Friday, March 13, 2015

My Stepmother is an Alien / *** (1988)

One of the unspoken pleasures of seeing very ambitious bad movies is watching actors with some level of integrity hammering home their performances with unrestricted enthusiasm, and that is exactly what Kim Basinger does for nearly every minute she is chained to the mess that is “My Stepmother is an Alien.” Any acknowledgment of this obscure and often maligned 80s comedy is not without some level of wonder; initially pitched to the studio as a more dark and sinister parable on child abuse, it underwent countless revisions – and a slew of writers – before being formulated into a lightweight romp with screwball values. By then, the damage was done long before a moment of footage wound up in the editing room; without any visible narrative inkling to suggest laughs or basic comic timing, it was one of those movies destined for colossal failure, and found it. And yet somehow, someway, neither she nor her co-star, Dan Akroyd, subscribe to the internal discord; they plunk it home so ambitiously on screen that one can surmise ulterior motives on part of actors who find silver linings in the most tragic of scenarios. They know they are caught in a catastrophe, and take almost masochistic delight in playing through it like enthusiastic players making the most of a bad situation.

There are a lot of chuckles associated with the picture – many of them unintentional, others a knee-jerk reaction to ridiculousness – but the gusto of the on-screen antics is ultimately why “My Stepmother is an Alien” still inspires smiles so long after it ought to have been forgotten. As a relic in the broad sweep of forgettable romance comedies that plagued the movie theater throughout the decade, it also has the unique distinction of being one of the most watchable and alluring; infectious in the sense that we discover a sadistic glee in picking apart the incompetent details, and yet charmed by the distinction that none of it, however disposable, ever approaches the level of insult to basic human intelligence. To imply such problems would be to project a sentiment onto the writers that is clearly not there; those involved in what winds up on screen move through their material without ulterior motives, and are simply caught in that void where inspiration is abandoned under the weight of general silliness and stupidity. And yes, there is something amusing about that dubious combination, especially in the presence of actors who give it their all.

The plot is a half-baked excuse to set up physical comedy situations for the characters to engage in. A science lab that employs the zany Dr. Steven Mills (Akroyd) gets more than it bargains for when one of his experiments sends a radar beam out of the galaxy and into the next, causing colossal computer crashes. He is fired for his actions – which are actually an accident – and sent home to stir in contemplation with his young daughter Jessie (Alyson Hannigan), who reflects on his achievement in those typical exchanges meant to reveal information with casual emphasis (“I wish mom lived long enough to see you get out of the galaxy”). What that means for nice guy Steve is that all of his ensuing adventures must, inevitably, coincide with the desires of his heart and libido, and when he is invited out to a party hosted by his horny brother-in-law (Jon Lovitz), it puts him in a situation that antagonizes both: the arrival of a beautiful blond in his life named Celeste (Kim Basinger).

Who is she? Where did she come from? Those questions in any realistic situation would amount to blasé conclusions, but Celeste is not like other girls. The early scenes reveal her identity as a spaceship hurls towards Earth with alarming speed: a ship, not coincidentally, that originates from the same planet in a far-off galaxy that received his radar beam from earlier in the night (how the ship has the power to travel across galaxies in one evening is a mystery, but never mind). Celeste’s arrival is perfunctory for dual reasons: 1) it reveals that there is, indeed, life in the universe that mimics our own, and is willing to make contact when instigated; and 2) it supplies the film with an attractive love interest for the rather boring Dr. Mills. The reasons are simple: the transmission Mills made has sent Celeste’s planet into an orbital tailspin of sorts, and its very existence is threatened unless he can recreate the beam within two days and transmit it to set her planet back on course. He will not actually know any of this until late in the game, but of course not; to violate that rule would put a real damper on the inevitable romantic interludes.

Those interactions, however, are sometimes very funny; not because they are necessarily written that way, but because they are delivered with an alluring gusto on part of an actress who exhibits remarkable skill with physical comedy. Our first acknowledgment of that ability comes in the film’s earliest scenes, when Celeste interacts with the party guests; because her knowledge of human culture has been provided to her in abridged exchanges with an alien companion, she walks into a room and winds up mistaking cigarette butts for Hors d'oeuvres, asking for spinach to cure cold hands, and smoking a carrot while she talks to Steve about the composition of his radar beam. Others look on with mystified worry; Steve, however, finds her charming and desirable, and when she convinces him to take her to his lab in order to figure out the source of his transmission, it results in a series of scenes where he comes onto her, and she permits his affections on the basis that, really, it gives her an excuse to get closer to the knowledge she seeks. And when it comes time for her to deliver her end of the affection based on brief education from her alien resources, the awkwardness of the situation is chuckle-inducing.

None of this, alas, really amounts to much in context with anything else the movie offers. The plot inches towards a climax that has no concept of reason, and the chemistry of Akroyd and Basinger is glaring when compared to the interactions of other characters, many of whom simply occupy space on screen in order to fulfill the conventions of a romance comedy. Of course there will be a confrontation between Celeste and her new stepdaughter, who will be the first to discover her secret identity. Of course Steven will remain oblivious about her mysterious nature, even when the signs in front of him defy explanation (how, for instance, is she able to cook the entire contents of a restaurant menu in one night for breakfast the next morning?). Of course Celeste’s companion, an alien eye in her handbag, will turn out to be a villain when the woman’s heart melts for the kind scientist. Of course there will be uncomfortable exchanges following the reveal of her alien origins, especially with the acknowledgment that she will leave once he successfully duplicates his transmission, leaving him with a broken heart again. And of course all of this will happen in a race against time to discover how to repeat the experiment, just a few short moments from the deadline. As a writing exercise, “My Stepmother is an Alien” is almost a travesty of mixed motives. It makes no sense, doesn’t go anywhere noteworthy, is constructed out of the oldest clichés in the book and mistakenly assumes there is something stimulating about the idea beyond absurdity. But Akroyd and Basinger do not surrender to that cynicism, give the film an infectious – if brief – stroke of energy, and by the end we continue to smile even as we are exhausted under the weight of endless nonsense.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy (US); 1988; Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and language; Running Time: 105 Minutes

Dan Akroyd: Steven Mills
Kim Basinger: Celeste Martin
Jon Lovitz: Ron Mills
Alyson Hannigan: Jessie Mills
Joseph Maher: Lucas Budlong
Tony Jay: Council Chief

Produced by
Art Levinson, Franklin R. Levy, Laurence Mark, Ronald Parker and Jerry WeintraubDirected by Richard Benjamin; Written by Jerico, Herschel Weingrod, Timothy Harris and Jonathan Reynolds

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