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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Wilder Napalm' Misfires in More Ways Than One

August 20, 1993|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just about everybody and everything connected to "Wilder Napalm" (selected theaters) is terrible, starting with that title. Don't expect a Vietnam movie. In fact, don't expect a movie.

Wilder (Arliss Howard) and Wallace (Dennis Quaid) are estranged brothers in the Cain and Abel mold, with a Stephen King-ish twist. Both have pyro-kinetic powers--they can will fires into roaring life. Wilder, who works part time as--you guessed it--a fireman, is married to Vida (Debra Winger), a doting free spirit. When Wallace shows up in town as a clown for a traveling circus, the brothers square off, with Vida as the prize.

Wilder, understandably, has a grudge against his brother, who scorched his pate hairless when they were kids. (He wears a wig for most of the movie but when he's wigless, his dome has a melted plastic look that's really icky.) Because the brothers accidentally incinerated someone when they were kids--they were never caught--Wilder has renounced his pyrotechnics. That's why he puts \o7 out\f7 fires as penance. The most he'll do now is light Vida's cigarettes. Wallace, however, wants to cash in on his gifts--he wants to call himself Dr. Napalm and appear on the David Letterman show, no less. (Since this film has been in the can since last year, one presumes this is the NBC and not the CBS Letterman.)

Directed by Glenn Gordon Caron and scripted by Vince Gilligan, "Wilder Napalm" (rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some sensuality) is the sort of full-fledged disaster that talented filmmakers occasionally perpetrate in pursuit of the "offbeat." Maybe the idea of two enraged brothers expressing their conflicts by torching each other seemed intriguing on paper; it's a perfectly OK metaphorical conceit. But on screen it just seems ugly--the film's clunky carny atmosphere can't contain images of immolation. Probably nothing could have saved this movie, but possibly a freakier, more metaphysical approach would have brought off some of the savagery. (Echoes of Sam Shepard's plays, particularly "True West," resound throughout.)

There are a few moments here and there: an a cappella chorus of firemen; a scene where Wallace and Vida embrace and the landscape around them goes up in flames. Howard and Winger look uncomfortable spinning their wheels but Dennis Quaid works up a ribald cruelty in a few sequences. You can believe this man wills fire. But most of the time you wish this film would self-incinerate.

'Wilder Napalm'

Debra Winger: Vida

Dennis Quaid: Wallace

Arliss Howard: Wilder

Jim Varney: Rex

A TriStar Pictures presentation of a Baltimore Pictures release. Director Glenn Gordon Caron. Producers Mark Johnson, Stuart Cornfeld. Executive producer Barrie M. Osborne. Screenplay by Vince Gilligan. Cinematographer Jerry Hartleben. Editor Artie Mandelberg. Costumes Louise Frogley. Music Michael Kamen. Production design John Muto. Art director Dan Webster. Set decorator Leslie Bloom. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (thematic elements, language and some sensuality.)

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