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Wilder Napalm (DVD Review)

23 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures
$20.95 DVD
Rated ‘PG-13’ for thematic elements, language and some sensuality.
Stars Debra Winger, Dennis Quaid, Arliss Howard, Jim Varney.

Usually, it’s a putdown when someone says, “What were they on when they dreamed this one up?” (think: Otto Preminger’s Skidoo or that country music cheap-o Zsa Zsa Gabor once made with Ferlin Husky).

But I’ll make an exception for what has to be one of screen history’s few farces about telekinetic pyromania (or close), a major critical/commercial catastrophe that has been one of my movie pets since day one. To date, I know of only one other acquaintance who loves this nut job as much as I do (plus one more who liked it a lot). Most Napalm veterans, if they’re even this kind, share the opinion of my beloved former USA Today colleague Susan Wloszczyna, who said of it: “Sometimes, a movie can be too original.”

When Napalm came out, which it barely did, one of its producers sent me a kind note saying that I was the only film critic in America who at least seemed to grasp what the makers were trying to do (not that I myself would make such a claim). I will say only that it belongs on any definite list of films about sibling rivalry — and that it may be the funniest movie I’ve ever seen about somebody possessing a rare or even amazingly unique ability (think also of, say, a porn actress with some special trick) who a) can’t get rich from it; and b) is regarded as a freak by most members of society for this very skill. This is the situation that faces two brothers who can start fires whenever they want. One of them (aggressive Dennis Quaid) is willing to promote his talent — while the other (Arliss Howard) is wearily resigned and moonlighting as a volunteer fireman. When, that is, he’s not hiding from the world by working in a parking lot photo booth that never seems to have any customers. 

That the latter is wed to a woman the other covets (Debra Winger) has a way of nurturing animosity — as does the fact that when they were children, the boys’ shared ability to start fires at will enabled Quaid to torch his brother’s hair to such a degree that it never grew back through the scar tissue. This told-in-flashback episode was a great deal more tragic than even that, and when the movie goes wrong, it is usually when it tries to inject seriousness or “weight” into the proceedings. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often, especially since the movie is visually witty. The friend of mine who also loves this movie was also a huge fan (along with me) of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — and there’s a similar sensibility here down to the fractured color schemes that always dress Winger (giving the least known of her career performances) in some kind of lime-colored get-up, some of which are quite sexy.

Winger anchors the movie and keeps the lunacy from getting out of hand, though her own hard-knocks character is under house arrest for arson (albeit with an explanation that seems understandable and down-to-earth — merely a case of momentary bad judgment). Meanwhile, Quaid is working as a traveling carnival clown  — perfect visual counterpoint for him to deliver some hilarious vitriol early in the picture. (I worked five years for a sardonic TV host who wore clown garb to introduce afternoon movies, so I know of what I speak.) You also get Jim Varney as a Quaid manager working to get him on David Letterman — and an a cappella group of local firemen (Howard’s cohorts) who periodically show up to sing “Ring of Fire,” “Heat Wave” and other thematically germane pop-chart staples.

Though this is a better comedy than Will Smith’s Hancock, writer Vince Gilligan had a hand in both scripts, and there’s a kind of consistency in their sensibilities. The director here was Glenn Gordon Caron, then coming off TV’s “Moonlighting” for the second of his three big-screen credits. I wish he had taken a few more cracks at it because even though the last of these was the dreadful Love Affair, (which remade the eponymous 1939 hit and its own remake, An Affair To Remember), the first was 1988’s unjustly forgotten Clean and Sober, which got Michael Keaton the year’s best actor citation from the National Society of Film Critics. Befitting a movie that Sony once issued as a regular release but is now issuing manufactured on demand, Napalm remains a cult item looking for its cult. If nothing else, it helped Arliss and Winger eventually get married in real life, which they still are.

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