by Jack Sommersby
One of those little-seen movies that the studio had absolutely no confidence in and dumped onto the market with a very limited release, grossing only an appalling $169,203.The phrase "puts a smile on your face" isn't the easiest thing in the world to explain when this is the reaction you get from a low-brow comedy that affects you so, especially when the movie is no great shakes, doesn't try very hard, and overall isn't all that great. But experiencing dumb smiles isn't the worst thing in the world (it certainly isn't shameful), and when a cinematic endeavor elicits such things, ignoring its limited virtues just wouldn't seem right. In an unfortunate day and age when so many comedies stoop to odious, unfathomable depths for easy effects that can leave one frustrated and nauseous, it's kinda nice to know that The Experts, a Cold War comedy starring John Travolta, manages to please with its good-natured performances and jovial tone that are rather incorrigle and eventually win you over. Travolta plays Travis, a twentysomething New York City slacker who dreams of having his own nightclub; as it is, he's reduced to working the door at a pitiful backdoor club called "aka Dump" (as warned, the material is far from subtle). As if this isn't enough, his girlfriend has just left him -- being that he's a generally appealing person, we assume it's because she saw their financial future wasn't going to improve. Luckily, he has a great friend in fellow slacker Wendell (Arye Gross), who's managed to forgive him for blowing his father's money on a failed club; and Wendell doesn't have it much better -- he's working as a dishwasher without any better prospects on the horizon. But their nondescript, uneventful lives get a jumpstart when one Bob Smith (Charles Martin Smith), who's seen Travis pull a prank on a snotty yuppie trying to get into the club, gives them an irresistible proposition: come to a small town in Nebraska and manage a club Smith wants to open; salary will be a thousand dollars a week each, room and board provided, and their own set of wheels. Naturally, they're highly skeptical, but having nothing really better to do they accept and are flown in a private jet with Don Perignon and an awful lot of caviar for refreshments. The alcohol is spiked, though, and before they can dive into the Beluga they pass out and fall face-first into their mound of it. It turns out that Bob Smith is not Bob Smith, and the jet is not headed to Nebraska but Russia, where there's an isolated, secretly-built town that is supposed to represent America, where some Russians are born and bred and taught to act and live like Americans for educational purposes. And here's the catch: it's hopelessly outdated and stuck in the '50s -- the naive residents have no earthly idea what "heavy metal" and "CDs" and "yoga" and "Walkmans" are. That's where Travis and Wendell come in: they're "the experts" who are supposed to unknowingly educate the citizens on modern slang and practices and fads using the club as the base without knowing that they're Russians and the Russians not knowing they're Americans (they think they're Russians having been sent to test them).
"An Easygoing, Amiable John Travolta Comedy"
Yes, we have a fish-out-of-water tale here, but there's another level to it in that the Russians, who talk in dippy-dopey, 'aw-shucks slang, are out of their element as well -- it's a countercultural clash to the nth degree. With their Goth black clothing, longish hair, headphones glued to their ears, Travis and Wendell might as well be from another planet, which, considering the immense cultural chasm between these two generations, isn't too far from the truth. The town is right out of Mayberry R.F.D. with impossibly-clean sidewalks, retro exterior and interior decor, old men playing checkers on sidewalk benches, soda-fountain jerks who wear white-paper server hats, young women in long skirts and hat-head hairdos, a nonexistent nighttime social scene, and a dire absence of anything resembling a jibe or pulse in the air. (It's so clinically antiseptic, it borders on inhuman.) Naturally, Travis and Wendell are highly skeptical ("Where are the video stores? Why isn't anyone jogging?"), and they're nonplussed at the dilapidated building that's to serve as the club. Wendell wants to bail, thinking the whole thing is a joke and that no one will come to the club, anyway; but Travis encourages him to stay, and they remodel and interview the citizens for job positions, which reveals even more how culturally ignorant the town is, especially in regard to electronic products (as Wendell tells Smith, who's good-hearted and likes these guys, "The key to the American spirit is Japanese technology"). Suffice to say, the opening night of the club So So Ho doesn't go as our befuddled duo hope: old ladies bring cakes and pies, parents take their young children (which the sheriff doesn't mind as long as they save some pie for him), and nobody has the slightest inkling of how to modernly dance. Eventually, though, the experts' influence starts to kick in, and the citizens start to act hip and freewheeling, which absolutely outrages the KGB higher-ups who fear this could lead to an unSoviet-like sense of freedom and, more worrisome, rebellion. Unfortunately, this soon leads to a bunch of dumb action sequences that have neither flair nor any valid artistic purpose. It might've helped if the bad guys were allowed to be goofy and funny, too, but they're humorless cardboard cutouts who temporarily ratchet down the movie's good cheer. It also doesn't help that Jan Rubes, as the main heavy, seems to be auditioning for a sinister role in a horror flick, and the always-gruesome Rick Ducommum, as the heavy's flunky, is, as usual, crushingly unpleasant (he comes down on his line readings so hard it's as if he were harboring the biggest grudge against the entire world). Luckily, everything wraps up amiably enough, and you have the pleasure of knowing you've certainly seen something that has at least attempted to put you in better spirits by not particularly caring if it's not the most intelligent thing ever to grace the silver screen -- it doesn't put on airs, and that's part of what saves it.
John Travolta showed some comic timing in the early dinner scene in Saturday Night Fever (who can forget the immortal words, "Ya know, I work on my hair a long time, and you hit it -- he hits my hair"?), and he's even more confident this time around, delivering his amusing lines like a pro by milking them rather than pouncing. He's loose and assured, and everything he does seems fresh. Which really comes in handy in the movie's best scene at the midway mark: at the club, from out of nowhere comes a bodacious beauty named Bonnie (an unbelievably hot Kelly Preston) who does some real dirty dancing with Travis in front of a truly befuddled audience -- even the quintessentially-cool Travis is flabbergasted at his sudden good fortune. As the straight man, Arye Gross, who stole the show as the witty first-year law student who went head-to-head with James Earl Jones' dominating professor in Soul Man, matches up very well with his co-star. They have an ingratiating rapport right from the onset and play off each other with the utmost ease; you can believe the tolerant Wendell would put up with the immature Travis for so long; and when they get into a heated fight and then slowly come down and climax it with some humorous quips, it's, well, kinda sweet. Without Travolta and Gross' adeptness and chemistry, The Experts just wouldn't have a core. And there are bits that you shouldn't laugh at but do just for the heck of it, like when the first African-American in the community approaches Travis, and Travis, thinking Soul Brother, puts out his hand for a slap and says, "Blood!", and the man beamingly replies, "AB-positive." (Though when he asks Travis if he's hiring him as a bartender just because he's black, and Travis says yes, and he exclaims, "Great!", it temporarily leaves a sour aftertaste.) I was far from a fan of director Dave Thomas' previous feature, his directorial debut Strange Brew, and no one could ever accuse him of having much of a narrative or visual sense, but he shows a decent instinct for knowing how long to let a scene play and end it before it's overstayed its welcome. He also does well with two bouncy music montages, one with the club being re-designed and the other at a beach where the experts tutor on the rudiments of Frisbee throwing and discreetly checking out girls by tipping down their sunglasses halfway as they pass by (which is lost on two hormonal-fueled teens who can't help but uncouthly bark after their female prey in front of an exasperated Travis). Also praiseworthy is a wacky supporting performance by James Keach as a kooky pilot with an unwieldy foreign accent who smuggles forbidden items like condoms and music -- he pronounces "compact discs" as "compact dicks." No, The Experts isn't likely to inspire world peace or serve as a building block for the cure for diabetes, but it goes down well enough and never makes the mistake of having Travis or Wendell "mature" for the sole sake of doing so, and that's what makes them such a consistently-winning pair of heroes you can happily get behind.Worth picking up a used VHS copy if you happen upon it being that it's still not available on DVD.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=7862&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/21/10 15:07:05