'Late for Dinner' misses with sci-fi plot of return from deep freeze

September 20, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

In "Late for Dinner," Willie and Frank can't stop sweating. They've been frozen like hamburger for the last 29 years and being out of the deep freeze makes them feel hot, hot, hot.

In a way, the same is true for W. D. Richter, who directed this disappointing, if occasionally fascinating, film. He's been in a deep freeze of sorts for seven years. (That's how long it's been since he directed his last movie.) And he's trying so hard to emote that he's sweating from the effort.

Richter must be counted as one of the most promising cinematic minds of his generation -- he wrote the wonderful 1978 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and directed the zany and brilliant science fiction fantasy, "The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai" (1984). Richter hasn't lost his touch in "Late for Dinner." It's just that he can't quite acclimate himself to the change from the ironic '70s, in which he came to maturity as a filmmaker, to the sentimental late '80s and '90s, which ushered in films such as "Ghost" and "Field of Dreams."

One had great hopes for this film because Richter's earlier movies showed such a sure grasp of the essential nuttiness of the science fiction film genre. But "Late for Dinner" is an entirely different sort of film. Pursued in 1962 for a crime they didn't commit, the sweet, good-natured Willie and his even sweeter, brain-damaged brother-in-law Frank end up in a California lab where experiments in cryonics take place. The boys are frozen and accidentally awakened back to life 29 years later. The largest part of the film is about Willie's efforts to re-establish himself in the lives of his wife, Joy, who is now old enough to be his mother, and of his daughter, Jessie, who now has children of her own.

This is not a sort of "Back to the Future" in fast forward. What the movie is after is warmth. "My skin isn't 23 and my hair doesn't shine," says Joy, refusing to believe that Willie can still love her. But Willie (played by the James Stewart-like Brian Wimmer) responds with all the sweet assurance that Stewart might have used in a Frank Capra movie. Guess how this film ends?

Many of its problems have to do with plot. Why, for example, does Frank (Peter Berg) have to be both mentally retarded and suffer from life-threatening kidney disease. And the fact that he's so sweet-natured makes it difficult to tell him apart from his brother-in-law, thus suggesting that Willie's a little dimwitted too and making us feel that Joy must be nuts to take this guy back into her life.

There are touches of the real W. D. Richter here, such as in the scenes with the evil developer (Peter Gallagher), whose machinations send the boys on the lam and whose glee in his villainy evokes Richter's real sympathies and talent. His talent is for the bizarre, ironic and fantastic and one hopes that the director does not have to bury it again for another seven years or in another film like "Late for Dinner."

'Late for Dinner'

Starring Brian Wimmer and Peter Berg.

Directed by W. D. Richter.

Released by Castle Rock.

Rated PG.

... **

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