Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The flops of Chevy Chase part 3: Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

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. 

The film has some very clever ideas about the realities of being invisible. For instance Chase can’t see him own hands so he finds it hard to eat food. He also can’t eat otherwise people will just see the floating contents of his stomach. And there’s a fantastic bit where he needs to travel so he punches a drunk guy and gets him to flag down a taxi. Also, Sam Neill is highly entertaining as the bad guy. He brings some of the same menace he showed in Dead Calm to the role of Jenkins. It’s a shame he and Chase don’t get more scenes together because they make great adversaries. There’s a particularly tense scene where he traps Chase in his own office that shows the potential of what a more serious take on the subject matter could have achieved.

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.


  1. I like this one more than most. The early scenes of Chase coming to grips with his invisibility are extremely well done and makes up for the bland thriller aspect of the film. It's flawed but certainly far from Chase's or Carpenter's worst.

  2. I haven't seen this one in like...forever! It's the only Carpenter film that I dont know by heart.

    Agree about this movie being all uneven, I remember it being not funny enough, but still liking the visual effects. I'm eagerly awaiting a Chevy Chase come back, the problem with chase is that he's TOO much of a goof ball, and so nobody can see him as anything but that. He can't do what Murray did and suddenly become a serious guy.

    I'd like to revisit this one at some point.

  3. Mitch: Yeah, if they made this film now I think they would have made it more offbeat and focused more on just Nick coming to grips with being invisible. That stuff was way more interesting than the thriller stuff.

    Definitely not Carpenter's worst. I'd put it alongside Christine as a perfunctory but slightly hollow movie.

    Franco: Yeah, you're right. Even though people compare Murray and Chase a lot they are actually quite different comedians. I did hear that Chase turned down the lead role in Lost in Translation and American Beauty?! (Not sure, how much faith I'd put in either but they definitely would have been very different films).

    I think Chase needs to embrace the idea that he's over-the-hill now but I think he's too proud to do it.

  4. As a fan of both Chevy Chase and John Carpenter I'll have to watch this movie eventually. I also would like to see Chevy Chase (well and Carpenter while we're at it...) make a comeback. I think if he is in a new Vacation movie it probably won't be in a major role. I've heard that the new one is supposed to be about Rusty and his family. We'll see if it ever actually happens as a lot of proposed projects like this get canceled.

  5. Oh yeah, I think his role would be very much a supporting one but that's okay. I can't see him ever leading a movie again but that's not to say he can't steal the show by playing a charismatic supporting character.

    After all Ty Webb wasn't the lead character in Caddyshack, he just popped up every now and then.

  6. Great review!

    Haven't seen this...looks kind of interesting in a so bad, it's good way. I do like the idea of Sam Neill as a villain too.

  7. Sam Neill makes a great bad guy (can't believe they almost offered him Bond).

    Yeah, this is more an interesting mis-fire. It's got a lot of interesting ideas and concepts but isn't sure where to go with them.