A bland, boring date with 'Mr. Destiny'

October 12, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Mr. Destiny'

Starring Jim Belushi and Michael Caine.

Directed by James Orr.

Released by Disney.

Rated PG.

... ** The last time we saw "Mr. Destiny" it was called "It's a Wonderful Life" as directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart, and it was great. Now, its plot rewired and snazzed up for the '90s, its stars young and hip, its running time cut by a third,it's not so wonderful,and it's certainly not alive.

In this version, nice-guy schlub sporting goods salesman Jim Belushi has a wife he loves, a job he's not bad at and a dinky house in the suburbs, but his inner life stinks: He's hardened into a cocoon of self-hatred at age 35 because at age 15, he was thrown a pitch in the state championships on which he whiffed, thereby stranding the tying and winning runs on second and third. That his teammates before him made 26 other outs is no solace: He can't help dreaming what his life would have been like if only . . .

Well, haven't people learned it's dangerous to dream when there are movie cameras about? In no short order, he runs into an obliging celestial agent in the form of bartender Michael Caine who transfers him into an alternate universe, the post-homer paradise where his legendary two-out shot has led him into the life of luxury. Instead of working for the company he's the president of the company; instead of dreaming about the boss' daughter, he's married to the boss' daughter.

The movie then goes into abrupt stall. It takes Belushi so long to figure what's going on that he simply seems stupid and completely loses our sympathy. There's a seemingly endless fish-out-of-water sequence, where he keeps turning down the champagne that befits his new station and insists on a brewsky. Very boring stuff.

But soon enough the movie manages to bumble its crisis point, where -- just as in "It's a Wonderful Life" -- the hero's wish reveals its true nature, and the other world he imagined, the better world, turns to nightmare, making him see the error of his ways blah blah blah.

Why doesn't this work one-tenth as much as the original? Well, in the first place, as agreeable as Belushi is, he isn't one-tenth the actor Jimmy Stewart was. Stewart wasn't afraid to let the darkness, the despair, in George Bailey show; he gave us a man pushed to the edge of hysteria. Belushi's character just never really breaks a sweat; he has no real inner-life; you never sense anything at risk.

Then, too, Capra lavished extraordinary care in bringing the milieu of small-town America to life: He made you see Bedford Falls as a social organism of considerable complexity, a whole world, with a past, a present, a perhaps not immutable future. By contrast, poor Belushi lives no place -- he lacks a hometown, a cultural system, a past, an extended family, a future; he's the Beatles' real Nowhere man, the generic male, movie-star variety.

You're left with nothing but facile plot manipulations, and it must be said that if you're going to clank a plot, you should clank a plot. In "Wonderful Life," the mystical agent was Clarence, an Angel. From, you know, God. His role was to show a man the value of his life, or any life. It was a moral moral; the movie was aggressively Judeo-Christian in its meaning, in the truest sense of that term. Without being cloying, it was what it was, an exquisite meld of schmaltz, pathos and ethics.

But in "Mr. Destiny," Mike, the bartender, seems to be a celestial representative not from God but from the Screenwriter's Guild; conceived to offend nobody, he represents nothing, speaks of no ardent ethical system, and is himself genericized into bland meaninglessness. The movie makes a feather seem like an ingot.

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