Friday, February 12, 1999

Mind-numbing revisitation

Movie: My Favorite Martian

Posted on Fri, Feb 12, 1999 at 4:00 AM

*
Our Rating: 1.00

It's a given that Hollywood has sunk to ridiculous depths in cannibalizing the "Nick at Nite" pantheon of classic TV in search of sure-fire big-screen remakes. At this point, it seems as if the only boob-tube hits of the past that haven't been treated to celluloid reinterpretation are "That's My Mama" and the ABC Afterschool Special "It Must Be Love, 'Cause I Feel So Dumb."

What's surprising is that so many folks are still scandalized by the situation. None of our politicians, rock stars or spiritual leaders can come up with an original idea anymore, so why expect any better of the movie industry?

In "My Favorite Martian," Jeff Daniels takes over the straight-man-to-an-alien role created by the pre-"Incredible Hulk" Bill Bixby in the early 1960s. As TV news producer Tim O'Hara, Daniels gets to exhibit all the requisite bug-eyed reactions when his life and home are invaded by a stranded Martian (Christopher Lloyd), whose lack of Earthly etiquette and bizarre physical transformations make it frustratingly difficult to pass him off as his kindly Uncle Martin. The 1999 version intensifies the predicament by casting Martin as the quarry of an oafish team of top-level government agents. (Curse "X-Files" for making extraterrestrial conspiracy the most knee-jerk plot thread in modern movies.)

As a sop to the baby-boomer parents in the audience, one of the intrepid investigators is played by Ray Walston, the original Martin. But his sporadic presence only underlines the offhand work of Lloyd, who approaches the part of the wacky visitor with no more care and effort than it must have taken him to film his footage for the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios Florida. We've watched Lloyd do this lovable-loony bit too many times before, whether as Doc Brown, Uncle Fester or any of the more forgettable zanies he's portrayed on his continuing descent into family-movie hell.

Someone else must know how tired Lloyd's routine is becoming, as an inordinate amount of the film's funny business is given over to Zoot, the sentient space suit that breaks free from Martin's body early in the film and sets forth on a path of wisecracking, computer-generated slapstick. Bouncing off the walls while ogling the breasts of cast members Elizabeth Hurley and Daryl Hannah, Zoot is about as wittily charming as Roger Rabbit -- which is to say, not much.

A few cleavage jokes aren't going to warp any kid of the Lewinsky era, nor are the toilet gags and loud belches that ground this "Martian" squarely on the terra firma of harmless, PG-rated naughtiness. Every element of this production appears to have been crafted on risk-free autopilot, from the crushingly familiar CGI effects (which look more expensive than they are) to the few non-desktop visuals (which appear to have been worked up on a budget of about $10).

Breathless opening-weekend projections aside, no studio actually expects anyone to leave his home to experience this sort of claptrap. The idea is to put it out on video as soon as possible, so its Pavlovian pattern of bells and whistles can work its mind-numbing magic on the children of parents too busy or disinterested to play baby sitter. We've come full circle from the earliest days of TV, when eager set owners stared at test patterns for hours on end, waiting for a glimpse of some real entertainment. Viewed in that dim light, "That's My Mama: The Motion Picture" is looking better and better all the time.

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