My Favorite Martian

Andrew O'Hehir reviews 'My Favorite Martian'

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published February 12, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

On a relative scale of movies adapted from beloved baby-boom TV sitcoms, "My Favorite Martian" ranks somewhere below the witty surrealism of "The Brady Bunch Movie" (still the undisputed champion of the genre) but well above, say, the Tom Arnold vehicle "McHale's Navy" or Penelope Spheeris' unwatchable "The Beverly Hillbillies." What we have here is a highly agreeable cast goofing around within the familiar parameters of the alien-lost-on-Earth story, to absolutely no purpose except killing time. There are gags your 8-year-old nephew will enjoy, gags your 80-year-old great-aunt will enjoy and nary a one to make either of them blush (although the little girl sitting next to me was grossed out by a sloppy, Martian-style French kiss). Even the most dour of grown-ups -- if I am any indication -- will eventually relax into the pointless silliness and just giggle along. If ever a movie was made with air travel in mind, this is it.

You've already absorbed this plot by a sort of cultural osmosis, even if you've never seen the original show and haven't been to a movie since, I don't know, "The 400 Blows." Jeff Daniels plays TV news producer Tim O'Hara (Bill Bixby's role on TV) as his usual lunkheaded frat boy with a heart of gold, hapless host to a Martian who has crash-landed on the Santa Barbara beach. Although the alien invader is actually a red, tentacled, bug-eyed creature straight out of "War of the Worlds," it can chew magic gumballs that allow it to take human form, usually as the laconic Christopher Lloyd, complete with the rabbit-ear antennae sported by Ray Walston in the 1963-66 series. "Quaint, aren't they?" he cracks, arching an eyebrow in his best Uncle Fester fashion. "These days, most of our young are born cable-ready." Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver's tepid script benefits immeasurably from Lloyd's ability to make even the most aimless jokes seem dryly amusing.

Tim has the puppy-dog hots for Brace Channing (Elizabeth Hurley), a vain and bitchy talking head on his TV station and daughter of the forbidding boss (Michael Lerner). But Tim's newly arrived "Uncle Martin," with his Red Planet psychic abilities, knows what we figured out from the beginning -- the misguided lad really belongs with Lizzie, a station technician who's almost believably played by Daryl Hannah as the gawky, jeans-and-T-shirt type. As romantic-comedy mix-ups go, this ain't exactly "A Midsummer Night's Dream." But everybody goes through the familiar dance steps cheerfully enough, and Hurley deserves full marks for making extensive sport out of her own image as a greedy, airheaded spokesbabe. Clad in a procession of too-sexy-for-Milan designer dresses, Brace hatches dim schemes to turn Martin's arrival into her journalistic scoop, purring into the ear of an evil government scientist (Wallace Shawn), "You'll be on the cover of Scientific Whatever."

Hurley is even the center of the dopiest yet most effective set piece in "My Favorite Martian," when Brace -- or, actually, Martin impersonating Brace -- goes on the air and abruptly begins to turn into a Martian. While she growls, writhes and sprouts tentacles, Tim must dive under the news desk to hunt for Martin's magic gum among all the colored wads. It's strictly a second-grade routine, but director Donald Petrie (best known, if at all, for "Grumpy Old Men") and his cast seem to understand that any dumb joke gets a lot funnier if it's played with absolute, stone-faced commitment.

With Shawn and Walston, TV's original Uncle Martin (you get exactly one guess what his character's back story turns out to be), right behind them in sinister black vehicles, Tim and his alien visitor race to defeat Brace and repair Martin's spaceship, allowing for breaks so Martin can discover the joys of ice cream and make-out sessions with the horny landlady (Christine Ebersole). Fifty years from now, I'm afraid that all movies about aliens coming to Earth will still default into "E.T." knockoffs two-thirds of the way through, when they run out of other ideas. Martin doesn't make bicycles fly, but he does miniaturize Tim's vintage Plymouth Valiant, allowing it to careen through the sewer system in a memorable chase scene with an exploding-bathroom conclusion that will have the preadolescents on the floor. I couldn't help imagining a story meeting where some Disney executive used the phrase, "Honey, I shrunk the alien."

I was kind of hoping to get out of this without mentioning that Uncle Martin has a hyperactive, talking silver space suit, named Zoot, who cracks wise about Earthling pop culture, drinks Tide and lounges in the washing machine. Although Zoot's scenes are thankfully few, the presence of this tedious "let's write a voice-over role for Robin Williams" gimmick is the principal factor dragging "My Favorite Martian" downward from passable entertainment toward borderline pain in the ass. To add insult to injury, Williams doesn't even read the part, although he was originally supposed to; the uncredited gabbling here sounds to me like it belongs to Wayne Knight ("Seinfeld's" Newman).

Between Hurley's high-camp performance, the vague but appealing sweetness of Hannah and the implacable aplomb with which Lloyd swigs the contents of Tim's lava lamp, Petrie has nearly enough movie to take us to his modest climax, in which Tim, Lizzie, Zoot and friends summon up a friendly computer-graphics monster that might scare audience members too young for "Ghostbusters." Ultimately, what saves "My Favorite Martian" is its total and unapologetic irrelevance. Unlike so many Hollywood movies -- and so much of public discourse in general -- it offers no specious morality or family-values ideology, no historical metaphors, no tiresome lectures about tolerance, no nothing. "Even a substandard species like yours has feelings," Martin counsels Tim. "Just stop for one millisecond and look into your heart." OK, but just one millisecond -- any more would be too long. It's almost time to bring your seat backs into the locked and upright position and stow your tray tables.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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