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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Invisible Man' Fails to Master the Possibilities

February 28, 1992|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most mediocre movies lack even a promising premise but "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" (citywide) is so crammed with intriguing dramatic and comic possibilities that, watching it and being disappointed, you may find yourself rewriting it as you go along. What it might have been is so much more suggestive than what it is.

Chevy Chase plays Nick Halloway, a successful, emotionally aloof San Francisco stocks analyst who, through a freak accident, turns invisible. This provokes an all-out manhunt by some scurvy para-military CIA types, led by Sam Neill, who prize Nick as the ultimate intelligence weapon. The black joke in the material is that Nick, who has heretofore slipped through life as a smoothie, suddenly finds himself horribly isolated from, and craving, human contact.

The movie (rated PG-13) makes the point that Nick was invisible before he was invisible. As the Invisible Man, he's the ultimate smoothie, but he gets no joy in his enforced subterfuge; he doesn't hang out in the girls' dressing room or abscond with a king's ransom. His only ally is the stunner he met just before he turned invisible: Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah), who produces documentaries for the Smithsonian.

Is the fact that Alice produces natural history movies supposed to explain why she has such a hankering for Nick, the ultimate human oddity? If so, it doesn't come out in Hannah's performance. She falls in love with an invisible man for no visible reason. Certainly not out of pity or kinkiness or profit; she's more like Nick's angelic enchantress, but the film, which was directed by John Carpenter from a script by Robert Collector, Dana Olsen and William Goldman based on the H. F. Saint novel, doesn't sustain a tone of enchantment. It wavers uneasily between soggy slapstick and dour surrealism. There are preternatural echoes of movies ranging from "Blithe Spirit" to Carpenter's sappy "Starman," where Jeff Bridges played an extraterrestrial with pigeon-like head swivels who takes up with an Earthwoman. The weird, funny bits, like Nick's casual retrieval of a stolen purse, or the graphic view of his stomach in mid-upchuck, are more successful than the moony, deep-dish miseries.

Comic actors often ache to play tragedy, particularly after their careers have crested and their inspiration has turned to shtick. Chevy Chase is trying to stretch himself here, and there's plenty of precedent for what he's doing: some successful, like Steve Martin in "Pennies From Heaven," others less so, like Bill Murray in "The Razor's Edge." But Chase seems more interested in the idea of stretching than in what he actually accomplishes.

As a comic, he's often capitalized on his blandly appealing persona by playing off it for squiggly, goofball effects. Chase's squareness was a kind of invisibility; it allowed him to pass unimpeded through straight-arrow society--all the better to toss his whoopee cushions. Playing an invisible man must have appealed to him as a metaphor for his own career, and maybe it also suggested a way out of a career that had devolved into a series of going-through-the-motions kiddie-fests.

But Chase's idea of serious acting is to efface himself with dourness. As Nick, he's so bummed out that he cancels even his stray antic streak. He gives some of his line readings a forlorn undercurrent but he doesn't demonstrate the ways in which despair can also be grotesquely energetic. There's no fervor in the performance, and that's a loss. There's no attempt to broaden the film's scheme: to demonstrate, for example, how Nick the yuppie, with his instant outcast status, might suddenly feel connected to society's many other outcasts. Nick's predicament has resonance far beyond Chase's career. His anxiety about whether his invisibility will wear off or whether it will wear him down connects up with our own fears of mortality. The conception ought to inspire an actor's and director's most magical flights.

Carpenter, best known for "Halloween" and "The Thing," works up a few ghostly effects, like the shot of Nick silhouetted by pouring rain, but for the most part his models are grimmer and more mundane--"Double Indemnity," the TV series "The Fugitive," early Hitchcock, and so on. The special effects tricks are often nifty, but where's the wit? "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" doesn't earn its seriousness. It fades into invisibility while you're watching it.

'Memoirs of an Invisible Man'

Chevy Chase: Nick Halloway

Daryl Hannah: Alice Monroe

Sam Neill: David Jenkins

Michael McKean: George Talbot

A Warner Brothers presentation in association with Le Studio Canal +, Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films. Director John Carpenter. Producer Bruce Bodner and Dan Kolsrud. Executive producer Arnon Milchan. Screenplay by Robert Collector & Dana Olsen and William Goldman. Cinematographer William Fraker. Editor Marion Rothman. Music Shirley Walker. Production design Lawrence G. Paull. Art director Bruce Crone. Set designers Elizabeth Lapp, Lauren Polizzi and Gerald Sigmon. Set decorator Rick Simpson. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.

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