Retro Review: Project ALF (1996)

Retro Review: Project ALF (1996)

ALF got a second chance after a disastrous series finale. How’d the fuzzball do?

Last week I talked about how NBC backstabbing caused one of my favorite sitcoms, ALF, to come to terrible end. Six years after the ominous cliffhanger ending, the creators of the cat-eating alien from Melmac got a chance to clear the air. While they mostly spent that chance on questionable Borscht Belt groaners, there’s definitely a peculiar charm to Project ALF.

Project: ALF (1996)

Picking up where the series left off, Gordon Shumway (a.k.a. ALF) has been picked up by the US Alien Task Force. Several months of testing have gone by, and a military panel is convoked to decide the furry alien’s ultimate fate.

Retro Review: Project ALF (1996)
Your honor, we believe it is in the best interest of science to torture the high holy hell of the defendant.

Col. Milfoil (Martin Sheen) wants to eradicate ALF, while two military researchers, Melissa and Rick (Jensen Daggett, William O’Leary) want to set him free. When Milfoil sets up a secret plot to kill ALF before the verdict, Rick and Melissa must smuggle him off the base and get him to a friendly location.

The Meter’s Running.

One very noticeable flaw for Project ALF is that it seems utterly unconcerned about its pace or runtime. The first five minutes is spent just watching a convoy of military vehicles ramble through the night. No voice-over getting us up to speed (which would be nice, as six years have passed for the audience), no montages, no nothing.

There’s lots of driving sequences in this movie, for some weird reason. It’s not like ALF goes anywhere or gets to see anything cool to make up for his entire earthly existence consisting of hiding from humanity. It’s just long sequences of medium distance shots without any jokes or story development. The film wastes time in other ways, particularly by beating the hell out of the same jokes over and over.

No. Yeah. Just go ahead and take all the time in the world.

Oy, Vey!

I guess I should have picked up on the inspiration for ALF’s brand of comedy when they revealed his name is “Gordon Shumway”. It might as well have been Don Rickles. The first comedy bit we get is ALF being interrogated by various scientists, each time using his dry humor to insult them and foil their line of questions. The jokes feature the plausibly deniable bawdy innuendo found in lots of Jewish Borscht Belt comedians, often about the popular topics of that genre: food (and indigestion), sex (and indigestion), and being perennially ignored… probably due to all the indigestion. Which is to say, it’s not exactly family friendly.

Retro Review: Project ALF (1996)
So the food is real bad…and there’s not enough of it. Fascinating.

Get Your Act Together.

The humor is all over the place. There are some weirdly topical bits (the O.J. Simpson trial, pop culture, politics) which are frequently deployed crudely. Yeah, ALF negging career sitcom comedian Beverly Archer with a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” joke has not aged well.

While ALF’s TV shtick was to be a jaded cynic who cares more about food than idealism, movie ALF skews way more adult oriented. There’s lots of squicky bits. ALF hits on an assistant relentlessly, playing on her foreign accent to sexualize and infantalize her. There’s a bit in a strip club where I basically white-knuckled the whole scene waiting for them to use the word pussy (it’s the Kitty Cat club, so ALF is looking for cats to eat…and well, the writer’s obviously delight in holding a certain idiom over your head for about fifteen minutes.)

Retro Review: Project ALF (1996)

Luckily, there are some really deft bits. Not all of the pop culture references are bad; I like when ALF slams Bill Cosby for shilling Jell-O. It also helps that the supporting cast is a who’s who of sitcom comedians.

OK. Inserting “the Pepsi challenge” into the interrogation was priceless.

Late Night Sitcom Round Up.

The main cast is pretty good. Martin Sheen leans into his role by playing it deadly serious, despite his character being one neurosis away from being in STRIPES. TV veteran Miguel Ferrer takes the same tact, and winds up feeling like the role that was over-cast despite Martin Sheen being in this film. O’Leary and Daggett are fine, and have nice chemistry that the film doesn’t ruin by being coy.

Retro Review: Project ALF (1996)
Yeah. We were only one year away from Martin making Spawn, so the 90’s were weird for the Sheen family.

The real standouts, if you were hoping that Project ALF was going to be funny, is all of the late night sitcom star power. In just the interrogation bit, you get Ed Begley Jr.(Arrested Development, a ton of Disney TV movies), Beverly Archer (Mama’s Family), Charles Robinson (Night Court), and more. Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian) has an extended cameo, though he’s pretty under utilized. The quality of straight men that ALF gets to bounce his jokes off of really help the jokes land.

Out of This World?

Project ALF is an odd duck. As the long overdue capstone to the franchise, it’s a dud. It jettisons the original family with a hand-wave, and indulges all of the series’ more adult impulses. For a franchise started by a family sitcom and followed by two cartoons, the adult impulses are probably not what made ALF a household name.

The jokes are hit and miss. The plot lags around before dropping us off right back where we started: ALF property of the US military, just with nicer title than “test subject 1.” For some reason, maybe because it was so nakedly the movie that the creators wanted to make, fans be damned, Project ALF has a weird charm. It’s not a proper send-off for the character, plot wise, but it feels like the send-off ALF would have written for himself.

I rest my case.

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