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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Applegates': All-American Alien Invasion

February 01, 1991|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We're all familiar with movies like "The Fly" where people mutate into icky insectoid things. But what about a movie where the ick mutates into people?

"Meet the Applegates" (citywide) comes fairly close to fulfilling that formula--and it's a comedy too. It's about a family of arthropods from the endangered Brazilian rain forest--they resemble a cross between a cockroach and a praying mantis--and what happens when they assume the forms of a picture-perfect suburban family in Ohio right out of a "Dick and Jane" primer. The point of this camouflage is to sabotage the local nuclear power plant and give the human despoilers a taste of their own destruction.

As nutbrain premises go, this one is no worse than, say, "Saturday Night Live's' " Coneheads episodes. In fact, the Applegates owe a debt to the Coneheads and to that show. "Meet the Applegates" at its best--about a third of the time--has the same spoofy, throwaway derisiveness and funky flair as a good "SNL" sketch. Its humor teeters on the edge of sophisticated satire but its frame of reference, despite the ecology angle, is that of a precocious teen-ager's. It's a smart dumb comedy. (The R rating is for strong language, mild sexual situations and marijuana puffing.)

Part of the joke in the material is that, as the Applegates settle into humanhood, their all-American normalness becomes all-too-normal. Dick Applegate (Ed Begley Jr.) dallies with his secretary; his wife Jane (Stockard Channing) becomes a credit-card junkie; their son Johnny (Bobby Jacoby) turns on to heavy metal; their daughter Sally (Cami Cooper) gets pregnant. It's like watching a sitcom family from the '50s go bonkers, and the director, Michael Lehmann, gives their downward spiral a baroque flourish.

Lehmann, whose first film was "Heathers," treats straight-arrow middle-class suburbia as a kind of zoo. He and his co-screenwriter, Redbeard Simmons, observe its human inhabitants with the same buglike fascination as do the Applegates. The film seems to be saying that if you look at people long enough, you won't find a whole lot of difference between them and the arthropods. It's to the filmmakers' credit that, by the time the film is over, you think they may be right.

It helps that the actors playing the Applegates really do look like a picture-perfect American family--at least until you take a closer look. Begley is so picture-perfect he seems cockeyed, and Cooper turns her prom-queen wholesomeness into a dirty joke. Channing's doting motherliness seems robotic--she only comes truly alive when the Home Shopping Channel sends her into an altered state.

Jacoby is like one of the Beaver's sidekicks, only perpetually stoned and capable of turning bullies into larvae. There's even a comic bonus here--Dabney Coleman in a rigorously deadpan cameo as the cross-dressing Amazonian queen bee Aunt Bea. A few more nutsos like Aunt Bea and "Meet the Applegates" would have been quite a party.

It never really soars, though. It lacks the high-flying inspiration that, say, Tim Burton brought to "Beetlejuice." It's a bit too self-satisfied with its own smart dumb jokes, and its middle-class targets are, finally, too easy to hit. If we could recognize the Applegates secret craving to be human--to become their enemy--the film might not seem quite so thin and gag-ridden.

Lehmann and Simmons are accomplished jokesters but they don't really know how to fill out a movie. They cram the action with clever doodles and riffs and sight gags but there is nothing sustaining about their comedy. It's dinky, comedy-club stuff, and one suspects they're capable of something more daring and inspired. But even though it's all used up the second you leave the theater, "Meet the Applegates" is often funny, and that's more than can be said for any of the other current comedies.

'Meet the Applegates'

Ed Begley Jr.: Dick Applegate

Stockard Channing: Jane Applegate

Dabney Coleman: Aunt Bea

Cami Cooper: Sally Applegate

A Triton Pictures release in association with Heron Communications. Director Michael Lehmann. Producer Denise Di Novi. Executive producers Christopher Webster and Steve White. Screenplay by Redbeard Simmons and Michael Lehmann. Cinematographer Mitchell Dubin. Editor Norman Hollyn. Costumes Joseph Porro. Music David Newman. Production design Jon Hutman. Art directors Kara Lindstrom and Adam Lustig. Set decorator Nancy Nye. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (strong language, sexual situations, drug usage).

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