What's the point? The one-trick 'Coneheads'

July 23, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Here comes -- whoops, there went "Coneheads."

dTC The new movie, based on an allegedly famous "Saturday Night Live" skit of the '70s about streamlined pointocephalic aliens living in suburban New Jersey, is a sketch haphazardly inflated into an anecdote that never quite becomes a story. Then -- it's over. Occasionally quite amusing, it just doesn't build. An hour later you're hungry to go to the movies.

The key question is: Why does this movie exist in the first place?

After all, as a sketch, the Coneheads weren't exactly classic stuff and it's difficult to believe anyone is going to rush to the film out of fond nostalgia for what was basically a one-trick pony. Here's the trick: They have cones for heads.

The rest is even more primitive: They walk funny and talk funny, and have some remote satirical connection with the cheesy conventions of '50s sci-fi. OK. For 3 minutes and 35 seconds in 1978 between "Samurai Hotel Manager" and special musical guest the Cars, as intro'd by host Elliott Gould, it could work. But . . . a movie?

Press notes suggest that "Saturday Night Live" guru Lorne Michaels took a look at the grosses of "Wayne's World," also spun off from an "SNL" riff, and decided to try again.

Obviously any bit involving cast members either too expensive (Bill Murray) or too dead (John Belushi) was out, so he was left without a lot of latitude: ergo, "Coneheads."

Alas, poor Laraine Newman, whose career has almost dried up and blown away since she left the program, was too old for the lead role she invented as teen conehead Connie and appears briefly in a regrettable sequence set on Remulak. Connie, meanwhile, is played by newcomer Michelle Burke who has some spunk, and helps spin out a frail subplot about romance with Chris Farley, but of course the real business of the movie is conducted by the original Conehead couple, Beldar and Prymaat (Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin).

The gimmick isn't without its pleasures. Now and then Beldar and Prymaat say something or do something quite funny, and visually it's always been an amusing conceit. With a weird tension wired through their bodies, they usually move in perfect graceless syncopation, eyes flicking nervously about, always right on the edge of panic. They look like mannequins crossbred with lizards and talk like '50s nerds (the whole thing has a '50s nerd quality to it) in sentences without contractions delivered with the absolute confidence of an eighth-grade chess champion. It's simple surrealism in everyday life and the source of the humor isn't merely the Coneheads themselves, but also the way in which their neighbors and the sleepy America around them fails to register their weirdness.

That comedy, however, is incidental to the film's story or structure, which is lucky, since it has neither. Michaels and director Steve Barron had to come up with a plot to sustain their goofy characters, and they don't have much luck. They try twice. The first is a mild story about an ambitious customs official, played by Michael McKean (incidentally, the only non-"SNL" vet anywhere in sight), who wants to nail them for violating immigration rules. He's assisted by David Spade as a greasy underling who specializes in telling bosses what they want to hear, which is good for three laughs out of 17 tries. Then there's the old alien invasion thing, when Beldar and Prymaat are returned to Remulak, where Earth's fate will be decided.

Major mistake. Millions have been spent but the planet of the Coneheads would have been better off left to the imagination. It's every off-Earth city from "Star Wars" back to "This Island Earth," and it's none of them -- a generic place. Barron and Michaels seem to think that if three Coneheads are funny, then 3,000 will be 3,000 times funnier. They're not. More disappointingly, this sequence feels rushed and desperate, including a riff clearly borrowed from "Return of the Jedi," where Beldar, like Luke Skywalker, has to fight a big monster to retain a high official's favor. It feels connected to nothing.

And finally . . . isn't Michaels' front-loading the cast with "SNL" vets (Jon Lovitz, Adam Sandler, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks et al. ad nauseam) a little like Cito Gaston loading the All-Star team with Blue Jays? Boooooooo!

MOVIE REVIEW

"Coneheads"

Starring Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd

Directed by Steve Barron

Released by Paramount

Rated PG

** 1/2

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