Disney’s first release for 1995, which was unveiled in sneak previews on New Year’s Eve paired with “The Santa Clause,” is a lightweight but likable comedy that probably won’t be in theaters long enough to overstay its welcome. “Houseguest” should find its most appreciative audience down the line on homevid and pay cable. Still, it’s guaranteed to make a bigger impact with the public than Disney’s ’94 curtain raiser, the notorious “Cabin Boy.”
Standup comic and sitcom star Sinbad is thoroughly engaging as Kevin Franklin, a hard-luck dreamer whose get-rich-quick schemes usually explode in his face. On the run from loan sharks, he finds his escape blocked when two leg-breakers arrive at the Pittsburgh airport before his plane departs.
Fortuitously, Franklin runs into Gary Young (Phil Hartman), an affable lawyer who’s at the airport to meet a former summer-camp buddy he hasn’t seen for 25 years. Franklin quickly assumes the buddy’s name, and accepts the lawyer’s hospitality, without knowing what he’s in for or what’s expected of him.
Gary brings Kevin to his suburban home for a long weekend with his mildly dysfunctional family: Emily (Kim Greist), his wife, a yogurt shop entrepreneur; Brooke (Kim Murphy), his death-obsessed teenage daughter; Jason (Chauncey Leopardi), his insecure adolescent son; and Sarah (Talia Seider), his precocious 6-year-old and the most well-adjusted person in the family.
Not surprisingly, Kevin is a big hit with everyone, and even manages to offer enough sage, street-smart advice to solve everyone’s problems. Indeed, he generates so much goodwill that when his ruse is undone by the arrival of the dimwitted thugs (Tony Longo, Paul Ben-Victor), Gary and his grateful family rally to their guest’s aid.
“Houseguest” is funniest in the early scenes in which Sinbad desperately vamps and improvises his way through Kevin’s imposture. Comic high point has him addressing a student assembly about the intricacies of his work. This requires some imaginative double talk, since he doesn’t have any idea what his occupation is supposed to be.
And when he learns he’s supposed to be a highly esteemed oral surgeon, a snooty local dentist (Jeffrey Jones) insists that Kevin assist in the treatment of apatient.
Scriptwriters Michael J. Di Gaetano and Lawrence Gay are TV sitcom veterans, and they remain true to their roots in their first credited screenplay. “Houseguest” is, for the most part, a by-the-numbers mix of snappy one-liners and feel-good sentiment, suitable for laugh-track accompaniment.
Director Randall Miller (“Class Act”) gooses along several scenes with speeded-up cinematography and other tricks but is unable to do much with pic’s least amusing element, the overbearing bigotry of Gary’s cantankerous boss (Mason Adams).
That the film remains consistently pleasant, and occasionally earns a hearty chuckle or two, is largely due to Sinbad’s infectious high spirits as a comic lead and Hartman’s unexpected grace as an appealing straight man.
His Gary is a real straight arrow who benefits greatly from exposure to the zaniness of Sinbad’s smooth-talking impostor.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Greist, Jones, Stan Shaw (as Kevin’s tattoo-artist confidant) and Kevin Jordan (a white would-be homeboy who comes off as the Vanilla Ice from hell).
Tech values are average. There are some witty touches in Paul Peters’ production design, especially in the look of Kevin’s apartment, where the walls are covered with posters for “Three Tough Guys,” “Shaft,” “Three the Hard Way” and other blaxploitation classics.