'Meteor Man': Coming out on top by small leaps, great wit

August 06, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Meteor Man" is a mess, but it's a joyous mess, so who cares?

Writer-director Robert Townsend has good intentions, a good heart, a wonderful sense of humor, a love of all people and a giddy sense of possibility. His optimism fills the movie with wondrous glow.

The story is the conventional Superman myth, though fashioned into a new form for a new age. The old Superman story was clearly rooted in an image of two entirely white Americas, one rural and innocent (Smallville, where the boy from Krypton grew up, whose values he inherited) and one urban and grotesque (Metropolis, a crime-infested big town that was obviously New York). In Townsend's conception that's vanished: There's no small town, there's no big town, there's only the 'hood.

And the 'hood is far from healthy. We're in some bleak environ of D.C. (though the movie was filmed on Reservoir Hill, here in Baltimore) and it's become Everyhell, U.S.A. As in far too many bleak environs of decayed center cities, a gang runs the place, driving street life and the community indoors as members strut down the sidewalks in black suits, shades and golden fades. Only one man dares stand up to them, and it's not Jefferson Reed (Townsend), mild-mannered high school teacher and wannabe jazz musician. No, it's his father (Robert Guillaume), who won't be cowed by the gun-toting mobsters. Of course this apostasy makes him a frequent target.

As for Jefferson, he can be seen scurrying through alleys, trying to offend nobody. He's just trying to get along. But in one of those alleys, he meets the meteor that will change his life.

Green, spitting fire and about 10 feet wide, it picks his bony no-ball-playing, E.T.-looking body to sink into, to his horror and concern. But when he wakes up, he can fly. Well, up to 20 feet or so. In fact, a good deal of the humor of "The Meteor Man" is based on the befuddlement a fairly normal guy would feel if he woke up a god.

He can talk to animals. He can leap small buildings with only one or two bounds, though when airborne, he looks like a Cub Scout struggling with the dog paddle on his first trip into the deep end. And even though bullets don't stop him, he's still a little nervous when the guns come out, as is any sensible, non-psycho human being. Plus, he can't decide what to wear.

Well, all of us can identify with that. One of "Meteor Man's" biggest laughs comes as his mother cooks up a variety of costumes for him that range from the ridiculous to the really ridiculous. He finally settles on something that could have come from the cloakroom at D.C. Comics, which isn't bad but is quite conventional.

"The Meteor Man" has been conceived primarily as a children's movie and it seems to unspool with what might be called infantile logic, spilling all over the place. Townsend loves kid humor: dogs and sassy old ladies and X-ray vision gags. (Come on, guys admit it: If you woke up with X-ray vision, what's the first thing you'd check out?) Townsend can't discipline his somewhat ditzy story, nor can he find a single through line and bring it all together in a compelling vision, and he perhaps too generously keeps stopping to let this or that minor player have a moment in the sun: I could have done with a little less Eddie Griffin as a buddy who keeps hogging camera time.

And . . . he really doesn't get enough out of a subplot with Bill Cosby, which is meant to click in right at the climax. It appears from nowhere and feels somewhat rushed. But there are moments of pure, giddy genius: one, where Townsend's Meteor Man squares off against Golden Lord honcho Don Cheadle in jTC unique kind of fight, may be the summer's funniest movie moment. It's not a great movie by a long shot, but it's got a great heart.

"The Meteor Man"

Starring Robert Townsend

Directed by Robert Townsend

Released by MGM

Rated PG

***

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