Should we really be trusting VH1 to make movies these days? After all, this is the cable channel that tries to convince us that "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story" are "Movies That Rock."
The network's inaugural project in the world of made-for-TV movies is "Totally Awesome," a parody of classic 1980s teen comedies, an idea that don't really work the first time, when it was called "Not Another Teen Movie." Here, the results are about the same: filmmakers confusing reference for punchline, gags that grow stale long before they wrap up, and a complete lack of faith in the audience's ability to get it. In one scene, an overlong spoof of "Soul Man," the movie actually stops in its tracks to tell us we're watching a spoof of "Soul Man." Either the filmmakers think we won't understand the reference and therefore don't want us to think they're being racially insensitive with the gag, or they think we're so stupid we need to be reminded of what films are get the joke treatment. Both options are depressing.
Directed by Neal Brennan ("Chappelle's Show," "Half Baked") and written by Brennan and Michael Schur ("The Office"), "Totally Awesome" presents itself as an unreleased project from 1986, although it's unlikely anyone will be truly deceived, and not just because of the appearances from Chris Kattan and Tracy Morgan. The film is hosted by Ben Stein, who appears at the beginning to tell us how VH1 found a long-lost 80s flick, then promises to pop in throughout to "explain" things. He only reappears twice - once to clarify the "Soul Man" gag, and once to overly clarify a sloppy Tone Loc cameo. It's apparent even Brenna and Schur figured out just how lame this concept was becoming, as they just give up pretty early.
(As for Tone Loc: he pops in to rap a first draft of his future hit "Wild Thing," which he calls "Crazy Stuff." The writers couldn't come up with a complete parody, so after a few lines, they just ask Tone Loc to say "Crazy Stuff" fifty times in a row. This is the sort of half-assed spoof we get all the way through.)
The loose plot has the Gunderson family moving to California, where older brother Charlie (Mikey Day) battles big man on campus Kipp (Joey Kern) for the affections of blonde goddess Kimberly (Brittany Daniel); Charlie - who, by the way, is blind to the love of new best friend Billie (Nicki Clyne) - challenges Kipp to a decathlon, for which he must be trained by Japanese gardener Mr. Yamagashi (James Hong). Meanwhile, Charlie's sister Lori (Dominique Swain), dismayed at learning of the town's ban on dancing, falls for Gabriel (Kattan), the school's former dance teacher and current janitor. Meanwhile still, know-it-all youngest brother Max (Trevor Heins) builds a supercomputer for his science fair.
If the references seem a bit too obvious in that paragraph, understand that this is just a taste - the movie overplays every single one. Brennan and Schur's knowledge of the ins and outs of 80s movie clichés is commendable, yet it mostly goes to waste on a script that's too content on merely pointing out the clichés without bothering to comment on them.
It gets close at times, thanks mostly to some inspired casting. Most notable is Kern, whose performance as the villainous jock-snob (complete with feathered hair and sweater-tied-around-shoulders) makes a keen mockery of every villainous jock-snob of the era, and his turn here shows what a sharp movie this might have been had there been less reliance on direct reference and more work involving broader generic-character mockery.
But no, the film's not too interested in that sort of thing. (The Max subplot is barely there, a toss-off mention of the smart kid brother.) It'd rather spend time riffing on plot points in, say, "Some Kind of Wonderful," including one scene that spends way too much time delivering a step-by-step reenactment of one of that film's key scenes just to lead up to a weak, cheap punchline that wasn't worth the effort.
What the film really needs is more bits along the lines of its "Teen Wolf" parody, in which the school werewolf turns out to be a vicious, man-eating monster. Here's a joke that took a popular yet entirely dopey comedy and took its premise to the sort of extremes a parody like this needs in order to thrive.
I smiled quite a few times over the movie's ninety-some minutes, but only laughed twice (both at well-timed verbal gags from Howe). That's the kind of movie "Totally Awesome" is: it knows enough about its subject to come up with nifty joke ideas, but can't quite turn them into solid chuckle material. This could have been a keen, fairly hilarious spoof, but instead it's a dry, overblown project that can't bother to follow through with its ideas.
VH1 is releasing "Totally Awesome" on DVD in an uncut, unrated edition. I am writing this review the day before the film premieres on the cable channel, so I cannot comment on just how much the uncut version differs from the edit that will play in heavy rotation on the channel. It doesn't seem like much will differ in the two cuts, however - just a quick breast peek (a parody of gratuitous nudity that doesn't zing the way it should) and a couple of unfit-for-broadcast words that I can't really remember anyone saying but the DVD cover tells me are there.
Aside from a couple of motion-related shots (in the decathlon scene) that betray its shot-on-video roots, the anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) presentation here is crisp and clean, as you'd expect from a brand new feature. Too bad the filmmakers didn't opt to go with a softer, 80s-ish look to the piece; making the thing look like VHS would've been a nice visual joke.
Choose from Dolby 5.1 and Dolby stereo. Both sound rich and lively, with the surround mix making the most out of all speakers. Again, a rougher stereo sound would've been a cute gag, if only as an alternate track. No subtitles are available.
The commentary featuring Brennan and Tracy Morgan is all over the place. In some scenes, they barely say a word; in others, they're jabbering like crazy. Most of the time, it's Morgan (who's watching the final cut for the first time and who hasn't seen most of the movie) who prompts Brennan along, asking him questions about the production. Occasionally Brennan will stop to explain a joke or laugh at a shot of someone getting kicked in the groin.
22 minutes of "Bloopers & Outtakes" are hosted by Brennan and Kern, which helps break up the monotony but wears a bit thin as the two try to out-smarm each other. (Brennan also keeps looking at his cell phone, apparently to check his notes. It's mildly annoying.)
"Tracy Morgan: 7 Minutes of Ad Libs" reveals how none of Morgan's material was scripted, figuring he'd just wing it as they went. Here we get Morgan riffing endlessly in alternate versions of his few brief scenes, and yes, it does get old. For hardcore Morgan fanatics only.
"Joey Kern Is Kipp Vanderhoff" compiles nine minutes of outtakes and alternate shots featuring Kern hamming it up as the bad guy. It's just like the Morgan piece, only with the white guy.
Worse (much, much, much worse) is "Kipp Vanderhoff: A Nightmare of Condescending Laughter," which delivers three-and-a-half minutes of nothing but Kern delivering his jerky laugh, both in clips from the film and in outtakes. Considering the laugh was designed to be obnoxious on its own, you can imagine why this feature is pure evil in DVD form.
For "Dancing is Hard," we get two long minutes of dance footage from the movie, dance footage that wasn't funny enough the first time around.
Among the 23 minutes of understandably-cut deleted scenes (also hosted by Brennan and Kern), we get to see more of Max; Brennan explains his character was cut down due to studio pressure to focus on the teens. There's also a trying-on-clothes montage that falls flat, and how limp does a comedy have to be for a trying-on-clothes montage to not be funny?
Previews for "So Notorious," "Flava of Love," and "Chappelle's Show" round out the set. They also automatically play as the disc loads; you can skip past them.
All bonus material is presented in a full screen format, with clips from the film letterboxed. In a nice touch, the disc provides a "play all" feature to watch the complete extras in one click-free sitting.
There's enough in the final half hour that works decently enough that it's obvious the material could have worked with just a little more effort. (The movie's closing credits theme song is clever in its Reagan-era synth-metal tackiness.) But the script would rather toss in cheap, lazy jokes about Michael Jackson than work on anything actually fresh or smart. Rent It, but keep one thumb ready to hit that fast-forward button.