This Chevy Chase flick vanished at the box office, but may be one misunderstood monster.
This year’s adaptation of The Invisible Man really impressed. With that in mind, I naturally went looking for its opposite: a really bad Invisible Man movie. Memoirs of an Invisible Man looked like it fit the bill. It tanked at the box office, got trashed by critics, and starred 1990’s Chevy Chase. You know, the completely toxic Chevy Chase shortly before his career imploded.
I had a vague memory of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, mostly from the trailer and snippets on TV. It just seemed to be a fairly lame spoof with some interesting, if unsettling, digital effects. Re-watching it, I see how wrong the trailer got this film. Let’s dig in.
One thing I remember thinking when I saw bits of the film was that it felt like an unfunny Ghostbusters. Well, that’s because it started life with a lot of Ghostbusters’ DNA. Ivan Reitman originally helmed the film as director, until arguments with Chase and the producers led to his ouster.
The original script called for a light comedy with supernatural elements, right in Reitman’s wheelhouse. Chase and the production company wanted something more dramatic and tragic. They won, and John Carpenter was brought on to direct. Unfortunately, nobody told marketing that the resulting film was not a comedy. Check out Amazon’s synopsis:
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992).
So, now to the meat and potatoes…
What Went Wrong?
- Terrible Marketing: Memoirs of an Invisible Man starts out way behind the 8-ball. Everything about the movie screams “comedy”: the star, the supporting cast, the trailer, the promo material, the TV spots. The movie does have some pratfalls and humor, but it’s gallows humor. Becoming invisible is a tragedy for our protagonist. He’s not yucking it up or pulling pranks, which the audience has been led to believe will be the case.
- Likability Liability: This film suffers from a deficit, initially, of engaging characters. Chevy Chase, an actor with a history of feuds and egomania, plays a skirt-chasing stockbroker. Not exactly an endearing character. Sam Neill, known more for menacing roles such as in The Omen III, doesn’t inspire many chuckles with his psychopathic CIA operative. Other actors attached to the film either play against their usual comedy types, or are more generally known to play morally dodgy characters.
- Carpentry: While John Carpenter mostly manages to pair down his exuberant, macabre sensibility for this mainstream feature, there are enough of his fingerprints on the film to notice. The effects are much more Ghostbusters than The Thing, but when deployed by Carpenter instead of Reitman, they unsettle.
What Went Right?
- An Interior View: While our protagonist starts out a cad, he winds up an engaging character. Chase gives a nuanced and restrained performance. He has chauvinist tendencies but has a tender relationship with Darryl Hannah. He also grows and spends much of his time in introspection. The noir-inspired narration really lets us into his head and we get to see how events cause him to reevaluate his own character.
- Smart Effects: Memoirs of an Invisible Man sports some really cool visual effects. After the accident that turns Chase invisible, he wakes up in a building where swaths of the entire structure have turned transparent as well. This creates a hall-of-mirrors setting with Labyrinth-like set designs. There are some really out-there dream sequences as well. The blue screen work is deftly incorporated, often in daring ways. Practical effects, such as items floating in mirror shots, also try to push the envelope.
- In Spades: Rather than a spoof of a noir drama, Memoirs of an Invisible Man actually acquits itself nicely in the genre. This isn’t Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid! The narration works well and Chase seems to relish delivering it. We get solid cat-and-mouse games between Chase and a very intimidating Sam Neill. The film moves briskly, with lots of travel sequences and action pieces.
How Bad Is…Memoirs of an Invisible Man?
I really enjoyed Memoirs of an Invisible Man! It’s definitely one of Chase’s better performances, especially since he’s not going for outright comedy. IMDB’s trivia for the film says the producers wanted to explore the loneliness of being invisible…and they really nailed it. You can empathize with Chase, even if you don’t exactly sympathize with him. The noir trappings work fantastically to get us under his invisible skin.
On top of all this, John Carpenter seems to be in control of all the variables despite not being the first-choice director. He meshes the tone, pace, plot, and visual elements. I felt it was his most polished “Hollywood” film, despite not having the same audacity as his cult-classics. He even weaves in tons of homages to the Invisible Man mythos, including a nod to Harvey the Invisible Rabbit!
Had the studio not tried to sell this flick as a goofy, Ghostbusters clone, viewers may have given it the chance it deserved.