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This Tops 'Showgirls'

Movie Review

Eszterhas' 'Showgirls' seemed like it couldn't be topped, but 'Alan Smithee' is even more dispiriting.

February 27, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn" tells of a director who incinerates his own work because he didn't want to inflict another terrible movie on the world. Too bad he didn't get his hands on this one.

Actually, burning is too good for such a wretched fiasco; only a surgical nuclear strike could suitably destroy what has to be one of the most enervating comedies ever made. More sluggish and not nearly as entertaining as the world of Hollywood moviemaking it nominally satirizes, "Smithee" is more painful and dispiriting to watch than anyone could possibly imagine. If this truly is, as the film's tag line claims, "The Movie Hollywood Doesn't Want You to See," Hollywood has rarely done the world a bigger favor.

The inspiration, if that is the right word, for "Smithee's" Joe Eszterhas script, is a Directors Guild of America rule that states if a dissatisfied filmmaker wants to remove his or her name from a project, Alan Smithee is the pseudonym that has to be used. What would happen, Eszterhas wondered, if a director whose name really was Alan Smithee wanted to take his name off a picture?

From such acorns do stunted dwarf oaks grow. Though the egotism, doublespeak and duplicity of modern Hollywood have been ably spoofed in films like "The Player" and 1989's underappreciated "The Big Picture," this venture so miscalculates everything it can't even elicit a chuckle.

Overlong at 83 minutes, "Smithee" is so misbegotten that its director, the much-traveled Arthur Hiller (who also appears in a cameo), took his name off the picture. That's right, "An Alan Smithee Film" is officially an Alan Smithee film, and that piece of metaphysical humor is funnier than anything that appears on screen.

In form, "Smithee" is a mock documentary post-mortem on "Trio," an imaginary big-budget action film starring Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg and Jackie Chan (all briefly playing themselves) that never reached theaters despite having a budget of more than $200 million and play dates confirmed on 7,000 screens.

Talking about the film's genesis and sad fate are the usual smattering of industry players. There's a thuggish producer (Ryan O'Neal) who gets offended when he's called a pimp, a social-climbing studio head (comic Richard Jeni), an agent from Talentless Artists Agency and a party girl by the name of Aloe Vera. Anyone laughing yet?

Then there's director Smithee (played without much enthusiasm by Monty Python-veteran Eric Idle, who has funnier lines in his press kit bio than he does on screen). Interviewed as a patient in the Keith Moon Psychiatric Facility (that's right, it's a joke), Smithee clutches his Tibetan holy rocks and his Tanzanian walking stick and explains, to no noticeable comic effect, how things went so terribly wrong on his film.

The only thing "Smithee" really succeeds in doing is illustrating the axiom that nothing is as painful to experience as a film that's not as hip and clever as it thinks. Typical of "Smithee's" approach are its documentary-style identification lines. Stallone's reads "superstar, rocket scientist, brain surgeon," Eszterhas' says "screenwriter and penile implant," and Dominick Dunne's says "author and big mouth." This stuff isn't more amusing observed on the screen, it's less.

Aside from Eszterhas and Dunne, "Smithee" is overloaded with real celebrities (ranging from Robert Evans to Robert Shapiro) looking unhappy playing themselves. Then there are celebrities trying to act, like rap artists Coolio and Chuck D, who play the Brothers brothers, independent filmmakers who (don't ask) become Smithee's passionate defenders. Only Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, of all people, comes off well in his deadpan portrayal of deadpan private investigator Sam Rizzo.

A working screenwriter since 1977, Eszterhas knows his Hollywood territory, but making the business funny is completely beyond him. Neither self-referential jokes about how bad "Showgirls" was nor a cameo appearance by venerable little person Billy Barty can make a dent in the overall gloom. Barty, whose feature career goes all the way back to 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals, spends his brief time on screen looking confused. Who can blame him?

* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and some sexual humor. Times guidelines: scenes of simulated sexual activity.

'An Alan Smithee Film

Burn Hollywood Burn'

Ryan O'Neal: James Edmunds

Coolio: Dion Brothers

Chuck D: Leon Brothers

Eric Idle: Alan Smithee

Richard Jeni: Jerry Glover

Leslie Stefanson: Michelle Rafferty

Sandra Bernhard: Ann Glover

A Cinergi production, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Alan Smithee. Producer Ben Myron. Executive producer Andrew G. Vajna. Screenplay Joe Eszterhas. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos. Editors Marcus Manton, Jim Langlois. Costumes Laura Cunningham-Bauer. Music Chuck D and Gary G-Wiz. Production design David L. Snyder. Art director Melanie J. Baker. Set decorator Claudette Didul. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

*

* In limited release.

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