Monday, May 22, 2006

The Blowing of the Mind: THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992)

Everything bad that's ever happened to you
is superseded by The Lawnmower Man

Dearest readers, 1992's The Lawnmower Man managed to freeze this blog dead in its tracks for 17 days. Probably more. Whenever the thought of having to discuss Lawnmower Man crossed my mind, all desire to write at all fled the scene. It was bound to happen to Kinetoscope at some point, this kind of panic-stricken cousin to writer's block. Because if you know me, I'm someone prone to excess, both foolish and otherwise, and I chart out tasks for myself sometimes merely to prove an ability to surmount them. And if you don't know me: I'm midway through a project of watching every film adaptation of Stephen King's work, in sequence of publication. With a dozen Creepshow 2's and Thinner's as roadblocks, it's a disheartening journey, especially for someone who began because of personal admiration of King's writing. The very project of writing an informal film journal several times a week has gotten a bit out of hand... looking back over the past few months, I see the writing getting more rigid and cold - more polished and formal, to be sure, but rather less incisive; the periods of silence are signaling dishonesty, perhaps. The point of examining the film adaptations of the Night Shift stories was supposed to be a quick and dirty story of the shameful inability of Hollywood or the indies to capture King's magical eye for character or what Michael Chabon called "his incomparable ability to find the epic in the ordinary." If it sounds like a task sour by design, I honestly thought the case-study might provide more bright spots. Some surprising small pleasures were unearthed (Graveyard Shift's goopy earnestness, Maximum Overdrive's eagerness to please), but the sins of Lawnmower Man nearly cancel them out.

One cannot let the Lawnmower Mans of the world get one down.

Early in this non-adaptation of King's short story, a priest played by Jeremy Slate, tells his borderline-retarded handyman, who is named Jobe (Jeff Fahey, looking and behaving as spiritual forerunner to Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber) that "like your Biblical namesake you bring God's wrath upon yourself!" Unless all scholars have been badly misreading the book of Job throughout history, that's simply not what the story is about. But thus does Lawnmower Man set and explain its course: the movie will constantly reference allegorical models it utterly misunderstands, and becomes convoluted to the point where it is difficult to follow Lawnmower Man's actual meaning or guess at the intended metaphor.

Largely ripping-off Flowers for Algernon by way of Altered States, the entirely newly-invented Lawnmower Man unravels as if laboratory designed to irritate and stupefy an audience on every possible level. Chain-smoking Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) blows his stack when his lab chimp goes amok in the night, steals a security guard's gun and starts shooting people under the influence of virtual reality testing and mind-expando-drugs. Would that Lawnmower Man descend into inspired Murders in the Virtual Rue Morgue insanity, perhaps it could win a schlock audience's heart. Instead it is drearily mired in cyber-nonsense cool that was outdated before the film opened. So when Dr. Angelo eagerly resumes research on his lovable Gumpian lawn-trimmer, Jobe Smith, it can be to no one's surprise that just like the monkey before him, he gets super-smart, then mean, then insane. There are brief detours for a Meatballs-flavored uncomfortable adult-preadolescent bonding subplot, and some virtuo-sex that will convince all humans to become card-carrying Luddites. It is mildly surprising when Jobe also gains Carrie White-esque telekinetic powers from prolonged exploration of virtual reality... but "virtual reality" in the world of The Lawnmower Man has little or nothing to do with real VR, either in application or literal meaning. It's difficult to grasp exactly what director Brett Leonard takes "virtual reality" to mean even in the context of this film, and the computer animation is so far sub-The Mind's Eye, that it holds no pleasures as "eye candy" either. ... Perhaps if it did, it wouldn't matter, as the live action photography is singularly ugly anyhow.

Eventually Dr. Angelo has to hunt down the monster he created, now smarter and more telekinetic than him. If he's to become a protagonist in the third act, it's a tough job, since he's an obsessed, short-tempered prick who tortures a mentally handicapped man for the first half of the movie. The film doesn't parallel the Biblical Job story, understand the real consequences of Flowers for Algernon, or make sense as a Frankenstein parable, though all are intended, invoked, and explored. The Lawnmower Man screws up Frankenstein's moral about science misused in specific, and God's domain breached in general - the movie portrays such a nonsensical science it's hard to tell what is being abused, and why fooling around with Virtual Reality is tampering in the creator's work is not clear to this writer. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and I guess in The Lawnmower Man, the goal of elevating the basic intelligence of the innocent can destroy the world. The Algernon only applies in the most broad, dumb-tongued Microsoft Paint strokes; Jobe doesn't learn any hard, tragic lessons about the world because of his expanding intelligence: he simply goes insane like an unwitting Invisible Man, which means really no one learns anything.

Despite popular rumor that there is nothing left of King's source material (a delirious sick-joke quickie short story that begins in woozy suburban satire and ends in nauseous mythic horror), the image of a self-running lawnmower tearing through a living room is retained/swiped, albeit in grossly different context. Those wondering why, with all the botched trash made in the name of Stephen King, the writer would sue to have his name removed from this project need wonder no longer. It is easily the single worst film theoretically based on his work.

There's possibly nothing to enjoy but the brief appearance of Kinetoscope personal-fave character actor Troy Evans as a poor cop who investigates the lawnmower-massacre. Lawnmower Man pulls an Obi-Wan on the flatfoot, which is so effortless we may wonder why Jobe doesn't do the same mind-control act on Dr. Angelo.

Really though... don't wonder too hard.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the worst film theoretically based on the work of Stephen King is SLEEPWALKERS. That's the "real" reason King had his name removed from LAWNMOWER MAN: he was setting out to "redeem" the quality of films based on his work by getting more hands-on involved. The two films came out around the same time; unfortunately, SLEEPWALKERS, the hands-on film,turned out just as bad as LAWNMOWER MAN, the ersatz adaptation, thus undermining the whole strategy.

Chris Stangl said...

I don't know that there's any "actually" about opinion-oriented evaluation, but... For what it's worth, I think the incoherent and obnoxious LAWNMOWER MAN is much, much worse than SLEEPWALKERS, and certainly LAWNMOWER MAN is the larger insult to King's source material. SLEEPWALKERS has a lot going on that I find interesting, and the last 20 minutes are completely joyous gonzo horror perfection, it's like they were imported from a different movie. I'm sticking with LAWNMOWER MAN as Worst Ever.

Also there's this nice cop whose buddy is a cat, and when the cop gets killed, the cat looks at his body and is sad, and yes, SLEEPWALKERS made me cry!