Chris Nashawaty mourns for John Landis’ career
The mighty fall all the time in Hollywood. And most of the time I’m grateful for it. It’s one of the reasons why following the industry for a living is so much damn fun. But sometimes I’m left scratching my head, wondering: Why? Tom Cruise, I get. I can wrap my head around that. But John Landis? Didn’t he deserve better than his sad fate?
Once the undisputed King of Comedy, Landis was on an unparalleled hot streak from the late ’70s to the late ’80s. He directed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Three Amigos, and Coming to America. While some might quibble with the inclusion of Amigos, for my money you won’t find a better Martin Short performance than his turn as the rhinestoned ”little buttercup” Neddy Nederlander. As for Coming to America, I’ve got two words for you: Sexual Chocolate.
Sadly, all hot streaks must eventually cool off. And by the time the ’90s rolled around, Landis was cranking out such unredeemable crap as the Sylvester Stallone ”comedy” Oscar and Tom Arnold’s The Stupids. Landis was either phoning it in at that point, or he’d completely lost it. The less said about Blues Brothers 2000, the better.
But while I was recently going back over Landis’ résumé and wondering what the hell happened, one title jumped out at me: 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon. And if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to argue that this film was the beginning of the end of Landis’ career. After all, in this mixed bag of SNL-style skits, Landis hints at the past, present, and future of his career: the good, the smug, and the unwatchable.
Harking back to the variety film that kick-started his career, 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, Landis gathered his actor and co-director pals to parody the Late Late Shows he grew up watching as a kid. Amazon’s premise was to show an Ed Wood-style ’50s sci-fi movie about three astronauts and their monkey mascot landing on a planet of buxom, scantily clad women, interspersed with late-night commercials and parodies.
Some of the more inspired ones include:
(1) An up-close-and-personal profile of airhead Penthouse ”Plaything” Taryn Steele, who talks seriously about her interests outside of nude modeling: shopping (she walks around an outdoor mall nude), art (she walks around a museum nude), and her faith in God (she sits in a church pew nude).
(2) A wake for loving husband Harvey Pitnick that turns into a comedy roast emceed by Steve Allen. As Pitnick’s incredulous widow looks on, Allen, Slappy White, Rip Taylor, Henny Youngman, and Charlie Callas take turns poking fun at the stiff. It’s tough to top the simplicity of Slappy White’s old gag ”I was asked to say a couple of words about Harvey. How about ugly and cheap!” and Steve Allen’s ”Tonight we’re here to lay two things to rest: Harvey Pitnick and the rumor that Charlie Callas is funny.”
(3) Ed Begley Jr. as ”The Son of the Invisible Man,” a delusional scientist who believes he’s invisible but in fact isn’t. It’s funnier than it sounds, especially when he strips naked and starts moving pieces around a checkers board while the two old drunks playing just stare at him in disbelief.
(4) David Allen Grier as Don ”No Soul” Simmons, a black crooner born with a medical condition that makes him the least funky man in the world. Watching Grier in a pink, preppy V-neck sweater over-enunciating the lyrics of ”Tie a Yellow Ribbon” and ”Blame It on the Bossa Nova” is as funny as anything in Animal House… or The Three Amigos, for that matter.
Unfortunately, all of this hilarity takes up about 13 minutes. The rest is a buckshot blast of duds and groaners. You’ll never see Michelle Pfeiffer look as trapped as she does in her skit with thirtysomething’s Peter Horton, or Joe Pantoliano and Arsenio Hall as unfunny as they are in their skits. While I was watching Amazon’s commercial parody for a fun party food called ”Silly Pâté,” I swear I could hear crickets chirping in my living room. I’m guessing that they were the same crickets I heard when I sat through Blues Brothers 2000.
After Amazon Women on the Moon, Landis had one good movie left in him: Coming to America. And then the long, pathetic downward spiral began. Amazon is by no means a classic. But if you’ve never been privy to the non-threatening stylings of Don ”No Soul” Simmons — ”the man who turned a personal affliction into a career” — then you really need to do yourself a favor and check it out, pronto.