Howard Zieff's new comedy "The Dream Team" (citywide) is so clearly derived from the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" that you might begin to wonder when Jack Nicholson will show up. This mechanically funny, amiably slick farce seems to expand, perhaps unconsciously, on the "Cuckoo" scene where Nicholson's McMurphy took his fellow inmates on an unauthorized field trip--jazzed up with another "fish out of water" comic thriller plot.
These "loonies" don't mean to be unauthorized. They're stranded in Manhattan when their psychiatrist (Dennis Boutsikaris), driving them to a Yankee game, is beaten into a coma after witnessing a murder. The only witness is the one member of the quartet who can't communicate (Stephen Furst, as Iannuzzi, babbling out catch-phrases from TV commercials and Phil Rizzutto's Yankee broadcasts). The foursome is left on the streets with everyone pitted against them.
You'd like to see Nicholson pop up here, perhaps in a restaurant scene, ordering some toast, but his part--the rebellious, wisecracking hothead--has already been taken by Michael Keaton. Is it just an illusion, or is Keaton consciously pushing Nicholson mannerisms in this performance? They've always had a certain kindred attitude: black, sarcastic, sexually opportunistic, defiantly flaky and quick. But here, the screenwriters have Keaton's Billy Caulfield doing Jersey drawls and throwing a tantrum every 10 minutes or so.
The other three also resemble "Cuckoo's Nest" characters. Christopher Lloyd's anal-compulsive play-doctor suggests William Redfield's Harding; Stephen Furst's Iannuzzi recalls Danny DeVito's Martini, and Peter Boyle's religious fanatic McDermott, going full circle, suggests Lloyd's old "Cuckoo" part, howling Taber. Boutsikaris' Dr. Weitzman--who's always kidding everybody and advising them to cheer up--bears an eerie resemblance to Steven Spielberg.
All this may suggest that "Dream Team" is a weak, derivative, somehow disreputable movie, which is somewhat true. If you compare it to its obvious source, it has a coy, flip attitude toward illness, skating over the surface of tragedy, dementia and pain without breaking the ice. The union of four oddballs--rebel-writer, obsessive noodge, religious fanatic and couch potato--is almost too schematic, as if the writers were somehow trying to define '80s dissidence. But even though you can predict virtually everything that happens from the first five minutes on, the director and actors manage to hook you in.
Keaton, Lloyd and Boyle are carnivorously funny: three scene-stealers whose specialty has always been offbeat intensity, quirky, flamboyant energy. And though Furst ("Animal House's" Flounder) is playing the weakest role, he has a great comic waddle, running along helplessly behind them like a chafed turtle.
Zieff's outstanding comedy merit is the way he seems to let his casts open out and take over. Here, the fugitives get to do insane upstaging exhibitions--at the beginning, they rarely even seem to be looking at each other--followed by sentiment, guns and car chases, romps with Lorraine Bracco and cutesy camaraderie. All three of them respond. Boyle, as an ad executive with a messiah complex, an F.D.R. grin and a compulsion to undress in public, hasn't been this funny in years. (If it were better written and more convulsively developed, the scene where Boyle gives his testimony and strips in a black store-front church might have been a little classic on the scale of Red Skelton's "Guzzler's Gin.")
"The Dream Team" (MPAA rated PG-13, for violence and language) isn't unusual, but it's funnier than, say, "Twins" or "Fletch Lives." It can't really hit any classic highs, perhaps because it regards rebellion as cute and paranoia as a running gag. The jokes, to stick, need grittier, sawtooth edges. Life may be a madhouse, but if we were all patients in asylums where the doctors looked and acted like Steven Spielberg, none of us might want to call home.