the-top special effects with live action, too. “Flubber” is aimless but predictable fun. The villains seem less villainous this time around, and Christopher MacDonald’s bad guy appears simply to give flubber something through which to fly. The bowel humor here and there adds little to the humor and seems out of place in a juvenile movie. Parents may find themselves in a curious moral dilemma trying to explain to their kids why Brainard’s cheating tactics should be condoned. He applies flubber to the basketball team’s sneakers to help them beat their tall, merciless opponents on the court. Danny Elfman’s lively music emphasizes the fast, bouncy pace of “Flubber” and helps the film scoot right along to its inevitable happy ending.

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