The problem with “The Stupids” is that it isn’t stupid enough by half. Lacking both the sheer gross-out humor of “Dumb and Dumber” and the carefully thought-through tone of the Brady pics (which it borders closest in humor), this bigscreen outing of the characters in the kidtomes by Harry Allard and James Marshall doesn’t cut much of a distinctive wash in the bonehead genre. The John Landis pic provokes a few laffs when it fitfully hits its stride, but tepid business looks likely for the Tom Arnold starrer when it opens Stateside on Aug. 30, a week after the same thesp’s “Carpool.” In the U.K., where Rank released it the same day as “Independence Day,” it tanked instantly.
Though Landis began his career with silly commercial comedies like “Kentucky Fried Movie” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” he’s had mixed success with his various comic sallies since then, with an “Oscar” or “Three Amigos!” for every “Blues Brothers” or “Trading Places.” Current pic isn’t a total fizzle, but there’s a lack of stylistic follow-through in the direction and visual design that Brent Forrester’s often inventive but scattershot script badly needs to take wing.
The Stupids are a seemingly average family in suburban America whose only fault is that they think too literally. When Stanley (Arnold) and his wife Joan (Jessica Lundy) find their garbage “stolen” from the can yet again, Stanley suspects a gang of thieves and sets out in hot pursuit when the disposal men next come round. The trail leads surprise! to a pile of other bags, and Stanley, ever the conspiracist, reckons he’s uncovered “the crime of the century,” a massive heist of the nation’s garbage.
That’s just the start of a script that keeps the whole family in perpetual motion as Mom and the two kids, Petunia (Alex Mc/-Kenna) and Buster (Bug Hall), set out to look for Dad, causing havoc with their own brand of face-value reasoning. Stanley, meanwhile, has been targeted for extinction by some U.S. military types (Mark Metcalf, Matt Keeslar), whose clandestine plot to sell arms to international terrorists he’s inadvertently discovered while disguised as a tree in the garbage dump.
But that’s not Stanley’s real concern. He’s convinced the person behind the garbage plot is his old foe Sender (Christopher Lee), who for years has been diverting stacks of U.S. mail by stamping it “Return to Sender.” After being fired years ago for pointing this out to his boss (David Cronenberg, in one of the pic’s many celeb cameos), he’s itching to go a second round with the villain. That’s if the couple of aliens circling Earth in their spaceship don’t get to Stanley first. (Don’t even ask.)
All this should play better on screen than it does, as Forrester’s script at least sticks to its own brand of lunatic logic. Apart from occasional linguistic setpieces, however, the film fails to find its own tone and stick to it. Too much of the action and sight gags are “National Lampoon”-y, rather than building a complete universe based on the Stupids’ unique perspective.
Decked out in an early ’60s straw boater and light blue suit, Arnold tries extremely hard to create a memorable archetype but doesn’t yet have the star power to carry a shaky vehicle. Lundy (from NBC’s “Hope and Gloria”) is only OK. Best are the two kids, with McKenna looking like some kind of goofy Alice in Wonderland and Hall like Damien on a bad hair day.
Phil Dagort’s production design for the Stupids’ house draws heavily on Brady-like primary colors in its ultra-pristine look, and Deborah Nadoolman’s costumes have fun with bad floral prints and massive petticoats. Beyond the family’s house, however, the pic’s visual design largely collapses. Propelling the movie is a wonderfully derivative score by Christopher Stone that manages to stitch references to “Ben-Hur” and “Patton” into its John Williams-like fabric.
Not for the first time in a Landis movie, cameos come thick and fast, including (aside from Cronenberg) Robert Wise as the Stupids’ neighbor, Costa Gavras at a gas station attendant, Atom Egoyan as a studio guard, Norman Jewison as a TV director, Harvey Atkin as a deli manager and Venice fest head Gillo Pontecorvo as a guest on an Oprah-like daytime show.