Don't bother looking for 'Car 54'

January 29, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Car 54," why are you?

Oy, ouch, oof and ugh. Does this one ever bite. To call it a pooch or a mutt is to insult the world's junkyard dogs.

Allegedly related to the old TV series of the '60s with the late, great Fred Gwynne, it manages to make that bit of harmless mass-cult fluff seem like "Masterpiece Theatre." The TV show had a laugh in it; just looking at Gwynne, with that deep-eyed face of Irish melancholy and disaffection, was a treat. He and Joe E. Ross had what this movie desperately lacks: chemistry.

What insane lapse in judgment led an actual human being to pair John C. McGinley and David Johansen in hope of achieving comedy? Neither ever was or ever will have the remotest possibility of becoming a star. McGinley has proven himself an interesting minor player in some Oliver Stone films -- he was the suck-up sergeant to Tom Berenger's head stud in "Platoon," among others -- but to put him at the center of a film like an ice

sculpture on a banquet table beggars the imagination.

And Johansen. A minor mid-'80s quasi-demi-sorta celeb under the not-very-amusing name Buster Poindexter, it turns out he has almost no comic resources. Worse, when he talks, in a gravelly fake-Lionel Stander voice, he knits his face up like a man sucking on a fish-flavored lemon and spitting the seeds against the wall to see if they stick. This delightful spectacle is filmed in gigantic molar-o-vision close-up, until you feel like you're an astronaut about to touch down in his left nostril. Ugh, oof, ouch and oy.

Really, they should have bagged "Car 54, Where Are You?" on the first day of production, when it must have been apparent to all concerned that McGinley's mulish Muldoon was from a different planet than Johansen's toadish Toody. And neither of the planets was Earth. They have the comic timing of Kerrigan and Harding.

If the movie were merely unfunny, one might dismiss it with an airy wave of the hand in a paragraph or two without breaking a sweat or digging into the old adjective tool box, but "Car 54, Where Are You?" is actively repulsive. It's like a black corporate joke played on doddering, cash-poor Orion by director Bill Fishman, a secret agent from Paramount. His mission: Let's see if we can make a movie that sets some kind of negative record for lowest box-office in history. Let's underwhelm "Ishtar." Let's unpass "Waterloo." Let's bottom out "Last Action Hero." If that was the theory, this is the practice.

It takes some interesting forms.

For one, Fishman has an attraction to mouths half open and half full of food.

No scant whisper of plot adheres to the goings-on. But save your pity for the supporting actors. Daniel Baldwin? Wasted. Fran Drescher? Humiliated. Rosie O'Donnell? Destroyed. Nipsey Russell? Cremated.

Car 54: Stay in the garage.


'Car 54, Where Are You?'

Starring David Johansen and John C. McGinley

Directed by Bill Fishman

Released by Orion

Rated PG-13

No stars

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