Reviewed by Nicole Pedersen
I gleefully admit to an unhealthy level of indulgence when it comes to the pop culture morass that is known as the VH1 programming schedule. Although I can feel more brain cells slipping away every time I tune in, programs like Best Week Ever and Web Junk 20 are like sweet, sweet candy to an infotainment junkie like me. Therefore I was intrigued when I tuned into the Flavor of Love Reunion Special and caught a series of ads for VH1’s newest homage to the culture of the 1980’s called Totally Awesome. Now that’s what I need more of! (I exclaimed) Tina Yothers on a treadmill is great, but why can’t there be more 80’s-centric programming on VH1?
Totally Awesome (premiering November 4 at 9 pm and November 7 on DVD) would seem to fit perfectly into the established VH1 lineup: an original film parody of the teen dramas of the 1980’s starring former SNL comedians and featuring commentary by Ben Stein? Add in a green screen and a couple of rants by Michael Ian Black and you’ve got the next version of I Love the 80’s all sewn up. I wasn’t even aware that Totally Awesome was co-written and directed by Neal Brennan of Chappelle’s Show when I resolved to tune in. Knowing that there isn’t anything good on TV Saturday night, I’ll bet a lot of you 1980’s veterans out there felt similarly motivated.
But then my copy of the unrated Totally Awesome DVD arrived and within ten minutes I knew that it was perhaps the worst movie I had ever seen. The only thing that prevented me from turning it off was the obligation to write this review. I take no pleasure in relating this news. I love the teen flicks of my childhood and I revel in the 80’s trivia dolled out so bountifully by MTV’s more tasteful sister. But if VH1 was hoping to ride this feature film to further glory in the 20 to 35 age bracket, I have some bad news: Breaking Bonaduce makes for better comedy viewing.
Totally Awesome attempts to weave together the basic plots from several notable teen flicks of the Reagan era into one, 93 minute comedic tour de force. Borrowing especially from the Karate Kid, Footloose and Some Kind of Wonderful, Totally Awesome is the story of Charlie and Lori Gunderson, a teenaged brother and sister who have relocated with their family from Pittsburgh to California and must now find their way in a new high school.
Lori (Dominique Swain) is an aspiring dancer who is dismayed to learn that her new school has instituted a ban on dancing after a tragic accident left several teens crippled. It seems that during a school dance several kids “cut loose” and ended up accidentally severing their feet. Luckily for Lori, former dance instructor turned janitor Gabriel (Chris Kattan) holds secret dance classes in his garage where a select group in colorful spandex learn the secret art of “dirty dancing.”
Her brother Charlie, meanwhile, is dismayed to learn that he is rated dead last in the high school’s weekly “popularity rankings,” especially when he falls for Kimberley (Brittany Daniel), the hottest girl in class. Kimberley’s boyfriend Kip Vanderhoff (Joey Kern) is the rich, top-ranked star of the decathalon team. When Kip targets him for torment, Charlie begins taking track lessons from his Japanese gardener Mr.Yamagashi (James Hong) in order to beat Kip on the field. Charlie also teams up with fellow outcast Billie, a girl who makes her own clothes, and break-dancer Darnell (Tracey Morgan) for lessons in how to be cool and win Kimberley’s heart.
Both teen’s stories climax at the big school track meet. Mike must beat Kip at the decathalon to win a bet while the dance stylings of Gabriel and Lori must convince the school principal to end the dreaded “stand-arounds” and re-institute free dancing. Toss in a few other tributes from Teen Wolf and Better Off Dead and it all sounds warmly familiar, right? So, with its combination of beloved 80’s plots and the writing talent that helped make Chapelle’s Show one of the funniest sketch shows in history, Totally Awesome should easily be able to live up to its name. But unfortunately for VH1, Neal Brennan’s first time out as a feature director is less “radical” and more “wicked lame.”
The major failing of Totally Awesome is the script (co-written by Michael Shur of SNL). There are individual moments in the film that are funny (especially those that include Saturday Night Live vets Kattan and Morgan) but any respect or regard for the material that Brennan and Shur chose to parody seems all but absent from the Totally Awesome script. In their zeal to point out the cheesiness of the 1980’s teen genre, the writing team has forgotten that, for better or worse, an entire generation has grown up revering films like Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. By calling attention to the inherent ridiculousness of the standard 80’s plot, this script ends up belittling all of the fans it was meant to attract. By playing up the lowest common denominator of each of its core films, the Totally Awesome script ends up seeming even more base and stupid for all of its attempts at clever satire.
For the most part, the actors do their best with the bad material they were handed. Although former Lolita star Swain annoys as the overwrought Lori, Mike Day (Wild’N Out) captures the shy Charlie as well as he does the Charlie who finally gets a sip from the cool fountain. Brittany Daniel is wasted in a stock role, but on-screen love Joey Kern is petulant perfection as the creepy and condescending Kip. Tracy Morgan is allowed to riff in his cameo appearance while the excellent James Hong (Wayne’s World 2) elevates his dreadful dialogue to something resembling art by sheer force of character.
The obvious star of Totally Awesome is Chris Kattan. Proving he is equally capable of a tight performance as he is of an all out freak-fest like Mango, Kattan plays his dance instructor/molester with perfect seriousness. While most of the cast appear to be encouraged by the lazy direction of Brennan to drag-out and over-play each scene, Kattan shows a restrained discipline that only proves how under-appreciated his skills really are. Luckily for him he chose to have his name removed from both the opening credits and promo material for Totally Awesome, so he may yet escape this fiasco relatively unscathed.
Totally Awesome is a great example of how collaborators can elevate a director’s work. While credits from Chappelle’s Show and the cult-hit Half Baked would seem to solidify Neal Brennan’s comedy credentials, without Chappelle’s brilliance to sell his writing, Brennan flounders in a sea of over-the top routines and poorly structured plot lines. Many of the elements from Totally Awesome would have worked if presented in the sketch comedy format Brennan is more familiar with directing. VH1 seems to have already recognized this fact by releasing an episode of its Ten Most Excellent Things… devoted to clips taken from the film. Trust me. I am doing you a service by revealing that everything remotely funny from Totally Awesome can be found in this half-hour program alone. Do yourself a favor and skip the actual film.
The unrated DVD version of Totally Awesome adds nothing to make this dreadful film more appealing. Presented widescreen in Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, the only reason this version can be called “unrated” is a lone shot of a bare-breasted actress and a rapid-fire series of curse words spewed by Kattan during the outtakes feature.
Other extras include audio commentary by Brennan and Tracy Morgan, bloopers and deleted scenes hosted by Brennan and Joey Kern as well as 3 shorts highlighting the Totally Awesome “best-of” scenes by Kern and Morgan. While these clips only highlight how every joke is overplayed to the point of exhaustion within Totally Awesome, some of the deleted material scores for its ridiculousness alone. This includes a shot of Charlie in a pair of ass-less chaps where he clearly flashes his goods at the camera. Tracy Morgan, watching the completed film for the first time while recording his commentary seems to sum up Totally Awesome’s failure perfectly: although both director and star quietly watch many scenes, the comedian fails to laugh once, even when his own material is on display.
Totally Awesome was developed at Miramax in 2000 and never filmed. It took the all-out 80’s lust of the VH1 programming honchos to resurrect this abysmal film and force it on an unsuspecting public. We have been lulled by VH1’s sarcastic but sweet treatment of all things 1980’s to believe that they had cornered the market on humorously reflecting upon our youth. An original film like Totally Awesome would seem to be the next logical progression, considering that a third version of I Love the 80’s might be over doing it just a tad. I admit I was fooled by their clever marketing campaign at first. I only hope you all read this in time to avoid Totally Awesome in favor of better TV offerings. I think Dateline is re-running To Catch a Predator?