Lord, just what is it about rock and roll that so befuddles filmmakers? Save for This Is Spinal Tap, there has never been a movie about the music business that got it right...or, for God's sakes, merely half-wrong. Too often, these films are made by people who seem to have never even owned a record, much less seen a movie. Watch only Grace of My Heart, That Thing You Do!, Bandwagon, Still Crazy, Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, The Five Heartbeats, and Sugar Town, then wonder in what world these filmmakers live. Surely not one that even gets MTV.
Somewhere buried deep within writer-director-star Donal Lardner Ward's The Suburbans is a kernel of a half-decent idea dying to escape: the story of a one-hit wonder band from the 1980s forced to reunite when, quite simply, its members run out of options in the real world. Throw in a little rampant 1980s pop nostalgia, and voila: The Knack is back. Or the Romantics. Or Haircut One Hundred. Or...jeez, the list is endless, as Rhino Records' reissue program reminds us every other week by parading out yet another Just Can't Get Enough new-wave retrospective. Obscurity, thy name is Sharona.
But The Suburbans makes VH1's Behind the Music look like the stuff of gritty documentary -- rock and roll's Scared Straight. Ward is so utterly incompetent (is he reading from cue cards?), he can't tell the simplest joke; worse, he's screwed from the get-go, trying to fictionalize a story that unfolds every day on a stage near you. (Missing Persons at the Orbit Room, anyone?) How in hell does someone make a movie about aging rockers getting back together for one last gasp and manage not to find a single laugh in the obvious-joke pile? Then again, anyone who casts Saturday Night Live's dead-eyed genius Will Ferrell, then gives him a total of 13 lines consisting of 24 words, probably never laughed a day in his life. The Suburbans is so utterly awful, you're tempted to build a time machine, then go back in history and try to make sure Ward's parents never meet.
Directed by Donal Lardner Ward
Written by Ward and Tony Guma
Starring Ward, Guma, Craig Bierko, Will Ferrell, Amy Brenneman, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ben Stiller, and Jerry Stiller
Opens October 29
Given how out-of-date the press kit is ("Will Ferrell can currently be seen on the big screen starring as Steve Butabi in the Paramount comedy, A Night at the Roxbury"), it's safe to say TriStar has been sitting on The Suburbans a good while. Too bad the company didn't suffocate it while it slept. The premise is so familiar, it's stultifying: In 1981, The Suburbans -- Danny (Ward), Rory (Tony Guma, the film's co-writer), Mitch (Craig Bierko, who never appears without heavy eyeliner), and Gil (Ferrell) -- scored "one pathetic little hit" with a song titled "By My Side." Never mind that the song would have never actually been a hit in 1981 (imagine if The Shoes or 20/20 had been famous); these young high school lads actually got on American Bandstand, "footage" from which opens the film, complete with Dick Clark cameo.
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Seventeen years later, the foursome reunite at Gil's wedding. Of course, a record exec (Party of Five's Jennifer Love Hewitt) just happens to be present at the ceremony and decides the world needs The Suburbans one...more...time. She envisions world domination through touring, merchandising, a tribute album, and a pay-per-view special. Apparently, this movie takes place in an alternate universe.
All this doesn't sit well with Danny's photojournalist girlfriend of 15 years, Grace (Amy Brenneman), who wants to finally settle down and raise a family -- though why she'd want to do it with the sexually obtuse Danny is beyond comprehension. She knows what we know: that there's nothing more pathetic than a band trying to squeeze one last drop out of a withered rind ("it's sad, pathetic, and ridiculous"). The only reason she sticks around is that Ward paid her to; there's simply nothing more depressing than watching a talented actress slum it with a movie's writer-director-star, who apparently only makes movies so he can kiss attractive women who would otherwise never give him the time of day. (Ward also gets a make-out scene with Hewitt...no, really?)
Brenneman's not the only actor wasted: Robert Loggia shows up for 45 seconds, uttering guttural sounds. Ben and Jerry Stiller make prolonged cameos as record-label execs too busy making speed-freak chitchat to notice how utterly bad an idea a Suburbans reunion really is. They're parodies of parodies of parodies, with Jerry reduced to puffing on an enormous, sloppy joint while Ben speaks in nonstop nonsense (he utters something about putting peanut butter on a guy's dick and shoving it up his grandmother's ass...hmm). MTV's Kurt Loder also appears, but that's a given in any movie about a rock band; Loder, turns out, is French for whore.
The film runs 88 minutes and actually feels as though it were filmed in real time. Whole scenes appear to have been made up on the spot, and the film doesn't end so much as it just stops, as though Ward just ran out of stock. By the time you get to the punch line -- Flock of Seagulls take The Suburbans' place on the televised comeback special (trust me, you won't be in the theater by the time it comes to this) -- you just wonder what in the world possesses some people to write a script, raise money, and make a movie. Oh, yeah. So they can make out with pretty girls.