For 'Houseguest' and its stars, life is but a scream

January 06, 1995|By Soren Andersen | Soren Andersen,McClatchy News Service

Submitted for your consideration on this first full weekend of the new year: a movie with a bad case of the screaming meemies. It's "Houseguest."

Ladies and gentlemen, insert earplugs now. Insert them for countless scenes in which a half-wit hoodlum shrieks shrill abuse at his quarter-wit hoodlum brother. Keep them in for the hysteria-soaked exchanges between the hero and his best buddy from the old neighborhood. Leave them in place for a drunken-party scene, and whatever you do, do not -- repeat, not -- remove them until the driving-our-Jeep-down-railroad-tracks- toward-an-oncoming-train scene is over. The piercing wailing of a freaked-out passenger is the kind of thing that has been known to cause total and irreversible deafness in laboratory rats.

So it goes in "Houseguest." What's worse (you mean it gets worse?) is the people who made it have developed the visual equivalent of the soundtrack's sonic blasting. This is achieved by a ceaseless barrage of jump-cutting within scenes. Slash those scenes into itty-bitty pieces, spot-weld the bits into a high-speed visual hash and hope the audience equates frantic with funny.

But in reality, when you combine visual heebie-jeebies with sonic screaming meemies you succeed only in turning out a movie that makes folks want to run for cover, screaming.

To be fair, "Houseguest" has one thing going for it. Its star, TV comedian Sinbad, has an engaging personality. He's relentlessly sunny and upbeat, and his ebullience is the picture's single saving grace. But director Randall Miller ("Class Act") and writers Michael J. Di Gaetano and Lawrence Gay keep star and picture so revved-up that even that ebullience grows grating after a while.

The frantic pacing may be the filmmakers' way of trying to disguise the moldiness of their plot. Sinbad's character is an inner-city luckless loser on the run from mob enforcers who want lTC to do to him the kinds of things guys like them usually want to do to deadbeats who owe loan sharks $50,000.

Fearing loss of kneecaps (not to mention life and livelihood), our hero takes refuge with a family of messed-up rich white suburbanites by masquerading as a long-lost old buddy of the family's daddy ("SNL's" Phil Hartman).

The real buddy is a world-famous dentist, wine connoisseur and accomplished golfer. Sinbad's character, naturally, is none of the above. So he must blunder through a tooth extraction, a wine tasting and a golf match without anyone catching on that he doesn't have the foggiest idea what he's doing.

Thanks to the fact that the screenwriters have given the rest of the cast a collective IQ of somewhere around 1, he's able to pull off the deception. Whether he's tongue-tied at a lecture or fumble-fingered in the operating room, no one notices a thing amiss. That makes this the real "Dumb and Dumber" of the current movie cycle, rather than that other picture starring that Carrey guy.

Along the way, Sinbad is able to repair his messed-up host family. He encourages the workaholic Hartman to pay more attention to his working wife, Kim Greist; persuades Mr. Hartman to stand up to his bullying boss; pumps up the self-esteem of the couple's little boy (Chauncey Leopardi); and patches up the love life of their alienated teen-age daughter (Kim Murphy). He accomplishes it all with such unbelievable ease that it makes the picture, well, beyond unbelievable.

Oh. And the hoodlum hit men? (Remember how this whole charade got started?) Every now and then, the gruesome twosome (Tony Longo and Paul Ben-Victor) show up to chase Sinbad around the scenery and shriek witless abuse at one another.

Look at it this way. From here, the rest of the year's movies have nowhere to go but up.

"Houseguest"

Starring Sinbad, Phil Hartman, Kim Greist

Directed by Randall Miller

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated PG

*

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