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Entries in Nothing But Trouble [1991] (1)

Tuesday
Jan252011

Nothing But Trouble (1991) Home Video Review

House of 1,000 Cutups

It’s no wonder the $40 million comedy Nothing But Trouble flopped in 1991, grossing all of $8 million:  This is one of those rare films that can only be appreciated twenty years after release. While not quite ahead of its time, I’m sure writer/director/star Dan Aykroyd’s crazy vision works better today than it did before its weirdness was given proper pop-cultural context.

That’s one hell of a confusing opening thesis, and I’ll attempt to make sense of it by the time this review’s over (forgive me for fumbling around; I’m still scooping up the fragments of my blown mind).

The movie stars Chevy Chase as Chris Thorne, a well-to-do financial publisher who takes a liking to distressed attorney Diane Lightston (Demi Moore) at a cocktail party.  Diane is furious at her boyfriend, whom she learns is preparing to swindle her out of an investment deal the next morning.  Chris offers the services of his BMW so that Diane can confront her boyfriend in Atlantic City; she accepts, and the two of them venture out of the city—but not before picking up a couple of bored Brazilian socialite siblings named Fausto and Renalda Squiriniszu (Taylor Negron and Bertila Damas, respectively).

Believe me when I say it was a struggle to not turn off this precious mid-career Chevy Chase movie in the first ten minutes.  Toss in Moore playing kooky (about as convincing as Barbara Walters doing slapstick) and Negron and Damas’ “wacky” Perfect Strangers accents, and I can only ascribe my resilience to a bone-deep refusal to cut short any movie that I start.

At about the eleven-minute mark, after the eerie fourth shot of the World Trade Center, Nothing But Trouble takes a bizarre turn.  Our four yuppie heroes run a stop sign outside the obscure New York hamlet of Valkenvania, and initiate a high-speed chase with a cop.  They figure their expensive German bullet can outrun any yokel squad car, but this particular pursuer is equipped with buttons that remotely control special roadblocks—which Chris and the gang narrowly avoid at 100 miles per hour.  On finally pulling over, they meet officer Dennis Valkenheiser (John Candy), who escorts them to what they assume will be the local courthouse.

As they wind their way into Valkenvania, it becomes apparent that the town is a combination junkyard and industrial boom hub trapped in another era. Valkenheiser brings the four detainees to an old mansion that serves as the residence, courtroom, and jail for Judge Alvin P. Valkenheiser (Aykroyd).  The Judge appears from behind a large bench covered in books and various pieces of evidence from old cases, and from the look on his rubbery, hundred-year-old face, it’s clear that he takes his job very seriously—and that he’s completely crazy.

Chris finds the whole situation ridiculous, and his big mouth lands the whole party in the estate’s dungeon overnight (which is accessible via strategically placed trap door).  From here on, Nothing But Trouble gets more and more bizarre, playing out as a cross between Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and The Addams Family.  Chris and Diane are split up from Fausto and Renalda (thank Christ), and find themselves crawling through piles of bones and severed dolls’ heads to escape the mansion—which, over several decades, has become a fortress of secret rooms, moving walls and conveyor belts that lead to a deadly roller coaster called The Bone Stripper (which is punishment for more serious offenders).

Later, we meet the Judge’s granddaughter, Eldona (Candy in drag), who, as you might expect, takes an interest in Chris.  She’s one of the film’s bigger surprises.  I rolled my eyes when she first appeared, reminded as I was of the unfunny ending of Candy’s Armed and Dangerous.  But over the course of the film, Eldona becomes a real character and not just an easy visual gag; partly, this is due to her inability to speak.  She squeaks in surprise and disappointment, but she sells everything with her face, and by the end, I’d fooled myself into thinking I was watching John Candy’s sister (if he’d had one).

For the most part, the comedic elements of Nothing But Trouble don’t work; which is a problem if you’re putting $40 million into a comedy (especially considering those are 1991 dollars).  Chase looks half-alive in most of his scenes, probably because he’d run his Charming Asshole routine into the ground fifteen years earlier on Saturday Night Live; and I was never convinced that his fondness of Moore’s character had anything more to do with getting into her pants (or, in this case, 90s designer ass-shorts).

Fortunately, the heroic leads are just funhouse car on which we journey through this weird world of ancient justice, family values, and hip-hop.  Yes, Humpty Hump and his crew show up as a band of rappers whose limo violates some traffic ordinance or other.  The Judge likes musicians, though, and he insists that they play something for him.  The result is a crazy courtroom rap rave that ends with The Judge letting everyone in the group go (including a young Tupac Shakur—no, I’m not kidding).

There’s a lot to love about Nothing But Trouble, but not if you’re looking for a straight-up comedy.  You watch this movie like you would a geek show, for the ungodly spectacle of two chubby mutants in unconvincing latex body suits; you watch it for the grotesque scene where The Judge removes his giant, penis-shaped nose to reveal a meaty, hollowed-out cavity and jagged teeth; you watch it for the crazy Project Mayhem/Twilight Zone climax, where Chris and Diane seek protection from the wrong group of people.

Mostly, though, you watch this movie for the production design.  That’s not something you put on the poster, I know, but Nothing But Trouble is a triumph of battered, aged décor and maniacal contraptions that grow stranger and stranger with every scene.  Imagine a Disneyworld ride based on both the Saw franchise and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and you’ll get the idea.  I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the budget went into creating Valkenvania; in my opinion, it was money well spent.

Getting back to the idea that Nothing But Trouble can only be properly viewed (and reviewed) today, I’d like to add the caveat that this is not a film for passive audiences.  Your enjoyment of it depends entirely on what you bring to the screening.  If you’re a pop junkie, you’ll likely have a blast pinpointing at what point each actor was in their careers when they signed up for this fiasco—and that its failure did to those life paths.  You may also debate the likelihood that Rob Zombie saw this movie before he made House of 1,000 Corpses.  Or you might just spend the entire movie tickled at the early-90s version of an in-car GPS, powered by region-specific map cartridges.

It’s a shame that this movie didn’t come out today.  With different leads, it could have marked Dan Aykroyd’s ascendancy as an absurdist-comedy auteur, instead of being the first and last feature he ever directed.  It’s definitely the most original comedy I’ve seen in a long time; and the fact that it didn’t make me laugh is completely beside the point.  It made me marvel and wonder, which, I think, can have the same consciousness-expanding effect on the brain as any old chuckle.  To paraphrase Richard Dreyfuss in Stand By Me, Nothing But Trouble may have been an utter failure of a movie, but only if you’re talking in terms of money.

Note: Special thanks to Gari for giving me Nothing But Trouble as a Christmas present.  I was skeptical at first; but having now watched it, I can see why she thought I needed to see this movie.