So here we are with the last look at where Chevy Chase’s career went off the rails and actually it’s probably the most interesting of the three films I’ve looked at. As well as being a rare semi-serious role for Chase it’s also directed John Carpenter, who had taken a long break from filmmaking after the commercial disappointments of Prince of Darkness and They Live. The film was very much a passion project for Chase, who had secured the rights to the book by H.F. Saint after it was published in 1987 and he clearly had a strong vision for the film.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man sees Chase play Nick Halloway, a stock analyst who gets caught in an explosion at a scientific research building that renders him completely invisible. CIA Agent David Jenkins (Sam Neill) is tasked with tracking him down with a view to turning him into the ultimate assassin. However Nick wants nothing to be left alone so he enlists the help of Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah), a woman he was beginning a relationship with just prior to the accident, to help him escape to safety.
As I said this was very much Chase’s vanity project. The script was originally written much more as a comedy, with Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) set to direct but Chase insisted on it being a more serious film so he brought in John Carpenter, who had little enthusiasm but was happy to do it as a “work-for-hire”. After the film was released he explained he hadn’t titled it “John Carpenter’s” as he did his other movies because he knew Warner Brothers was more “in the business of making audience-friendly, non-challenging movies.”
It’s a shame that Carpenter dismisses the film so much because there’s actually a lot to enjoy about it. Firstly, the special effects, though not spectacular, show a lot of creative thinking. The approach of having Chase mostly be seen by the audience but invisible to everyone else on screen is a very clever idea and adds to the comedy of situations. Seeing assault teams break into his apartment while he just walks past them is very entertaining.
Despite it’s good points the film does have couple of faults. One of them is that the majority of it all is told in flashback with Chase narrating his adventures. I’ve got to say rarely like films that do this, it kind of kills the excitement and suspense. Also, as much as I enjoy the film I do recognise that it’s quite low-key. What the film really needed was someone like Steven Spielberg to bring out the sense of wonder and boost the film’s set pieces. But then again maybe what I like about the film is that it doesn't go down the traditional route. Chase doesn't go on an exciting globe trotting adventure. He just hides out in a friend's holiday home and eats junk food.
Carpenter’s direction is solid but it’s a shame his heart isn’t in it. There’s some nice homages to James Whales’ original The Invisible Man film from 1933. And he’s clearly enjoying aping Hitchcock’s thrillers such as North By Northwest and The 39 Steps. If I’m honest though I love both him and Chase they shouldn’t have been involved in the same project. Their sensibilities are too different. Doing this film was a mistake for Carpenter, he was already disillusioned by working for major studios after Big Trouble in Little China and he should have come back to Hollywood with a more personal project.
And so to Chase, the star. He perhaps wasn’t the right choice for the role but I still enjoy what he did with it. As you watch the film you can’t help but wonder if the film would have been better if it committed to either be a straight thriller or straight comedy. The mix of the two is uneven at times. I think audience’s expectations of Chase put them off the film when it was originally released. He’d spent the entire previous decade playing nothing but comedies and he’d pigeon-holed himself. No one wanted to see him in something that wasn’t a straight forward comedy.
He was trying to broaden his acting range but he’d left it too late. Chase should have stretched his wings and tried something like this earlier in his career rather than relying on comedies for the whole previous decade. Several other 80s comedy actors had a similar dilemma in the early 90s. Martin Short, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Martin. Of all of them only Bill Murray managed to break free and start a successful second career as a serio-comic actor (for which he mostly owes Wes Anderson).
Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a pretty fun flick that didn’t deserve to be such a flop. It earned only half it’s budget back and was really the last major film to be released by Chase. The following year he tried to start a chat show that was a huge ratings flop. And in 1994 he acted in Cops and Robbersons, a particularly poor comedy film by Michael Ritchie.
For the next decade and a half he had a very dry run. It was only when he was cast in the TV show Community in 2009 that he started to make something of a comeback. It remains to be seen where his career will go from here. Rumours are that he’ll likely come back for a reboot of the Vacation series which would be a nice way to cap his career I think.