“The Invisible Kid” (1988) and the Limits of “Dumb Fun”

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Willfully dumb entertainment is the hardest thing to critique. It’s almost as hard to critique, say, a well-done movie about a very serious or jarring historical event, but such movies are, at the very least, trying to move or compel audiences, and if they leave one cold, they have more or less failed. Movies that admit they are dumb would seem to have a common goal, too: to make people laugh. But the impression one often gets is that the filmmakers only care if they amuse themselves. They were out to make a quick buck; they wrote, cast, shot and produced the film as quickly and painlessly as possible; and, if they were lucky enough to land a beloved comic celebrity, the film will likely succeed based on that person’s box office draw. When no famous performers are involved, the simplicity or zaniness of the premise will hopefully attract undemanding audiences. So what if highbrow critics trash the film? Highbrow people weren’t going to attend it anyway.

Of course, almost everyone, highbrow or not, professional critic or not, enjoys some kind of dumb fun. (One notable exception is Leonard Maltin, who seems to give any film even bordering on dumb a BOMB rating). Someone who scoffs at spit takes, double entendres or clowns slipping on banana peels might very well delight in the basest bathroom humor. Topicality can help; wit can help; comic timing can help. But these are not essential ingredients. Some of the best “dumb fun” comedies (such as “Anchorman”) not only strain to avoid such rules, but comment on their own inanity or implausibility. Not even enthusiasm–or belief in the project–is necessary to pull off an entertaining “dumb fun” film.

So why is “The Invisible Kid”–a knowingly lowbrow 1988 comedy that is not on Netflix and that I watched a few weeks ago, here–such a colossal failure?

For one, writer/director Avery Crounse chose a storyline that, inconsequential as it is, demanded at least a cursory effort from the special effects technicians. It is, after all, about a teenager trying to perfect his late scientist father’s secret potion, which suddenly one morning has the ability to render people invisible. But, based on the evidence here, considerably less of the film’s low budget was used for its transparency effects than for the Gak-like substance that explodes all over the protagonist in the opening scene. (Once modified to perfection, the green gunk resembles–in a none-too-subtle twist–cocaine, although no characters are seen snorting it, possibly due to the PG rating).

There is, admittedly, a few sequences in which people’s bodies disappear and their clothes dance around the room (there’s even an innocuous striptease). But most of the time, we know characters are invisible only because the camera tracks down school hallways, house corridors and, yes, girls’ locker rooms as voice-overs whisper on the soundtrack (the voice-overs are always mysteriously louder than the dialogue). At other times, we see strange phenomena–an electric guitar playing by itself at a school dance, a would-be air ball being guided into a basket during a varsity game–and yet it is entirely unclear where the characters doing these things are physically situated, or what exactly is happening to them.

For instance: a macho cop who suspects the hero of several misdemeanors is incredulous about his invisibility claims; he accidentally ingests the potion; realizing the kid was truthful, the cop promptly loses his gumption and scruples and agrees to help the kid rig a basketball game (long story). At the game, we hear the still invisible cop’s discomfort as he strains to manipulate the ball into or away from the net. At times he is doing so simply by pulling some wires that are conveniently dangling from the backboard; at other times, the wires are not pulled but the cop, who is of average height and not visibly using a stool or stepladder, manages to make contact with the ball anyway. Where is he, exactly? Sitting on the rim??

Another example: the invisible boy playing the guitar upstages and angers an all-girls rock band; one of the band members whacks the guitar, which in turn knocks the boy down; the guitar now lies flat on the stage, detached from the boy, yet when the girl continues to hit the guitar, the boy yowls in pain. Then the guitar bursts into flames. The boy is somehow unharmed.

When together, the invisible characters speak to each other often yet their voices are usually unheard by people within earshot. There comes a point, even under these circumstances, wherein suspension of disbelief is simply impossible (unless the film pointedly underscores the improbability, as “Wet Hot American Summer” masterfully did).

There are other unappealing oddities about “The Invisible Kid.” Though it’s a PG movie, there is not only the locker room T&A one expects from R-rated fare like “Porky’s,” but also several mean-spirited jokes about gangbangs. There is a nerdy hero (played by an annoyingly squeaky-voiced Jay Underwood, later of “Uncle Buck” fame and now a pastor in Weaverville, California) who lacks the usual likability and self-effacement of similar ’80s teen film protagonists. Not only that, but he is unlikable in a dispiriting, dreary way. He leers after women–though he pretends to be above such mischief–and his goals are unimaginative; he is solely fixated on the riches he’ll receive for the formula. He’s not really all that different from the jocks that taunt him. In fact, the film’s one fresh twist is that the head jock turns out to be a rather sympathetic guy, who concedes his prom queen girlfriend (Chynna Phillips) to the nerd rather nobly and is prey to the demands of his corrupt, bribe-accepting coach.

So, in keeping with the theme of this blog, willfully dumb fun, even if it isn’t that funny, is still more or less critic-proof if a) there is cheerful energy among the players; b) the lazy self-amusement of the players is contagious (ie “Anchorman”); c) the concept allows for such laziness or sloppiness; or d) the movie comments cheekily on its own sloppiness. “Invisible Kid” fails on all these counts. It’s as sincere, over-plotted and aiming to please as it is witless and torpid.

Beyond all this, “The Invisible Kid” is bad for all the usual reasons cheap ’80s comedies are bad. The film appears to have been dredged in mop water. It has one joke–when the formula wears off the characters are left naked, often in public–that it repeats and repeats and repeats. The filmmakers are desperately in love with flatulence. A pigeon farting is admittedly funny (the secret ingredient in the formula is pigeon shit) and something you don’t hear every day. But there’s a needless, ceaseless scene in which Underwood is trapped under the desk of his gassy principal. Slime, toilet cleaners and chicken feathers are the main props. There’s a climax in which no less than five characters hide out in bear costumes. There is–as one critic pointed out–inexcusable inconsistency when it comes to the basketball scenes. (Underwood is not even on the team yet is thrown in as a sub for a key game; the cheerleaders chant for 20 minutes after the game has ended). There is a beloved character actor–the late Karen Black, playing Underwood’s kooky mother–slumming and mugging for a paycheck.

Last of all, Crounse promotes himself. Crassly. He has two characters watch his first, less mainstream but better received horror film, “Eyes of Fire,” on television. Crounse does reveal smidgens of ingenuity here–I liked the one-take shot of a car covered with chicken feathers backing up into a car wash, then exiting onto the street–and I’d still like to see this earlier film as well as his only other movie to date, “Sister Island.”

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