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Rocky and Bullwinkle didn’t create late-’60s youth-culture attitude all by themselves; they had help from Mad magazine, the Beatles, and the Frankfurt School. Still, the badly animated Groucho Marxists—whose show was canceled in 1964, just as the American buildup in Vietnam began—were crucial precursors of the Yippies and other New Left vaudevillians. Remarkably, moose and squirrel have kept both their personalities and their principles. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle attributes this steadiness to the characters’ seclusion in their native Frostbite Falls, Minn. They’ve been in reruns for 36 years, so they have no idea what terrible damage has been done to both America’s disposition and its sense of humor.
Assisted by some of the original crew—including June Foray, the voice of Rocky—director Des McAnuff (Cousin Bette) and writer Ken Lonergan (Analyze This) have done the unprecedented: made a live-action movie that’s worthy of a beloved TV cartoon show. Part of the credit goes to the original—always much smarter than, say, The Flintstones—yet the filmmakers have made some canny choices. One of the smartest was keeping Rocky and Bullwinkle animated as the plot drags Boris, Natasha, and Fearless Leader (Jason Alexander, Rene Russo, and, yes, Robert De Niro) into the real world. You might compare the result to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but don’t do so if Fearless Leader is listening.
Our heroes are a bit rounder than they used to be, but otherwise they’ve changed little. It’s the world that has been transformed, through such blights as dumb Hollywood studios, dumber cable TV, and bewildering suburban sprawl. (Bullwinkle’s running commentary on the latter qualifies him as this country’s equivalent of Prince Charles, and sets up a possible sequel: Bullwinkle, New Urbanist.) As usual, Rocky (who’s having an unexpected problem with flying) and Bullwinkle (who’s having the usual problem with comprehension) must save the country from Fearless Leader, who won’t rest until the flag of totalitarian Pottsylvania flies over the U.S.—or at least over its major media properties.
The action starts with a flurry of showbiz satire: Boris, Natasha, and Fearless Leader sell the concept of a Rocky and Bullwinkle movie to Minnie Mogul (Janeane Garofalo, the first in a string of comic cameos that includes Jonathan Winters, John Goodman, Randy Quaid, and Whoopi Goldberg). Then FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) is sent to enlist Rocky and Bullwinkle, who must travel from L.A. to New York while facing such hazards as state troopers, TV “reality” shows, and campus anti-moose demonstrations. Not too surprisingly, the film’s motor sputters a bit after the frantic and frequently hilarious setup. The duo never had to sustain an adventure for more than a few minutes, and on the big screen they can’t cut to a commercial when they need a breather—although Bullwinkle does give it a try.
In homage to the original, the film is full of political asides; in one scene, Karen finds herself incarcerated at the Red Bait Women’s Prison. More telling, though, is the campus scene: Rocky and Bullwinkle discover that American youth has gotten lost in cynicism and petty ideological squabbles. The movie pushes this particular insight a little too far, giving Karen’s inner child an actual speaking part and scoring the credits to a ballad titled “Through the Eyes of a Child.” (It was co-written by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, composer of the flick’s playful score.) Still, give Rocky and Bullwinkle credit for being the anti-Farrellys: Whereas Me, Myself & Irene blends a nursery-school enthusiasm for poopoo and peepee with an unquestioning acceptance of the contemporary adult social order, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle balances grown-up satire with a childlike idealism and skepticism. That combination will defeat Fearless Leader every time, although it is less likely to beat suburban sprawl.
Hit the dance floor in techno clubs in Washington, Paris, or Tokyo, and the scene will be much the same: throbbing music, pulsating lights, gyrating bodies, and hundreds of people with an identical thought flickering in their eyes: What exactly is supposed to be going on here?
The electronic dance music scene has its true believers, of course, people who consider the thumpthumpthump both revolutionary and transcendent. Among them are writer-directors Justin Kerrigan, who made last month’s Human Traffic, and Greg Harrison, the architect of the new Groove. Both filmmakers are big-beat-and-little-pill veterans who were inspired by their own dance-scene experiences, yet the movies they’ve made are neither revolutionary nor transcendent. Rather than employing cinema’s enveloping sound-and-light cocoon to demonstrate what true rave exaltation is like, both directors fall back on sitcom and soap-opera models.
In the Village Voice, noted rave ideologue Simon Reynolds deemed Groove superior to Human Traffic because it spends more time at the event itself—an illegal warehouse party in early-’90s San Francisco. Yet Harrison’s movie is basically an example of the venerable let’s-put-on-a-show genre; it’s most credible when organizer/great humanitarian Ernie (Steve Van Wormer) is getting things ready and the ravers are discovering the party’s location and scoring the necessary supplies. Then Harrison squanders the verisimilitude with the appearance of an improbably agreeable cop who agrees to let the kids have their fun as long as they’re discreet.
Once the beats start pounding—and none too loudly—Groove becomes the story of David (Hamish Linklater), an aspiring writer and rave virgin who’s been dragged to the party by his brother, Colin (Denny Kirkwood), who’s in love with the modern world and his girlfriend, inevitably named Harmony (Mackenzie Firgens). Some bad things happen—including a drug overdose—but David finds both Ecstasy and ecstasy, falling into instantaneous love with the perfect jaded clubster, Leyla (Lola Glaudini). They get to know each other in dialogue that would benefit from a Nitzer Ebb remix.
Nitzer Ebb is, in fact, a punch line to one of the film’s in-jokes that will draw knowing laughs from insiders. Jibe for jibe, though, Groove is a lot less amusing and pointed than Human Traffic, and more dependent on gamy comic cliches. (The most egregious example: a dim gay couple who bitch compulsively as they drive around, failing to find the party.) The movie alternates between mystical rave claptrap—DJ John Digweed, playing himself, appears as the party’s personal Jesus—and tiny comic vignettes. Harrison tries to combine the two in the final scene of a toll-plaza epiphany, and the result is a vision of enlightenment that is utterly suburban.
The soundtrack album, by the way, is pretty good. CP