The year is 1998, America is on the verge of bankruptcy and there is no more gasoline. People live in automobiles and drive to work on skateboards or bicycles - including one bicycle that accommodates four nuns.
Power fails, elevators are coin-operated at 75 cents a ride, the Western White House is a condo in Marina Del Rey, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the headquarters of the Teamsters' Union.
This is the world of "Americathon," now playing at nine local theatres, a film that attempts to straddle the genres of rock musical and satirical extrapolation (familiar from such extravaganzas as "Dr. Strangelove," "Wild in the Street" and most particularly "Putney Swope"). On the whole, the satire works better than the music - if you can make the mental adjustments necessary to accept the story.
The U.S. government has borrowed $400 billion from financier Sam Birdwater (played by Chief Dan George), who made his pile in jogging shoes and running suits. He has threatened to foreclose unless the money is paid within 30 days.
At an emergency cabinet meeting, President Chet Roosevelt and his advisers "a big dance" and raffling off the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Eric McMerkin, the president's media consultant, has the winning idea: "Telethons always work - look what they do for disease."
And so begins the epic, 30-day, round-the-clock Americathona ("Uncle Sam needs you...pass the hat for America") with m.c. Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) running the show nonstop on amphetamines, a variety of futuristic show-biz routines and saboteurs, headed by turncoat presidential assistant Vanderhoof (Fred Willard), trying to undermine the show so that the country will go bankrupt and be sold to a foreign power.
At the eye of the storm, taking it all in, in the mellow, laid-back style appropriate to a former governor of California is the president (John Ritter), who brings to national problems all the resources of est, Esalen, TM and the like.
He is superb in moments of stress. Accepting the resignation of a Cabinet member, for example: "Herb, it's clear that you need the space to move on. I love you." But later, he almost loses his cool when foreign terrorits invade the Western White House - where he is cheating on the "first old lady" with Vietnamese "puke rock" star Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby) - and kidnap him. Turning his soulful eyes sadly but tolerantly on these invaders of his space, he says: "You're being very hostile."
Vanderhoof's sabotage involves questioning the political reliability of any act that might interest the audience. The result is an endless stream of noncontroversial nontalent: juggler, marching bands, ventriloquists whose lips move, a standup comedian who does imitations of Jimmy Cagney in Spanish. One 6-year-old tap-dancer hovers backstage but can't make it - perhaps because she's too good.
But media whiz McMerkin manages to slip in a couple of blockbuster attractions. One is a sort of updated bullfight, with 300-lb. matador Oklahoma Roy Budnitz (played by rock performer Meat Loaf) facing the moment of truth, terribly alone under the hot television lights, armed only with a sledgehammer and a tire iron, against a Camaro.
The final big-money act is unscheduled, as terrorists break into the studio and shoot Monty Rushmore, who improvises like a good m.c. and proceeds to make his deat a part of the show: "Call in. Make a pledge. Don't let me die in vain." This tops everything else, including Elvis Costello's performance of "Crawling to the USA" (beamed in from London, the capital of the 57th state).
Only time will tell whether "Americathon" can become the cult item it clearly aspires to be. It has the sketchy insubstantiality of a comic strip, but it also has many small details (for example, a feetingly glimps-magazine cover labeled "Better Cars and Gardens") that could bring some people back to catch what they may have missed the first time. It sums up (in appropriately distorted focus) the hopes and fears of the present moment, and it throws light on some dark corners of the American psyche. Above all, it gives the audience a welcome opportunity to feel superior to other people. CAPTION: Picture, The gasless society of "Americathon": four nuns on a bike.