The poets, spiritualists and sages have been telling us ever since the last big war that modern American life is increasingly filled with too many choices. True enough. Still, who would have guessed that, in 1995, so many would have to do with unpleasant bodily secretions?
"Mr. Payback: An Interactive Movie," now playing on three Southern California screens, operates--sorry, inter- operates--on the maxim that kids should be able to choose their own gross-out moments in a motion picture by noisy group consensus.
In one typical interactive moment early into one of the movie's possible threads, the voting audience is given the choice of which kind of shoeshine a villain should receive: "mucus," "saliva" or "a loogie."
The corollary to this maxim is that having made dozens of such potentially regretful, Sophie-like choices, the kids will feel compelled to come back for repeat business and exhaust all possible alternatives: Two roads diverged in the middle of my life -- and I picked "vomit . " Next time, the projectile less taken .
Based on this initial, er, lob, claims of the birth of an art form appear vastly premature . . . though there is enough infectious novelty in these un-Goldbergian variations that even grown-ups--at least those with a bout of joystick-inflicted carpal tunnel syndrome somewhere in their past--may feel compelled to sit through repeat showings of the 20-minute-or-so picture against better judgment.
(For the record, your reviewer made it through six sittings of "Mr. Payback" over a three-hour period before all those loogies claimed their dehydrating psychic toll.)
Theaters exhibiting "Mr. Payback" are specially equipped with sophisticated laser-disc setups in the projection booth and what look like joysticks firmly planted in the seat-side holes formerly used as cup holders.
Each "grip" has three colored buttons that light up--cuing viewers to vote furiously--each time a color-coded choice appears on screen. The alternatives come up every minute and a half on average, letting the crowd vote on options that typically have to do with a politically incorrect villain's humiliating comeuppance.
Voting tallies appear on screen as they happen, encouraging one's theater-mates to loudly lobby in favor of their choices. Such hollering is heartily encouraged, as a spoken introduction to the film requests viewers to "feel free to whisper, talk, yell, scream and generally behave as if you were raised in a barn." (As if contemporary multiplex audiences didn't take that as a given.)
The general effect, then, is like a high-quality CD-ROM game, albeit one where you're fighting with 50 or so other people at any given time for the mouse.
"Mr. Payback" has three main story lines to choose from, and nearly countless narrative possibilities within those, although the bad guys (and gals) always get theirs in a mock game-show torment at the climax.
The title hero is a youngish, quip-happy cyborg--a sort of Robocop reincarnated as Emilio Estevez--played by former soap star Billy Warlock. (His comely "hacker-helpmate, Gwen," played by Holly Fields, is the only other constant character.) Mr. Payback's mission in virtual life is to help out virtuous souls in need who seek him out on the Internet, and then collect compensatory and punitive damages from the nasties who have done them wrong.
In one thread, Christopher Lloyd plays a Southern-accented corporate meanie who's unjustly fired a black fellow he snootily refers to as "your Af-ri-can Ah-mer-i-cahn friend." One of Lloyd's pay-backs, inevitably, is being made to dress up in blackface as well as a French maid's outfit.
The other two story lines' villains are an equally racist city politician who has victimized a Latino man, and the headmistress of a girls' college involved in sexually harassing her charges. (Choose the latter path and a subtitle informs you that most audiences also pick that option first "just because she said the word sex .")
Audiences who score enough points by solving mysteries and besting bad guys in creative ways earn a bonus scene at the end--in which Mr. Payback and his assistant, Gwen, celebrate by going to the movies--where they end up wreaking sweet vengeance on a pair of nattering teen-agers in the row ahead who won't shut up.
The irony is delicious and perversely intentional: An audience of real-life kids screaming over the most satisfying way to silence a couple of chattering on-screen kids. (Industrial-strength cyborg flatulence wins out in every instance we witnessed.)
Given the choice between experiencing this with a crowd of teens yelling their lungs out or in relative peace (we tried both), see it with the hooligans. Once you actually get to hear the dialogue, you'll probably find you liked it better as a primal-scream session.
The punch lines are very nearly universally witless--surprising, given that "Mr. Payback's" creator is Bob Gale, who, with former partner Robert Zemeckis, co-wrote some of the better comedies of the late 1970s and '80s. The majority of the cleverness has gone into the interactive schemata, with little left over for the detailing therein.
One might pine old-fashionedly for filmmakers choosing the presumed lowest common denominator themselves in a lonely editing room, as opposed to letting mob rule pick among three proffered lowest. Though touted as "the best of video games meeting the best of movies," this represents pretty much the worst that movies have to offer crossed with a mid-level gamesmanship.
Still, as a pioneering curio with some guilty pleasure to it, "Mr. Payback" at least beats-- you pick--(a) group Pong, (b) "Heavyweights" or (c) a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
* MPAA-rating: PG-13, for "an optional range of crude humor and sexual innuendo." Times guidelines: Aimed primarily at 12-year-olds whose parents aren't strict on matters of bad language and flatulence.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
'Mr. Payback: An Interactive Movie'
Billy Warlock: Mr. Payback
Holly Fields: Gwen
Christopher Lloyd: Ed Jarvis
Leslie Easterbrook: Diane Wyatt
An Interfilm presentation. Director-writer Bob Gale. Producer Jeremiah Samuels. Cinematographer Denis Maloney. Editor Ian Kelly. Music Michael Tavera. Special effects Michael Lantieri, Don Elliott. Running time: variable, but approximately 20-22 minutes per show.
* In limited release in Southern California.