'Lawnmower Man' is a visual treat

March 07, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Virtual reality" is state-of-the-art hyper-reality as induced either by the most sophisticated of computers or the most

adolescent of imaginations. Now comes "The Lawnmower Man," the first feature movie to make extensive use of the former but, alas, not the first movie to make extensive use of the latter.

The former, in fact, is quite the best thing in the film, and perhaps worth the price of admission. As a visual adventure, "The Lawnmower Man" is great fun: We get to bodysurf through some kind of cosmic mulching machine which tries to grind us to atoms with great, gnashing iron pyramids (it's like be swallowed by a killer whale the size of the Hindenburg); we get to swoosh down the drain of creation in a crescendo of slithering shapes and spangles, seeing things never before seen; we get to be in a combat-trained chimp's brain as he blows away various human opponents ("KILL CONFIRMED" reads his computer print-out); and on and on and on.

So what does this have to do with the plot of the movie? Not much, unfortunately. As extracted from what must have been a very busy Stephen King short story (written, quite obviously, in the 10 or 15 minutes after King had watched Cliff Robertson's great "Charly" on his VCR) it follows as a research scientist uses some kind of virtual reality therapy to transform a retarded lawn-mowing man into a) a genius and b) a god.

The exact mechanism of evolution is not made clear, but somehow Dr. Angelo's prescription of ultimate video enables poor Jobe Smith to exponentially expand his IQ. This process is covertly funded by and overtly monitored by the CIA for weapons research; the boys from Langley become quite interested in Jobe when he learns to turn other humans into collections of marbles. The usualmelodramatic excesses are committed, first by King who cannot imagine a relationship that is not cheesy and hostile, and second by director-adapter Brett Leonard, who punches up everything as far as it can go. He does manage to make the piece look as if it were bankrolled by Paramount (not a bad trick on a limited budget).

Among the adolescent misfortunes inflicting the movie are a CIA represented by a sneering, effeminate Anglophile who seems to have wandered in from "Twin Peaks," a demented priest who beats the Lawnmower Man with a belt like a medieval penitent, a gas station guy out of Hell's Angels and a dad from hell. This is typical King: reducing people to one abrasive stroke.

As for the leads, Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Angelo is reasonably persuasive; he's a real actor, no matter how unreal the story. Jeff Fahey's Jobe-job isn't nearly as wholly imagined or as poignant as Cliff Robertson's analogous Charly -- and the movie as a whole isn't one-tenth as good -- and though the actor tries hard, he never manages to make emotional contact with the audience over the course of his transformation.

'The Lawnmower Man'

Starring Pierce Brosnan and Jeff Fahey.

Directed by Brett Leonard.

Released by New Line.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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