Making fantasy or whimsy ignite on screen often requires a certain wild dreaminess, and that's exactly what "Drop Dead Fred" (selected theaters) doesn't have. It's a comedy about the child-in-us where the creators never seem to release the child in themselves. Deep down, they have an explanation for everything, even the inexplicable.
The story idea--a distraught young woman recovering the "imaginary friend" of her childhood, who runs amok and creates endless chaos--has great possibilities. But the entire movie seems made with the brakes on.
It's an intelligent film, and some of its comedy ideas--Fred whipping off a waiter's toga, an impromptu hoedown among half a dozen invisible friends in a waiting room--work well enough, but that "intelligence" may be its problem.
As played by girlish Phoebe Cates, who likes to keep her mouth open, the movie's Elizabeth is a born victim who needs to revolt, and her imaginary Fred, "The Young Ones' " Rik Mayall, is a carrot-haired, tackily clad British punk whose appearance sometimes suggests the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten.
When Elizabeth was 6 or 7, Fred was the "bad invisible buddy" she blamed when anything went wrong. Now, he's a nasty prankster with an India Rubber face, flicking his nose, screeching out nasal insults, forever forcing Elizabeth into ridiculous or destructive messes. Supposedly, he's shown up to bring happiness back to her life after her philandering husband Charles (Tim Matheson) leaves, she loses her job and her bossy mother (Marsha Mason) pulls her back into a stifling suburban nest. Actually, he seems more a nemesis. (In the movie, Elizabeth's father is British too, which makes Fred a sort of punk paterfamilias.)
There's something strange about the structure of "Drop Dead Fred." If Fred is there, even ineptly, to get Elizabeth back with yuppie rotter Charles, why do they and the movie ignore him so long? Writers Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton may be too intent on Fred as recuperative catalyst. At the end, they write a fantasy sequence in which he all but turns Freudian guide, escorting Elizabeth through her smothering past and releasing her from the prisons of her mind.
"Drop Dead Fred" seems based on a pop-psychological notion that all your problems can be traced to repression by parents: a notion largely popular among upper-middle-class kids who can afford psychiatrists. But Fingleton and Davis don't treat Elizabeth with any irony, and though Phoebe Cates puts comic style into her performance, particularly when she's flinging herself around in an Italian restaurant, she can't really animate Lizzie.
And, though "Drop Dead Fred's" Dutch director, Ate De Jong, also made the excellent "A Flight of Rainbirds"--which had a similar theme, a 34-year-old virgin, released by fantasies from the domination of his mother--he can't seem to connect with this material. There's no life, no torrent of whimsical invention. The visual style seems too grainy and restrained and the cast never really takes off. Matheson looks dry and enervated, Mason is a one-note harridan, Mayall an unrelenting cut-up and Carrie Fisher, typecast as a glib quipster, seems bent on dashing in and out as fast as possible.
The trailers suggest an attempt to ape Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice," a movie that had a mad, improvisatory feel, a loosey-goosey cartoonish frenzy. But this movie, for all its bright moments, misses that one's manic inventiveness by a mile. "Drop Dead Fred" (rated PG-13 for language) is an erratic stab at making madness sensible, a slapstick nightmare that goes too sane, that tries too hard to be both good and rotten.
'Drop Dead Fred'
Phoebe Cates: Elizabeth
Rik Mayall: Fred
Tim Matheson: Charles
Marsha Mason: Polly
Carrie Fisher: Janie
A New Line Cinema presentation of a Polygram and Working Title film. Director Ate De Jong. Producer Paul Webster. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Carlos Davis, Anthony Fingleton. Screenplay Davis, Fingleton. Cinematographer Peter Deming. Editor Marshall Harvey. Costumes Carol Wood. Music Randy Edelman. Production design Joseph T. Garrity. Art director Randall Schmook. Set decorator Colin Tingwell. With Tim Matheson. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (language.)