Sometimes a movie's central notion seems so clever, or strikes such a resonant popular chord, that any thinness or sloppiness beyond it doesn't much matter.
But there are some premises that absolutely aren't going to work--no matter how much intelligence, talent or craft the film makers bring to them. And Marshall Brickman may have stumbled onto such a premise in "The Manhattan Project" (citywide).
It's about a brilliant Ithaca teen-ager, Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet), who decides to build his own atomic bomb for a high school science fair. Opportunely, his mother, Elizabeth (Jill Eikenberry), is dating the laser-eyed, burningly enthusiastic John Mathewson (John Lithgow), research engineer at a local secret atomic lab.
His mother's love life enables Paul to filch some superpurified plutonium. He swipes Mathewson's access card, breaks into the lab and dodges the security on a stormy night. (It seems only slightly more taxing a prank than breaking into the high school gym and rifling the trophy case.) Immediately, his contraption triggers a major manhunt and brings most of the Northeastern United States close to annihilation.
Just as immediately, you see some touchy problems. For one thing, how do you make this unlikely burst of genius plausible? For another, how do you make a character who wants to build an atomic bomb--for whatever reason --sympathetic? And how do you make the people trying to frustrate him into villains? Who are you likelier to root for: a guy running around your backyard with an A-bomb or the people trying to stop him?
How does the story resolve itself? What's it about? Unreasonable government secrecy? Good old Yankee ingenuity? High-tech teens against the crusty-musty Establishment? The terrifying worldwide proliferation of atomic weapons? Superkid and the world's biggest phallic symbol? Oedipal problems in the nuclear family?
What we get, actually, is "WarGames" warmed over.
Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" with Woody Allen, is an amusing writer and director--though without Allen (especially in "Lovesick"), he's seemed sappier and more slickly complacent. There are a variety of approaches he could have taken here--the one that might have worked best is the daffy, black, anything-goes farce with serious undercurrents. Here Brickman is trying for plausibility, human interest and social preachments. He's probably set himself an insoluble problem, one that neither he nor a skilled creative team nor a good cast--including Lithgow, Collet, Eikenberry and Cynthia Nixon (as Paul's girlfriend Jenny)--could have cracked.
Paul's motivations are vague enough. Is he bomb-manufacturing for the challenge, "because it's there"? Or to help Jenny with a Rolling Stone-style expose? The sheer ease of his atomic breakthrough--made in a garage, in between schoolwork and home life--is flabbergasting. Genius has its own infinite forms, and Brickman and Collet are trying to show the "regular guy" variety--Kid Galileo. Paul makes the bomb in between stints as goalie on the soccer team, but he's never shown more portentous signs of genius than the meticulous way he spoons Ovaltine into his mother's cup.
You might also suggest, kindly, that anyone this ingenious might ponder briefly the inevitable consequences of stealing government plutonium (even from this "secret lab" with its puzzling one-guard security force). Or think twice about leaving the bomb in his car trunk in Manhattan, while checking into a local hotel and leisurely taking in the sights.
Perhaps Brickman just isn't making the movie he wants to make. Apparently, his original inspiration was the actual Manhattan Project, that "last burst of real innocence" before the age of nuclear anxiety. It might have been a fascinating film, probably far superior to this one--supposedly, the high cost these days of period re-creations doomed it. But there's also an element of cynicism. The Manhattan Project, after all, was accomplished by adults. Here we have something snappier: teens with bombs; Dr. Strangelove at the Breakfast Club.
Marshall's nuclear Brickmanship may fail, but his old flair for quips--along with John Lithgow and the film's composer Philippe Sarde--occasionally saves him. Lithgow gets another of his specialties--a slightly goofy, off-center character, shot through with uncanny believability. At the climax, he's the only man in the room who actually looks like he's afraid a bomb is about to explode. (Perhaps he has good reason.)
Brickman earns a bronze star for some of the dialogue--like Mathewson's frantic warning to Paul: "These guys are tough. You get funny with them and they'll lock you in a room and throw away the room." A few dozen more cracks like that, and you might have been able to swallow the whole movie.