'Fred' keeps breaking things, including this moribund film

May 27, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Here's my advice: Drop "Fred." It's dead.

A murky slapstick of the id, "Drop Dead Fred" is a lame spinoff of "Beetlejuice," done on a 10th the budget with a 20th the wit. It features Rik Mayall -- a zany British comedian who appeared on "The Young Ones" on MTV -- as an emblem of Phoebe Cates' imagination. His mission: to teach her self-esteem while breaking every plate in Minneapolis.

Mayall, who resembles that other irritating horror from the land of failed movies, Yahoo Serious, is the title character, an elf from the unconscious who, by one of cinema's dimmest strokes, only Cates can see. This produces endless sequences where Fred acts up in restaurants or museums and Cates starts screaming hysterically at him, only to reveal herself as completely insane to the onlookers.

Fred is called back into service when Cates' life goes belly-up: Her philandering husband (Tim Matheson) dumps her, she loses her job, her car is stolen and she has no choice but to return home where she is tyrannized by her oppressively perfect mother (Marsha Mason).

A significant difficulty with the film is that the filmmakers aren't themselves sure what to make of Fred. He seems in some way linked to Cates' departed father -- who also had a British accent -- but he doesn't interact with her life in any coherent way. He seems to stand for the principle of sheer anarchy; he's the child's sense that the world has no rules and that any impulse can be acted upon. But at the same time, he's given to murmuring Ann Landers-like bromides into her ear or tsk-tsking when she yields to a stronger personality.

Worse, the young director Ate de Jong doesn't have a lot of visual ideas for his brand of mayhem. In "Beetlejuice," Tim Burton kept Michael Keaton busy being astonishing. Ate de Jong, you're no Tim Burton. And Rik Mayall is no Michael Keaton. He really has but one trick: He breaks things. You keep waiting for joke No. 2 to kick in, but it never does -- the movie is mostly repetitions of the single gag. Now and then the budget will allow a "special effect," but the effects aren't very special if you ask me, composed mainly of primitive animation, unconvincing makeup or some speeded-up camera shenanigans.

Cates is all right in a somewhat gooey part, but Carrie Fisher, as a ludicrous best friend, is embarrassingly over the top. Mason tries too hard and her brand of totalitarianism feels out of scale with the frivolity that otherwise fills the movie. She seemed to think this was a comeback vehicle. Sorry. It's one more stop on the road to career oblivion.

'Drop Dead Fred'

Starring Phoebe Cates and Rik Mayall.

Directed by Ate de Jong.

Released by New Line.

PG-13 rated.

... **

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