Brendan Fraser is on his way to making a career out of playing clueless hunks, from Encino Man to George of the Jungle to the bit of not-so-dumb-as-he-should-be rough trade envisioned by the makers of Gods and Monsters. In Blast From the Past, he brings his game, courtly good nature to the role of Adam Webber, the well-bred grown son of two charming paranoiacs (Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek) who have spent the past 35 years in an elaborate homemade bomb shelter, fearing that an atomic war was raging above ground. After 30 years in isolation, armed only with the grace gained from daily dancing lessons, fine manners, and a vigorous urge to mate, Adam is unleashed on a society puzzled by and yet starving for such decorous naiveté.
Behind his pliant smile, Fraser has a numb, locked-down qualitybest exploited by his role as the genial, nonresponsive elevator-man/mob executioner in The Professional, one of HBO’s Fallen Angels neo-noir series. He displays stalwart confusion in the presence of other characters but always holds something back; it is this ability that brings exactly the right tone to Hugh Wilson’s strangely ambitious romantic comedy, torn as it is between a fluffy, fish-out-of-time love story and a cautionary tale about the oppressiveness of fear.
The story begins in 1962, with a flurry of pointed period jokes brightening the Webbers’ cocktail partythere’s a blue-green glow in their television-era living room, the ladies’ party crinolines are stiff as tutus, sweatered Dad pours cocktails while reciting G-rated gags (just seeing Walken playing the pleasant mid-century host is eerie-ambitious), and literally everybody smokes. An unfortunate coincidence sends the Webbers underground: News of the Cuban missile crisis breaks, so they herd their neighbors out of the house and scuttle down to the elaborate warren that Dad has been constructing for years, whereupon a lost pilot crashes into their above-ground house. Fearing the worst, the Webbers prepare to nestle in for the 30 years it will take for the radiation to dissipate.
They couldn’t be prisoners of a nicer, more banal, or creepier place, an uncanny refabrication of their own house, complete with AstroTurf, “outdoor” patio and lawn furniture, ugly tchotchkes, cocktail fixings, even a Price Club-like supply warehouse that pregnant Mom cruises with a shopping cart. Soon, Adam arrives. (The surprise is that Mom and Dad don’t have more children while they’re down there.) Over the years, he is schooled by his loving, indulgent parents, Dad the certified genius drilling him in French and geography, Mom taking over the social graces. Despite Dad’s madness and Mom’s frustration, which she suppresses with an increasingly heavy alcohol intake (played for laughsher claustrophobia is sympathetic), Adam learns about love by example.
The laughs and chills inherent in the story of children raised in a bomb shelter have been brought to the screen at least once before, in Paul Bartel’s extraordinarily resonant, little-seen Shelf Life. Questions addressed with scabrous fury by Bartel’s script about the kids’ (there were three) burgeoning sexuality and processing of adult social roles are smooth and innocuous hereAdam’s burden, when he’s sent topside to gather supplies, is less to amass truckloads of frozen meat patties for his folks than to embark on a table-turned romance of conflicting values and vastly different societal assumptions with a cute/cynical Valley Girl.
Adam, meet Evethat’s the worst and only example of egregious cuteness in this clever, astringent scriptin the appealing shape of curvy-lipped Alicia Silverstone doing her tarty, fast-walking, no-time-for-boys thing under a heaped pylon of possibly predatory hair. Sparks, of a sort, fly, but not until Eve sees the manly hunkiness of her weird new find as refracted through the prism of others’ desirenotably that of her roommate, Troy (Dave Foley refreshing a most unfresh role: the gay best friend with no sex life of his own), and a passel of smitten cuties at the luxe swing club to which Adam’s peculiar talents are ideally suited.
In the end, that’s what Blast From the Past is all about; it doesn’t celebrate young love so much as endorse romantic maturity for lovers of all ages: It’s good to have a background of solid parenting, rigorous book learning, proper etiquette, and sensible stock investments. The film manages to validate this pre-’60s code of decency as something timeless and socially generous, without invoking the prim shrillness of so many recent movies that blame the ’60s for destroying our values/families/society. A running gag involving a ragtag band of believers who have turned the property atop the bomb shelter into a shrine to the dwellers below is funny and affectionate, and no characters are punished for their vicesnot Mrs. Webber with her stash of cooking sherry nor the modern-day Valley dwellers with their promiscuity and dirty-book stores.
The script even makes sure to keep its portrayals of sexuality infantile (on Adam’s part) or foolish (on the part of the trashy clubgoers Eve hangs with), so that when Adam stops acting like a 35-year-old kid and comes on with the strength, tenderness, and competence of manhood, the effect is swooningly romantic. Adam isn’t condemned for his awe at the coarse, loud ’90sthey’re fun and colorful, and he’s encouraged to mature in pace with the above-ground culture. Blast From the Past both transcends its formula and acknowledges the formula’s demands; with its smart casting, silly, well-intended now-vs.-then jokes, and unreasonably happy ending, it’s a thinky little ball of fluff, buzzing along pleasantly in a humorous low key.CP