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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘HOWARD’ BOWS AS ONE LAME DUCK

Times Film Critic

Howard the Duck, the irascible, cigar-chomping hero of the late ‘70s Marvel Comics, arrives on screen today as the live-action movie star of “Howard the Duck"--under the wing of executive producer George Lucas and “American Graffiti” alumni Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, its director and producer, respectively.

But for all those who cottoned to the charm of the comic books, the duck stops here. As created by Steve Gerber and originally drawn by Val Mayerik, the comics’ Howard was a savvy, sassy bachelor duck, propelled by a cosmic accident from his comfy, all-duck planet to the flat grayness of Cleveland.

The movie’s initial delight, a spate of little ducky jokes like Howard’s Bloomingduck’s card or the unfolding friendship between Howard and the enchanting Lea Thompson who leads a Bangles-like band, is wiped out in an escalating series of car crashes and monster effects. Imagine a full-throttle mix of “The Blues Brothers”’ action and “The Exorcist’s” bile-spewing possession, and you’ll get a faint idea of Howard’s earthly habitat.

Howard himself is immaculately feathered, dressed in a dazzling array of little suits, little spangled sweatshirts or little bathrobes. He has a somewhat nattier wardrobe than Adolph Menjou, china-blue eyes that move nicely, a forehead that even seems to frown. He is, apparently, the work of no fewer than eight actor-mimes: Ed Gale, Chip Zien, Tim Rose, Steve Sleap, Peter Baird, Mary Wells, Lisa Sturz and Jordan Prentice, and the press kit, in an excess of cuteness, does not divulge which of these talents was his splendidly world-weary voice. But, in answer to the rude and crucial question, does Howard look like a midget in a duck suit, the answer has to be yes.

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The fun of “Howard the Duck” comes from his heavy-lidded view of the follies of our planet--or from our discovering the details of his. It’s what gave “Splash” its greatest currency. So the movie’s opening is the best part visually: ad agency copywriter Howard’s return to his Duckville apartment, his message machine calls (suggesting intimacy and aloneness in just the right cliched mix), the visual jokes around his place, the banality of a beer and nighttime TV. Then, inexplicably, he’s zapped into our cosmos by a malfunction of Jeffrey Jones’ massive space machine in Cleveland, city of light, city of (Industrial) magic. You can even be cheered that Huyck and Katz, who also wrote the screenplay, have sidestepped the malevolent-scientist bit and let Jones be sympathetic with and understanding of Howard’s predicament, especially since it was Jones’ machine that caused the problems. But Jones’ moments as Mr. Nice Scientist are numbered.

Somewhere near the movie’s midpoint, Jones becomes possessed by “one of the dark overlords” of another planet. As he begins to speak in “Exorcist” tongues and to hurl bolts of electricity from satanic curved fingernails, the frail little story falls in shards on the floor. (It wasn’t much to begin with, mostly the tangible warmth of the odd couple, Thompson and Howard; their attempt to send Howard home again, and the alliance between them and sorcerer’s apprentice-scientist Tim Robbins, a relatively thankless role.) Director Huyck and producer Katz now serve up a montage of almost every notable effects/car chase movie of the last decade--and beyond: certainly “The Exorcist” and “The Blues Brothers,” “Back to the Future,” “Sugarland Express,” “E.T.,” “Streets of Fire,” “Goonies,” “Ghostbusters” and “Alien,” singular and plural.

The actors are virtually obliterated in all this, although Jeffrey Jones, whose makeup call must have been 2 a.m., stays on top of his character as much as one can, and Thompson is an absolute beacon of warmth, common sense, intelligence and loveliness. Handy in a fight, Thompson sings too.

There is also a prolonged flight sequence, with Howard as pilot of a homemade three-wheeler/plane and Robbins as death-defying human ballast. It’s every one of your flying dreams made real: the soaring fun, the sickening drops before your psyche lets you be airborne again.

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Lucas’ redoubtable Industrial Light and Magic Co. was behind all this sturm und drang , so you can believe that it is the very top-of-the-line magic, but did this summer, or this year, or this decade, for that matter, need one more impeccably turned-out giant monster--tentacled, suction-cupped or chest-bursting? The sickening, rolling-over-and-over crash of this many more cars? One more threat of nuclear-powered meltdown?

The imagination of the opening is a hint of what the movie might have been: a view of our world that made kids consider it from another angle--as well as a spoof of the superhero. But what are all the pleasant duck effects in the face of any of this numbing waste? In this respect, the movie’s PG rating is a joke. And the movie itself is a pretty base canard.


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