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'Flubber': It Flips! It Flies! It Flops!

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 26, 1997

If the timing weren't off, I'd suggest that possibly the screenwriter of "Flubber" was Gus Frerotte and he wrote the script in the ambulance on the way to the hospital after he voluntarily reorganized his brain cells.

The movie has the loopy, dipsy-doodle sense of having been imagined by someone in the immediate aftermath of an intense wall-skull experience, reducing the old IQ by about 85 points: It sees sparks and pinwheels, sort of wanders all over the place, and it gives you a headache. With your ticket, you should get a coupon for a free brain scan.

But no, we can't blame this one on poor Gus, who at least had the sense to keep his helmet on. Let's blame it on poor Robin Williams, who tries so desperately to be likable, whimsical, lovable, smart and funny all at once that he just wears you out. Blame it also on the behind-the-scenes engineers at Disney who think that effects are more important than story and character.

The movie's a remake of the fondly if hazily remembered "Absent Minded Professor" of 1961, with ever-mild Fred MacMurray steering a gravity-defying jalopy through the black-and-white universe of Disney's then-rare live-action films. It may not have been the first, but it was certainly among the first to use special effects to comic effect, and though its matting was clumsy by even the standards of its day, MacMurray's sly comic timing and refusal to get ruffled worked out charmingly.

But the effects industry has grown into a behemoth, metastasizing until it seems to have taken over and become the film industry that spawned it. Thus, the new "Flubber" has effects up the wazoo, and they are brilliant by any standard, beyond the imaginings of film directors a mere decade ago, and it all goes pretty much for nothing.

Now flubber has personality! Another giant leap for mankind! A sticky goo that persuaded gravity to take a nap in the first one, flubber now has been computer-agitated so that it looks like animated lime Jell-O, a shimmering, translucent, almost sentient being that purrs contentedly -- that is, when it isn't dividing itself into a chorus line and performing what looks like the green Chuckle version of "Flying Down to Rio."

It's so overwhelming! Compared with this excess of technical hubris, the wan little plot and the underused cast are just bleached to nothingness. Only Christopher McDonald, as smarmy as Rush Limbaugh in the aftermath of a Republican landslide, remains intact.

Williams plays a science genius named Phillip Brainard -- you can tell he's a genius because he wears a football helmet during experiments, a dead giveaway, and he has a cute flying robot -- who is so darned forgetful he misses his own wedding, for the third time! Thus his fiancee, Medfield College President Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden), dumps him for the unctuous Wilson Croft (McDonald), a professor at another college. The setting is small-beer academia, New England style, and Medfield College is about to go down the toilet, being out of funds and hope.

Phillip's plan: to win Sara Jean back and save the school by inventing a miracle polymer that defies gravity and will essentially solve every problem on Earth except Tony Kornheiser's baldness. It's the number of lame subplots that scramble the movie so hopelessly, as does the sense of squandered talent. The main plot is the flubber plot, then there's the love story plot, there's the competing professor plot and finally there's a bad guy plot. Too many plots!

Even the big basketball game -- a classic in the 1961 version -- doesn't quite deliver. It has a few laughs as Medfield's dim five-footers can suddenly out-leap the other team's giant slam-dunkers by about 3,000 percent. But the director, Les Mayfield, gets the minimum out of this sequence; it comes surprisingly early and is over surprisingly fast. Instead, the movie attempts to eke a sense of wonder out of Phillip's flubber-powered T-Bird as it sails through the airways and parks in the clouds. Gee, clouds.

Here's where the movie and the subject of its title part company: The flubber keeps bouncing, but "Flubber" never starts.

Flubber is rated PG and contains nothing objectionable to kids.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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