“Americathon” (1979)

“Americathon” is woefully unfunny given the immense talent involved. George Carlin narrates; able comedian John Ritter stars; Fred Willard (later a regular in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries) and Harvey Korman (of “Carol Burnett Show” and “Blazing Saddles” fame) appear in principal roles; and even Elvis Costello turns up for a stellar rock performance. Yet oddly enough, the only amusement comes from the two slapstick sequences starring the very young Jay Leno and Meat Loaf; the former plays a wrestler (nicknamed Poopy Butt) who spars with his own mother, while the latter plays a growling behemoth who attacks a muscle car with an axe.

The overall energy level seems quite low, but “Americathon’s” most glaring problems are at the conception level. It took five writers to bring Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman’s underground play to the screen: Bergman and Proctor, along with director Neal Israel (who later received more acclaim for penning “Bachelor Party,” “Police Academy” and “Real Genius”), Michael Mislove and Monica Mcgowan Johnson. There were likely too many cooks in the kitchen. The plot is rife with satiric potential. Written at the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when the American economy was in turmoil, the movie imagines that in the near future (1998), the country’s oil prices will be so high that people are forced to ride bicycles. The US borrows $400 billion from an Indian roller rink entrepreneur named Birdwater, but no one can figure out how to pay off the debt. The president Chet Roosevelt (Ritter) is a vacant, touchy-feely Californian Scientologist (a stab at Jerry Brown, most definitely), with a bubble-brained blonde wife; the whole country seems hypnotized by that self-obsessed, lackadaisical,  jogging suit-clad SoCal mentality. Israel and Palestine have merged into the United Hebrab Republic; the leaders make peace not because of settled disputes over land but because of a shared longing to gawk at comely females.

Ritter and his staff eventually decide to raise the funds via a telethon, hosted by the star of a popular tranvestite sitcom, “Both Mother and Father” (Korman). Aside from Leno and Meat Loaf’s characters, and a tastelessly androgynous Vietnamese rock band, the performers here aren’t any more outrageous than those on actual telethons, which is why “Americathon” sits dead on the screen. Ventriloquists, freaks and bad comedians do their bits, punctuated by a lame subplot in which a presidential aide (Willard) secretly plans to sell America to the Hebrabs. Stunningly, Willard has not one funny line.

Given the timing of its release, this film could have skewered Carter and become a fascinating time capsule, a movie so angry at the current plight of the country that it failed to predict the staggering conservatism and fear-mongering that Reagan’s presidency would embody. No such luck: “Americathon” settles on cheap, easy targets: Californian airheads, bad TV shows, and of course telethons.

The few people associated with “Americathon” that have commented on it have, unsurprisingly, trashed it.

“‘Americathon’ was so terrible I had to leave the theater,” said Leno in an August 1987 Boston Globe article.

In a February 1980 interview with Hollywood columnist Marilyn Beck, Ritter said, “It seemed like a funny idea when I read the script. But when I saw it, I remember I was smiling during the opening credits, then the smile faded, pretty soon my mouth was down to my chin, my shoulders were hunched, and, well, it taught me a lesson. I really think getting smashed in the face with that film has made me more careful about accepting future projects.” (Wise words, though the late actor wasn’t careful enough to avoid “Real Men,” “Stay Tuned,” the “Problem Child” franchise, etc.)

The critics weren’t much kinder. In her August 10, 1979 review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote:  “The premise is strong enough to sustain a 15-minute skit, but the movie has the ill fortune to drag on for an hour and a half.”

Though unavailable on Netflix, the film was released on DVD in January 2011.

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