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Cinema: Bombs Bursting in Air

4 minute read
Frank Rich

1941 Directed by Steven Spielberg; Written by Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale

The biggest problem with Steven Spielberg’s 1941 is its budget: this film is the most expensive Hollywood farce ever made. Certainly money has its uses in movies, but in a comedy? A key element of humor is surprise; jokes are funniest when they sneak up on the audience out of nowhere. In big-budget film making, the opportunities for comic am bush quickly disappear. Every joke announces itself in deafening stereo sound. Every pratfall is as momentous as Cecil B. DeMille’s parting of the, Red Sea. Punch lines cannot be thrown away, but are instead hurled like thunderbolts.

While there are some amusing moments in 1941, there is none of the spontaneity that makes for fun. The movie’s premise is as overblown as its execution. 1941 seems to be composed of ill-matched parts of The Russians Are Coming, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Animal House, The War of the Worlds and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (also written by the Lorraine team of Zemeckis and Gale). Set around Los Angeles right after Pearl Harbor, the film shows what might have happened if panicky Californians had convinced themselves that they were under Japanese at tack. The frantic characters come in all ages and types. There are jitterbugging kids at a USO dance (Treat Williams, Bobby DiCicco), trigger-happy soldiers and pilots (Dan Aykroyd, Warren Gates, John Be lushi), middle-aged suburbanites (Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton), and stray German, American and Japanese commanding officers (Christopher Lee, Robert Stack, Toshiro Mifune). Such oldtime Hollywood character actors as Lionel Stander, Elisha Cook and Slim Pickens also fly by along the film’s manic way. Indeed, 1941’s players are so numerous and di verse that one almost expects cameos by the Dead End Kids or maybe Anna May Wong.

While it was generous of Spielberg to employ so large a percentage of the Screen Actors Guild, the huge cast almost immobilizes the movie. It takes too long to establish who everyone is and to knit all the plot strands together. Even though the film is relentlessly busy — there seems to be a physical gag in every shot — it has little of the director’s usual narrative drive. The movie’s story does not so much move forward as gradually selfdestruct. At times 1941 drags to a com-plete and stultifying halt: a lengthy dancehall brawl, conceived along the lines of a massive Laurel and Hardy pie fight, somehow comes out both mirthless and meanspirited.

Since Spielberg gives each actor the same small amount of screen time, the audience has no one to root for, and the stars have few chances to make a strong impression. Often the frothiest bits, such as the doubleentendre courtship of a secretary (Nancy Allen) and a young soldier (Tim Matheson), are suffocated by John Williams’ excessive musical score. Only Belushi upstages the chaos around him, and even his repertoire of eating and belching jokes seems strained when separated from the scruffy, modest context of Animal House.

The movie’s successful sequences, which are quite wonderful, occur only at the beginning and the end. 1941 opens with a sly and witty takeoff on the classic first scene of Spielberg’s Jaws. When a phony war breaks out in the film’s final third, there is a dazzling dogfight over the glittering period movie palaces of Hollywood Boulevard, quickly followed by the destruction of an entire amusement park. Technically accomplished as the effects are, it is Spielberg’s characteristic childlike glee that ignites these scenes. He really likes to smash enormous, expensive toys to bits, and he urges the audience on to share that pleasure with him. If 1941’s budget cannot buy laughter, it at least brings to life one’s most juvenile fantasies about F. A.O. Schwarz.

−Frank Rich

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