Movie Reviews : ‘Coneheads’: 1-Note Joke With Legs
Family values have rarely looked better than they do in “Coneheads” (citywide).
Beldar (Dan Aykroyd), wife Prymaat (Jane Curtin) and 16-year-old daughter Connie (Michelle Burke) are probably the most normal and upstanding characters in the movies right now. Sure, Beldar was sent on a mission to conquer Earth, but that was then and this is now. After a detour to the suburban haven of Paramus, N.J., Beldar and Prymaat have settled into manicured-lawn Americana and raised their daughter with tender loving care. They may not have green cards but Beldar works hard running his Meepzor Precision Discount Driving School and Prymaat scours the supermarkets to keep the family stocked with mass quantities.
The first of 11 Conehead sketches showed up on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976. (Laraine Newman, who is given a cameo in “Coneheads,” played Connie.) If you thought those sketches were a one-note joke that couldn’t possibly transfer to a feature-length film, you’re only half-right. The joke is essentially one-note, but the filmmakers get a lot of music from the reverbs. Director Steve Barron and screenwriters Aykroyd, Tom Davis, Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner don’t trot out the Coneheads like relics from the Comedy Hall of Fame. What was funny about them in 1976 is still funny--it’s as if they had never gone away.
Beldar and Prymaat are as robotically contrapuntal as ever, their speech patterns as programmatic and flat-toned. (Connie, who grew up in suburbia, speaks and moves like a normal Earthling--it’s a parody of how first-generation children break away from their immigrant parents.) The fun in watching Beldar and Prymaat is that, for all their clipped movements and computerese, they’re incongruously, intensely human. Watching them, we have the same fun that we have when we try to discern the humanness of Mr. Spock and the other Vulcans on “Star Trek.”
Aykroyd and Curtin haven’t lost a whit of wit since they first played these roles. They go very deep into the nuttiness, but without camping it up or winking at the audience. What comes through in their performances is an improbable, almost romantic affection for their characters, and that affection sets the tone for the whole movie (rated PG for comic nudity and some double-entendre humor). It’s an unusually companionable jape; in this world it makes perfect sense that the Coneheads’ friends and neighbors never really register that there’s anything terribly different about them. They’re all-American eccentrics--even if they happen to come from the planet Remulak.
Aykroyd has always had a genius for playing obsessed characters locked in by their own loopy rigor; this is the quality that links all his best riffs, from his Vegematic salesman to his Tom Snyder and Richard Nixon. Beldar is so rigorous he’s (literally) otherworldly, but Aykroyd shows us his furtive, giggly side, his faint ache to be human. When he plays golf with his neighbor (Jason Alexander), he gets a secret thrill from his prowess; as the auto driving instructor to a desperately amorous woman (Jan Hooks), he’s blank to her advances but the flattery makes his eyes shine. (“There’s a sadness to your wisdom,” she tells him as she exits the car.) When Prymaat gets wind of her competition she gamely buys up every supermarket women’s magazine for advice on how to hold her man, and then Curtin has her finest moment. She shows us the love-struck Prymaat in a desperate full-out seduction scene that’s so crazily far-out it’s poignant. She even dons a wig for the occasion. (She looks much more beautiful without it.)
As Connie, Michelle Burke has a lovely presence: Her cone only seems to add to her beauty. It’s no surprise that her burbly suitor, Ronnie (Chris Farley), with his massive body tics and sweaty exasperations, falls for her in a big way. (He’s willing to fly back to Remulak with her.) Farley is such an amazing physical comic that every heave of his shoulders and snap of his neck seems to draw on an entire personal history.
Throughout “Coneheads” a steady parade of wildly gifted comics, mostly from “Saturday Night Live,” turn up for quick cameos. After awhile, you begin to wait eagerly for them--it’s like the boomer’s version of the star walk-ons in “Around the World in 80 Days.” Besides Hooks and Newman, the list includes Kevin Nealon, Adam Sandler, Phil Hartman, Dave Thomas, Sinbad, Julia Sweeney and Garrett Morris.
Michael McKean has an extended bit as an INS agent hell-bent on deporting the Coneheads--his Earthling’s obsessiveness is as robotic in its own way as Beldar’s--and David Spade, in a great turn, is his unctuous assistant. (He has a classic moment when, deported to Remulak, he suddenly recognizes a way to slime his way into the Highmaster’s good graces.) Jon Lovitz has the best moment of all, playing a dentist faced with the prospect of capping Beldar’s teeth--all three rows of them.
“Coneheads” doesn’t always make the most of its material. Some of it is a bit too family-entertainment squishy. (On TV, Beldar used to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes--all at once.) The Cone-speak exchanges between Beldar and Prymaat are marvelous concoctions--as marvelous in their own way as the newspeak Anthony Burgess invented for “A Clockwork Orange"--but there should be more of them. You can’t beat this film for demented heart-tugs though. When Prymaat looks at a big pile of cone-like eggplants in the supermarket and lets out a momentary shriek of horror, you know you’re watching nutbrain perfection.
Dan Aykroyd: Beldar
Jane Curtin: Prymaat
Michelle Burke: Connie
Chris Farley: Ronnie
A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Lorne Michaels production. Director Steve Barron. Producer Lorne Michaels. Executive producer Michael Rachmil. Screenplay by Tom Davis & Dan Aykroyd and Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner. Cinematographer Francis Kenny. Editor Paul Trejo. Costumes Marie France. Production design Gregg Fonseca. Art director Bruce Miller. Set decorator Jay R. Hart. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG (for comic nudity and double-entendre humor).