Friday, August 24, 2001

The movie Mickey doesn't want you to see

Movie: Characters

Posted on Fri, Aug 24, 2001 at 4:00 AM

*1/2
Our Rating: 1.50

Characters will be screened at 10:30 pm Sunday, Aug. 26 at Tabu, 46 N. Orange Ave.; $7 ($5 with theme-park ID) includes party with music by Wellville; ages 18 and up only.

Of all the subjects a Central Florida filmmaker should tackle, the agony of theme-park work is near the top of the list. Exposing and lampooning the madness behind the magic has a built-in cachet among hometown audiences, and it's one of the few Orlando-centric ideas likely to register with out-of-state viewers. They all see our city as an overgrown amusement arcade anyway, so why not ride the stereotype all the way to a shock-value payoff?

"Characters" should be the film to do it, but it misses by a country mile. A country bear mile, if you will.

Shot last year on Universal property, the feature-length indie comedy was scripted and directed by Jason Surrell, a former show writer for both Disney and Universal. (He worked on the latter's popular "Bill & Ted" extravaganzas.) Though Surrell has tagged his film "The movie MICKEY doesn't want you to see," he acknowledges he's less interested in getting even with Eisner (who laid him off) than telling a story with which corporate drones of all stripes can identify.

He assigns that job to his main characters, Spencer Hendricks (Tyler Cravens) and Julian "J.D." Salinger (Aaron Bernard, who also co-produced), two creative types approaching the end of their eight-year servitude as "happiness associates" at an Orlando attraction called The Adventure Kingdom of Fun. Before they can trade their candy-coated surroundings for Los Angeles, though, Spencer and Julian must undergo a grueling series of exit interviews and rituals. The protracted process allows Surrell and company to dwell on the employee turpitude and guest-baiting highjinks going on in the park proper, and the fascistic workforce abuses that pervade the backstage offices.

Those are all familiar concepts to industry veterans, yet only flashes of genuine insight can be detected. A confused tourist is given directions that take him down Gary Coleman Boulevard and past "the 'Weekend at Bernie's' ride"; elsewhere, a costumed character-impersonator is dragged away dehydrated after a near-fatal first day in foam and fiberglass. ("The heat! Sweet baby Jesus! The heat!") In another, more somber scene, a downcast Julian grabs a moment of quiet contemplation in the front car on a darkened, motionless ride.

"We apologize for the delay," he riffs, "but your life has stopped temporarily." More Orlandoans than only park workers can claim that as a personal credo.

The rest of the film is a nearly unwatchable, grade-school impersonation of the oeuvre of Kevin Smith. Locker-room humor and lame practical jokes abound. In between their juvenile misadventures, Spencer, Julian and their co-workers fritter away more screen time by passing unfunny pop-cultural observations, often quoting chapter and verse from classic films. (It's so much easier than writing an original script.)

The supporting cast features numerous actors who have honed their craft in Orlando's attractions/theater cross-stream. But the movie's storytelling sensibilities, direction, editing and audio are all so far below par that barely a performance is able to survive. As the final nail in the coffin, the shot-on-video project looks home-movie awful (its stated $750,000 budget notwithstanding).

When all is said and done, "Characters" proves a point that's diametrically opposed to the one it's trying to make. Far from vindicating the fertile minds of the dreamers who toil away on Planet Mouse, it instead lends the impression that there's a whole lotta nothin' going on beneath their ear-shaped hats. Back to work, everybody, back to work.

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