Michael Lehmann's "Meet the Applegates" is one for the books -- a cautionary black comedy about deforestation. And furthermore, its central characters are insects.
Unusual? Yes. Funny? No.
The picture begins in the rain forests of Brazil, where the woods are being ravaged at the rate of 100 acres a day, and where a revolutionary faction of extremely large bugs -- bugs "with an attitude" -- have decided to strike back against American corporate greed.
Possessed with the ability to mutate at will, these terrorist bugs come to the typical American town of Median, Ohio, disguised as a typical American family. Their name is Applegate -- Dick, Jane, Johnny and Sally -- and their mission is to sabotage a nearby nuclear power plant. Though it presents itself as a comic leaflet against environmental abuse, the movie is really a satire on American normality. It's about a group of pure, dedicated innocents from the jungle who come to town and get corrupted by big-city values.
In this regard the targets are fairly routine, even if the manner of hitting them isn't. Lehmann, who gave a biting edge to high school angst in "Heathers," can't seem to get inside his subject here. The fate of the Applegates -- who dine on big roasts of pure chocolate and slip straws into bottles of Aunt Jemima's -- is never much in doubt. Once they become acclimated to their materialistic human anthill, Sally (Cami Cooper) goes out with a womanizing jock from school who makes her pregnant; Johnny (Bobby Jacoby) hooks up with a pair of identical twin dopers who get him to steal money from his dad for drugs and turn him into a pothead; Jane (Stockard Channing) is introduced to the pleasures of credit cards and becomes a consumer maniac; and Dick (Ed Begley Jr.) succumbs to sexual temptation and gets himself fired.
Sounds normal to me.
Satire takes a delicate touch; you have to find the right tone, the right weight for your jokes, and Lehmann never does. The film is too low-energy for a spoof and not substantial enough to be anything else. The performers, too, don't bring much to their roles -- that is, with the exception of Dabney Coleman as something (a man? a woman?) named Aunt Bea. Bea is another South American bug who follows the Applegates to Ohio, and Coleman bites into the character with the same relish that Aunt Bea shows in chomping down on one of his/her cigars. He's a great comic talent, and nearly a lifesaver here. When he's onscreen, the movie's pulse races.
When he's not, it barely flickers. It should be clear by now that Begley isn't a movie star. As a performer, he's tap water. Channing, for her part, has a few choice, low-key moments, especially when she quietly begs a bank manager to give her back her credit cards ("Pretty please.") But the camera isn't kind to her, and most of her particular brand of subtle underplaying is lost in transmission.
In the end the film comes out in support of something that can be vaguely expressed as inter-species cooperation -- bug and man, in other words, join together in a spirit of unity and common purpose to oppose those cruel forces that would trash our precious resources and destroy our planet. That's easy enough to get behind, isn't it?
Meet the Applegates, at area theaters, is rated R.