Among those who attend early movie screenings with some regularity, there is a man who is known as the Laugher. He's always in the front of the house, always ahead of the crowd, and his laugh is loud and lusty. You would hear him anyway, because when the Laugher laughs, the Laugher laughs alone.
It was a virtual aria the Laugher performed at last week's screening of "Mr. Magoo," which stars the usually hilarious Leslie Nielsen as the myopic millionaire and '60s cartoon character Quincy Magoo.
When Magoo mistook his toothpaste for Ban de Soleil, the Laugher was in stitches. When Magoo and his faithful dog Angus played fetch with a priceless stolen ruby, the Laugher was in hysterics. And when Magoo tried to cook a chicken while watching an exercise program ("Lift those legs!!"), people were ready to call the paramedics.
Yes, there's a certain infectious quality to the Laugher's laugh. But unless Disney can clone him like 35-millimeter prints, it's unlikely that your experience will be quite as mirthful as ours, which was kind of like being locked in a room with the Laugher.
"Mr. Magoo," Disney's live-action version of what was never really classic animation to begin with, may be crashingly unimaginative. But its real offense is making such poor use of Nielsen.
When the star gets to be really goofy, the film is close to funny. But his director, Stanley Tong, accustomed to working with the likes of Jackie Chan, seems intent on moving his film along at such a rate of speed--and with such little sense of comic continuity--that anything but purely physical comedy simply can't survive at all.
In fact, the whole blundering-Magoo concept--which earlier this year stirred the wrath of the National Federation of the Blind, compelling Disney to include a blathersome disclaimer about the sightless being able to live satisfying lives, etc., etc.--goes by the wayside in favor of a hackneyed jewel-heist-action-chase plot line. This is, of course, territory far more familiar to Tong--and us, unfortunately--than the kind of stuff one wants from Nielsen.
They should have given more screen time to the dog, who exerts a lot of energy keeping Magoo from killing himself or losing the ruby. Ernie Hudson and Stephen Tobolowsky play the bumbling FBI and CIA agents, and it doesn't matter which is which. Kelly Lynch is the villainess Luanne, inspiring wonder (as in, "I wonder how someone goes from 'Drugstore Cowboy' to 'Mr. Magoo' in only one career").
You also have to ask yourself why Disney is remaking a cartoon with such a little recognition factor among those at whom it's apparently aimed (the under-7 demographic) or why, with all the resources at its disposal, the company couldn't come up with anything less feeble than "Mr. Magoo." Of course, it's the holidays. People are busy. And besides, they made the Laugher very, very happy.
* MPAA rating: PG, for mild language and action sequences. Times guideline: inoffensive comic violence.
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Leslie Nielsen: Mr. Magoo
Kelly Lynch: Luanne
Matt Kesslar: Waldo
Stephen Tobolowsky: Agent Chuck Stupak
Ernie Hudson: Agent Gus Anders
A Ben Myron production, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Stanley Tong. Producer Ben Myron. Screenplay by Pat Proft & Tom Sherohman. Cinematographer Jingle Ma. Editor Stuart Pappe, David Rawlins, Michael R. Miller. Costumes Tom Bronson. Music Michael Tavera. Production design John Willett. Art director Doug Byggdin. Set decorator Elizabeth Wilcox. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
* Opens Thursday in general release throughout Southern California.