STAY TUNED – (1992)
Director: Peter Hymas
Starring: John Ritter, Pam Dawber, Jeffrey Jones
Screenplay by: Tom S. Parker, Jim Jennewein
The bizarre, high-concept comedies of the late 80s and early 90s were for the most part distinctly noticeable by having specific characters spurt out the tagline at the most revelatory, dramatic moments. Perhaps the most famous of these would be “Honey, I shrunk the kids.” In this case, “Our parents are trapped in television” sought to invigorate a new movie-specific phrase into the lexicon, but it seemed to fizzle out, along with the glut of movies similar to this, involving parents trapped in basements (House Arrest), giant, macro-sized babies (Honey, I Blew Up the Baby), and psychopaths kidnapping your entire family in wacky ways (Carpool).
At least Stay Tuned had a cartoon in it. Directed by Chuck Jones himself! So maybe this movie could perhaps be memorable in other ways, specifically as “that movie with the cartoon by Chuck Jones in it.” Unfortunately, despite the (arguably) fun ride this movie takes the viewer, it’s too short, and hits a few roadblocks along the way.
NOSTALGIC LENS: Despite the fact that sixty-five percent of the references in the movie completely went over my head, my childhood-self adored this movie. I suppose the idea of “living in television” was the ultimate appeal (give me Duckberg anytime), so the whole thing about it being run by Satan, for Satan, to watch creative, snuff-filmed programming didn’t really bother me. People don’t really die in Television-ville, right? Or maybe it was because I didn’t really get the actual plot, since I pretty much watched the entire movie just to get to the cartoon. I mean, it had a cartoon! That’s all that really mattered, right?
DOES IT HOLD UP: Well, that’s a trickier assessment. It does in some ways, and it fails in others.
Roy Knabler (John Ritter) is a hapless coach-potato stuck in a TV-saturated, mid-life crisis (who also fails at selling plumbing supplies) as his wife (Pam Dawber) succeeds repeatedly at her marketing job. The two bicker constantly as Roy’s television fascination consumes his life, to the point that he even agrees to sell his soul to late-night salesman Spike (Jeffrey Jones) for a supped-up, demonic satellite TV, which basically PO’s his wife something fierce. As they have their most heated argument, the satellite itself sucks the two into itself and warps them through a series of dangerous, deadly TV programs that try to kill their victims. Come to find out, Spike works for the Devil himself(!), sucking random people into hellish parodies of regular TV (so Satan can get off on their fatalities).
The entire movie seems completely phoned in. No one stands out in any way, at any point. No scene or parody is distinct or memorable, and the editing and directing is as straightforward and half-assed as you can get. The son even bookend-narrates the movie, which is pretty much the epitome of indolence (and irrelevance). Hell, even the product placement is lazy, to the point that it’s hilarious. The (obligatory) nerdy son pulls a box of Dunkin Donuts out the oven and just plops it onto the table, for no reason. Also, Pepsi. Also, Settle Supersonics. Even Chuck Jones phones in his animation. (More on that in a minute.)
Everything about the movie screams early-90s, and while I love the 90s with a passion, I can’t say that the aesthetic holds up very well (although, it’s much better than the middling-80s raunchy comedy aesthetic. I physically can’t stomach Cannonball Run or Revenge of the Nerds). Before-mentioned nerdy son and shamelessly-generic teenage daughter run the typical gamut: he notices their parents are trapped first, she doesn’t believe him, back and forth and so on until he finally shows her proof. It’s lame and pointless except for the final rescuing scene, but it’s not all groan-inducing. Just mostly.
But what about the TV-stuff? Well, it’s hit-or-miss. The real problem here is that the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be: a general parody of TV shows and movies; a satirical commentary on the effect of excessive TV consumption (where “sucking into TV” is more metaphorical than literal); a generic comedy of family-related drama; or a black-comedy depiction of hell. The individual parts don’t quite congeal into a comfortable whole, which bounces all over in pacing, jokes, plot-revelation, and editing.
That being said, when the individual jokes hit their mark, they do wonderfully. I got a kick out of two old people experiencing two different fatal reactions by their “Different Strokes”, and “Autopsies of the Rich and Famous” was amusing as well (how did James Dean really die?). While the “Yogi Beer,” pun was lame, the father’s approval of his son’s drunken misogyny towards his mother was rather funny as well. There are plenty of specifically great moments, which either will induce a nice laugh or a groan, but the movie is very short, so it’s a mostly fun way to kill an hour-and-a-half.
Which is why I was so disappointed in Jones’ animated bit. I can’t imagine that it was always that bad – since it was my favorite part – but, in retrospect, I guess it was. Now, let me say this: I always disliked Chuck Jones, mainly because he removed the wacky, all-over-the-place wonder from cartoons and grounded them, a trait which most modern animation comes from and why most modern animation is boring. But at least his cartoons looked nice—but this one didn’t. It seemed hastily produced and lacked the control Jones usually provides. He seemed to try to channel Tex Avery’s gimmicks, gimmicks that Avery mastered, like eye-pops and jaw-drops and speedy-movements, but it just comes off… well, out of the moment. The more stable scenes, when they’re talking in the dollhouse for example, work better than the wackier action. Still, it was fun to experience again. Also, Dawber is a MUCH better voice artist than Ritter. (Dawber, btw, still does voice work.)
IN A NUTSHELL: The parts are better than the sum of the whole, but it’s still an enjoyable experience. The movie hits its stride in the climactic moments where Spike and Roy jump channel-to-channel fighting over the remote-o-destiny, which is worth all the bad acting of the children. The jokes hold up, but the movie overall doesn’t—if it was any longer, it would be unbearable.
May 25th: The Brave Little Toaster
June 1st: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie