Friday February 20, 1998
"Senseless" is a terrific showcase for Marlon Wayans, a master at mugging and physical comedy. But it's lots more than that. It's a laff riot that also contains a torrent of scathing social satire that couldn't be more timely in light of the dismantling of affirmative action.
That its defiantly optimistic and determined African American hero never asks for any special breaks only serves to underline just how tough it can be for an impoverished minority young person to get a college education these days. Even though it's a flat-out comedy, "Senseless" sends a message by not resorting to comic exaggeration; it tells it like it is.
Greg Erb and Craig Mazin, who made their screen debut with "Rocket Man," have written a knowing, razor-sharp script. It's perfect for director Penelope Spheeris ("Wayne's World") who puts it across with her usual punch along with her career-long concern for young people making their way in contemporary American society. Smart, sassy, fast and raunchy, "Senseless" can be enjoyed as merely lively entertainment or taken more seriously.
The great thing about Wayans' irrepressible Darryl Witherspoon is that he never feels sorry for himself. An economics major at a university somewhere in the vicinity of Manhattan--in reality, it's mostly USC--he is determined to make it to Wall Street. He's got four jobs as he's trying to make it through school while helping support his mother (Esther Scott) and four younger siblings. But for all his dogged optimism, he's having an increasingly hard time making ends meet.
So when an intense university neurophysiologist (Brad Dourif) starts recruiting human guinea pigs to test a certain green phosphorescent liquid with potentially off-putting side effects, Darryl is the only applicant not scared away. For the $3,000 he's to receive, he tells the professor, he'd allow himself to be infected with the Ebola virus.
The elixir's purpose is to heighten the five senses to a degree that defies comprehension. Until he adjusts to his new state he can be driven nearly crazy by the most everyday sounds, for example. But soon he's a kind of swift-thinking superman, which soon lands him as a front-runner for a $60,000-a-year job as a junior analyst at a Wall Street firm whose canny CEO is played amusingly by Rip Torn. Darryl's chief nemesis is a world-class snob and put-down artist (David Spade), whose father is a banker. Spade's hilarious Scott Thorpe really isn't a racist. He's just the most ruthless competitor you could possibly imagine.
You just know, of course, that there are going to be temptations and consequences for Darryl in taking that magic medicine, but the way "Senseless" works its way out is unflaggingly inspired. So much of what Darryl so undauntedly has to go through on such a far-from-level playing field is so humiliating you have to laugh at it, for the alternative would just be too grim. How would you like to go through the most crucial interview of your life forced by incredible circumstance to wear a urine-stained pimp suit? "Senseless" toys very effectively with slapstick near-tragedy.
Along with its satire "Senseless" doesn't stint on gross-out humor, but you do wish a gratuitous slur directed at Koreans hadn't made the release cut. Not only do Erb and Mazin seem to have the workings of Wall Street down pat but also the arcane lore of body piercing (which results in a very funny throwaway line); as it happens, Darryl's roommate is a sweet but loopy hockey player (Matthew Lillard) who's deep into body piercing. Lillard's a hoot, and Tamara Taylor is lovely and poised as the classy young lady Darryl pursues.
Production designer Peter Jamison and his associates contribute strongly with a series of settings that span a wide socioeconomic range in telling yet low-key detail, just as Yello's dynamic score heightens the film's nonstop energy. Cinematographer Daryn Okada melds L.A. and Eastern locales with skill. "Senseless" makes lots of sense.
Senseless, 1998. R, for language and sexual content. A Dimension Films presentation of a Mandeville Films--Gold/Miller production. Director Penelope Spheeris. Producer David Hoberman. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Cary Granat. Screenplay by Greg Erb & Craig Mazin. Cinematographer Daryn Okada. Editor Ross Albert. Costumes Betsy Cox. Music by Yello. Musical supervisor Stephen E. Smith. Production designer Peter Jamison. Art director Ann Harris. Set designer R. Scott Hebertson. Set decorator Linda Spheeris. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. Marlon Wayans as Darryl Witherspoon. David Spade as Scott Thorpe. Matthew Lillard as Tim LaFlour. Rip Torn as Randall Tyson. Tamara Taylor as Janice. Brad Dourif as Dr. Wheedon.