No, no, and no: I’m not trying to ‘set the reader up’ for any big twist or change-up here. All I’m really doing is trying to give you the low down. What can I say? I truly like film. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m aware that a good number of readers have told me that I’m too easy on film, but if I’ve learned anything from this vast number of years watching so many is that even a low-budget stinker might have something memorable to it. This might be a single performance. It might be a certain sequence. It could be something as simple as a great idea or a well-written scene of dialogue. The point is I’ve gone to great pain in my life writing about motion pictures to give readers some nugget of joy – even in those joyless experiences – because such an attempt was made to entertain us … and I feel it’s a small measure of respect back to everyone involved. It’s really no more complicated than that.
But today I’ll happily let you know that 1983’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is a film that truly pushed me to my limits. Though I didn’t see this one on its original release (theaters in my area just didn’t run anything resulting from the year’s 3D craze), I did have the – ahem – misfortune of discovering it on VHS. I think screenwriter Stanford Sherman – who’s also responsible for another travesty that goes by the name Krull (1983) – went into the process of crafting this story as a loose kinda/sorta Cold War comedy that was intended to bring invisibility into the modern era; and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that goal. The problem is that I suspect somewhere along the way what little substance there was to an already thin plot wound up getting sacrificed in favor of ramping up the childish pratfalls, stereotypical humor, and mildly lewd humor.
That which survives in the final cut is, tonally, all over the place, leaving it a genuine mess of curious proportions.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A State Department employee finds an egg-shaped device with a green fluid inside that makes the person who drinks it invisible. He finds himself being chased by foreign agents who want the substance.”
1981’s Diner – a smart Drama/Comedy from Barry Levinson – definitely put Steve on the map; and – from there – he emerged as a capable player in such pictures as The Day After (1983), Police Academy (1984), Cocoon (1986), Short Circuit (1986), and the often overlooked The Bedroom Window (1987). Still, somehow during the height of his exceptional exposure, Guttenberg found himself cast in The Man Who Wasn’t There. It’s a curious misfire that, likely, would’ve sidelined a weaker talent; and it just may have if it had been more widely seen.
Conceived during an era that brought a good handful of 3D pictures to the silver screen, The Man Who Wasn’t There began with a premise that audiences should’ve appreciated if history is any indicator. Taking the story of an invisible man and reframing it into a technological struggle between the East and West – this being the glory days of tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union – could’ve intrigued both commoners and our cultural elite; but somehow this Man reached for cheaper and cheaper laughs – easier and lazier ones, too – never quite giving anyone onscreen the chance to do anything memorable with their material.
Instead of depicting the proper conflicts of the day, director Bruce Malmuth staged State Department employee Sam Cooper (played by Guttenberg) as little more than a happy camper who spends the better part of what’s supposed to be his wedding day playing host to a veritable cavalcade of stereotypical Third World diplomats whose government dinner unspools like a really, really bad vaudeville routine. Instead of populating the U.S. Capitol with people of reasonable intellectual integrity or even ruthless foreign adversaries, audiences were treated to some Three Stooges wannabes whose antics feel like they may’ve been culled from some rarely seem silent era comedies. Rather than explore the dramatic nuances of adult relationships, the script has Guttenberg – without giving his decisions so much as a second thought – willfully and deliberately jumping from the presumed love of his life Amanda (Morgan Host) into the arms of her younger sister Cindy (Lisa Langlois) just because it was convenient. He didn’t fall out of love with her. He just simply turned and went another way … with absolutely no real circumspection whatsoever.
Seriously, folks: this Man is a horribly bad script – even as a comedy – that just never justifies its need to exist.
In the hands of a more accomplished group, the film’s central MacGuffin – at the very least – could’ve been given some substance. There should’ve been some greater explanation of precisely where it came from and how it suddenly found itself into the hallowed halls of power of Washington, D.C. Instead, we’re treated to the usual exposition dumps – light ones, as it is – to fill in the holes created by a script that bobs and weaves only when the screenwriter (or director) says it should and not as a consequence of true d-e-v-e-l-o-p-m-e-n-t. There is a modest collection of moments here that amount to a central story, but – in this bunch’s hands – it feels more like they were stuffed in around the comic material instead of the other way. Invisibility is used as an excuse to deliver audiences with a moment in the ladies’ shower at an all-girls prep school … so if that’s the kind of movie magic you look for, then you’ll be glad to know that the T’s and the A’s are on full display.
Thin as it is, even invisibility deserved better than this.
Alas, folks, this one is only mildly recommended for the following reasons …
Wow. I mean … wow. I hadn’t seen this one in ages, and – just wow – it hasn’t aged well at all.
Made to capitalize on the 3D craze of its day, The Man Who Wasn’t There (1983) is a painfully unfunny genre comedy that never quite blends its low-key boorish character humor with the fact that so much of it feels intended as the bawdy, R-rated sex comedy that emerges. The alleged political thriller elements of the story never quite feel anything other than cartoonish, and everyone except Langlois seems to be coasting through the whole premise on autopilot, never hitting anything near an authentic note much less tone in this untidy caper. It’s about as big an example of cinematic stinkery has ever been committed to film, and it’ll probably even disappoint fans of the usually-likeable Guttenberg who never commands a single scene he’s in.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray copy of The Man Who Wasn’t There (1983) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.