"Innerspace," the new film starring Martin Short and Dennis Quaid, starts with a daffy premise and takes it to even nuttier heights. In the 1966 science fiction film "Fantastic Voyage," a team of medical experts and their ship were shrunk down, injected into a dying man's system and given 60 minutes to attack a blood clot threatening his brain. Here the director, Joe Dante, takes the same concept and plays it for comedy. And since comedy was always lingering just on the outer edges of the earlier model, he hasn't had to stretch his material much.
The movie isn't a remake; it's kind of a pastiche on the original miniaturization idea. What the filmmakers have come up with is something entirely different: a sweet-natured, loopy, sci-fi comedy -- sort of a "Fantastic Voyage" crossed with "All of Me."
The film is never inspired; it's not imaginative enough to be any more than an entertainingly good time. But it's an enormously unassuming, likable comedy, and surprisingly uninsistent for a big summer entertainment. Watching it, you feel kindly toward it, in perhaps a way you wouldn't with a much more accomplished, polished, slicker piece of work. Without trying really, it ingratiates itself; it makes you want to like it.
Much of the credit for this falls to the stars. Dennis Quaid plays the central character, Lt. Tuck Pendelton, a renegade Navy test pilot grounded by booze and flagrant, raucous insubordination. Tuck's life is a shambles -- kind of like his garbage-strewn, bachelor-playpen apartment, which is scattered with broken-down gadgets.
Tuck is pretty much washed up as a pilot; nobody trusts him anymore. In fact, nobody likes him much either, not even his girlfriend, Lydia (Meg Ryan), a leggy reporter who's had about all she can stomach of his loutish, self-destructive behavior.
Depending on how you look at him, Tuck is either an adorable scoundrel, an incorrigible scamp or an impossible, obnoxious jerk. As Quaid plays him, though, he's damn near irresistible.
Dennis Quaid is the movies' premiere breeze artist. As an actor, he oozes confidence and self-satisfaction, and in another performer it might be insufferably off-putting. But Quaid's self-infatuation, his sense of his own charismatic powers, comes across as boyish exuberance. He's a pleasure-giving animal in the way that old star performers used to be. And instead of closing us out and making us feel unnecessary -- like, say, Eddie Murphy does -- Quaid's charm invites us to join in the fun; it's infectious.
The role he's playing here is a variation on the unflappable Gordo Cooper character he developed in "The Right Stuff" with a little of the past-it astronaut that Jack Nicholson created in "Terms of Endearment" thrown in. And when he grins into the mirror, slaps himself and crows "Lt. Tuck Pendelton, zero defects," there's a little of the Bob Fosse character in "All That Jazz" in there, too.
Since he's a test pilot, his first mission is designed only as a run-through. He's to board his spacecraft, get small, and be injected into the bloodstream of a rabbit. No sweat. But the miniaturization process itself, which requires the use of two tiny electronic chips, is targeted for hijacking by a rival gang of scientists and secrets dealers. Just as the syringe containing the solution with Tuck and his ship in it is about to be injected into the bunny, the opposition, led by Dr. Canker (Fiona Lewis), bursts in and disrupts the proceedings. A chase ensues, and the outcome is that Tuck is injected into something all right -- but it's no bunny.
The reluctant guinea pig is a rather nerve-jangled grocery-store clerk named Jack (Martin Short). Jack, who spends most of his free time scanning his body for possible malfunctions, is a sort of Zen master of hypochondria. And it's the movie's greatest inspiration to have this ultimate invasion take place within the body of a total hysteric.
As partners, Short and Quaid give a new wrinkle to the buddy-buddy genre. Though they briefly share the screen -- Quaid is, after all, inside Short -- they make a marvelously well-matched comic team. The point of the movie is that Jack, the weenie, through the accident of having the brash Tuck trapped inside him, is able to become more self-assured, more of a man. Tuck helps Jack to discover things in himself that previously had been obscured in his neurotic haze. Tuck, as well, learns from Jack to be more sensitive, less of a selfish cad. And, somewhat to Jack's chagrin, he also benefits by being reunited with Lydia, who becomes involved with Jack in the chase for the chips.
But for all the spirited byplay between the two stars, the movie really belongs to Short. An SCTV and "Saturday Night Live" alumnus, Short is one of the most adroitly eccentric physical comedians around. And, though he's had other movie roles, this is the first real opportunity he's had to shine. Short doesn't really need to have an alien force enter his system to make him behave strangely; he already moves as if he were possessed. In the movie's best scene, when he and Tuck share a drink -- the logistics of this are a little complicated -- Jack gets a little tipsy and, dancing to "Twistin' the Night Away," snakes his hips, Ed Grimley-style, as if he were in some sort of blissful, fruity trance.
Short has a handful of other gems. His panicky freak-out in the scene where Tuck plugs into his hearing and begins talking to him is a tour de force of comic hysteria. And there's an SCTV mini-reunion scene outside his doctor's office, where Jack rushes, thinking (correctly) that he's hearing voices, with Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin acting as baffled waiting-room patients.
Dante, who also directed "Gremlins," "The Howling" and "The Explorers," has an instinct for slapstick grotesquerie, and there are a couple of transformation scenes here that allow him to daub in some neat cartoony touches. The inside-the-body shots, too, have a slightly icky beauty; they're a Chuck Jones vision of what corpuscles and fat globules would look like from the inside.
Dante is less skilled, though, at moving the story along. And the scenes involving the multinational villains, Kevin McCarthy and his hired killer, Mr. Igoe (Vernon Wells), are indifferently staged; his interest seems to flag when he turns his attention to them.
The ending, too, with Short emerging as a save-the-day hero, is a bit much; it's this movie's rendition of the "I'm back" ending in "Color of Money." But it doesn't diminish things much. Even with Quaid spending most of his time stuck in a chair, the contagious likability of the stars pulls us through. Bunnies seem to proliferate throughout the movie, and, appropriately enough, Bugs is the lab rabbit's nickname. It's a subtle homage, but it sums up the spirit of the movie, too. It's an easy-to-get-along-with movie -- bouncy, rabbity fun.
Innerspace, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains no offensive material.