Few ticketbuyers will want to take off with “RocketMan,” a strenuously silly slapstick comedy about a klutzy scientist who joins the crew of the first manned NASA flight to Mars. Disney release is a rattletrap star vehicle for Harland Williams, a standup comic and TV sitcom vet who makes Pauly Shore seem like Sir John Gielgud. With its preponderance of jokes about mucous and flatulence, pic has a chance of clicking with the sort of adolescents who view Beavis and Butt-head as role models. But even they may prefer to wait until “RocketMan” lands in the homevideo orbit.
Williams stars as Fred Z. Randall, a geeky spacecraft systems designer who gets his long-sought chance to compete for his place aboard a Mars mission when a NASA scientist is grounded.
The only other qualified candidate has never flown due to his motion sickness, but is still considered the better choice by the rest of the flight crew: cocky space jockey “Wild Bill” Overbeck (William Sadler), ultra-efficient mission specialist Julie Ford (Jessica Lundy) and Ulysses (Raven), a trained chimp who expresses his displeasure by sinking his teeth into Fred’s outstretched hand.
Not surprisingly, Fred outperforms his competitor in pre-flight tests, including a high-speed G-force simulation that cues a vomit gag that is typical of the pic’s lowbrow, no-shame humor. Ultimately, Fred is tapped to join the crew, even though flight director Paul Wick (Jeffrey DeMunn) is less than enthusiastic. Fred’s only real champion among the NASA brass is mission controller Bud Nesbitt (Beau Bridges), a former astronaut who feels guilty about his relatively minor role in the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission.
Once the spacecraft blasts off, Fred turns out to be every bit as obnoxious and immature as Overbeck and Ford feared, nearly short-circuiting the entire mission with his clumsiness and ill-timed impulsiveness. But he proves he has the right stuff when it comes to operating the ship’s navigational computer, and redeems himself in the eyes of his fellow astronauts by demonstrating courage under fire when they finally land on Mars.
Working from an uninspired screenplay by Craig Mazin and Greg Erb, director Stuart Gillard (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III”) gives Williams more than enough time and opportunity to showcase his limited talents. Here and there, he evidences a flash of improvisational skill, particularly during a long sequence that has Fred killing time alone while his fellow astronauts are in suspended animation.
Too often, though, Williams behaves as a grown-up version of the class clown who never knows when to shut up or tone it down. Worse, when he tries to come across as lovable and vulnerable, Williams succeeds only at reminding viewers how much better Jerry Lewis used to do that sort of thing.
Most of the supporting players are little more than wallpaper in Williams’ playroom. Even so, Lundy and Sadler are reasonably efficient in thankless roles, and Bridges manages to convey a fair amount of guilt-racked anxiety as the mission controller. Shelley Duvall is notably shrill in her brief, unbilled cameo as Fred’s clinging mother.
“RocketMan” was filmed on various locations in and around Houston, including the Johnson Space Center. Tech credits are competent. And, yes, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” is heard during the closing credits