'Invisible Man' can be seen as modest success

February 28, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Gosh darn it, miracles do happen! If Chevy Chase can make a decent movie, maybe there's hope for us all. But perhaps it helps a bit that the Chevyman is invisible during 90 percent of the running time. If you can't see him . . . how can you hate him?

Actually, in "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," Chase tries something new: acting. Gone is the exaggeration of the "Saturday Night Live" persona, the smug, pratfalling, smarmy narcissist, so intent on letting the audience know how much better he is than the material. Here, he's just trying to be as good as the material.

Chase plays Nick Halloway, a callow San Francisco stockbroker more addicted to hedonism than heroics. Hung-over one morning and covering for a buddy at a presentation of new technology for potential investments, he manages to wander off and be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the machinery goes bananas. His molecules are stolen; he is turned invisible.

Congratulations to John Carpenter, the director, and Chase for avoiding the first pitfall, the adolescent temptations of the invisibility theme: Halloway's initial impulse isn't to head for the nearest girls' locker room but to get really depressed.

He thinks he's got problems? He hasn't seen anything yet. Soon, it develops, rogue CIA hotshot David Jenkins (Sam Neill under too much mousse) realizes that invisibility has applications in the intelligence field that are unlimited and sets out to snare Chase as his own asset. (Clearly the story, derived from a novel by H. F. Saint, predates the end of the Cold War; in today's climate, who would he spy on? Kyrgyzstan? Tajikistan? Toyota?) Thus the movie devolves into a standard-issue chase: bad boy Neill and his thugs after good boy Chase and his transparent atoms.

The elaborate special effects which sustain the illusion of invisibility throughout the film soon wear out. How many times can you chuckle at a pair of pants running down the street or a cigarette or a gun suspended in mid-air? But the movie works well enough on two other fronts to keep it entertaining.

The first is Chase's own arc of maturation. In some sense, this is another salvation-of-a-yuppie story, similar thematically to "Regarding Henry" and "The Doctor," in which a life-threatening experience reclaims for a worthless man some grip on the part of his anatomy called the soul. What works here is the subtext of Chase's own career: It's as if this is his salvation as well as Nick Halloway's, a chance to create a full character of some complexity and humanity. This, particularly, is emphasized in his relationship with Daryl Hannah, which is relatively honestly portrayed.

Second, the chase mechanism is older than dinosaur bones, but just as sturdy. Carpenter, once an energetic schlockster ("Halloween"), understands the mechanism well and deploys it efficiently.

"Memoirs of an Invisible Man" is a modest achievement, to be sure, but it is an achievement nonetheless.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man'

Starring Chevy Chase, Sam Neill and Daryl Hannah.

Directed by John Carpenter.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.


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