Holy Man is a lackluster mess with all the wrong priorities. Given a premise in which the general manager of a home-shopping network saves his job by using a beatific robed pilgrim to pitch trinkets, the film could have taken aim at any number of ripe targets: consumer laziness, network greed, the debasement of American spirituality, racial paranoia. But the humor never even aims for these sweet spots; it goes right for the same mushy sitcom heart that has been harassed by a million previous by-the-numbers scripts.
Ricky Heyman (Jeff Goldblum) is the unimaginative loser whose job at the Good Buy Shopping Network is on the linethe channel is not pulling in viewers with its spots for chainsaws, home workout aids, or the amazing laundry ball. These segments send up not the inventors of such uselessness or the consumer gullibility that makes them possible, but the pitchmen who hawk them. There’s plenty that’s funny about Clam perfume without making coarse old-lady sex jokes at Betty White’s expense, and no one points out that the laundry ball is a bottle of stain remover in the round; here it exists to wring laughs out of the word “ball.” Thanks to the findings of media analyst Kate (Kelly Preston), Ricky is supposed to come up with ideas to help streamline the network’s focus, but they are so incompetent that the boss (Robert Loggia) thinks they’re the joke proposals meant to soften him up for the real ones.
Why Ricky shouldn’t be fired is not a question the script explores; he’s our hero, and we’re stuck with him. We can only wait for his redemption to appear in the form of robed and sandaled G (Eddie Murphy), a gentle spirit on a pilgrimage who stops to help Kate and Ricky change a tire. For a while, the film makes some sharp equations between the modern horror of spirituality and the fear of the racial Other that the white eliteinto whose milieu G is thrusthas never been known to embrace, either. But this analogy soon withers; once G becomes a media star with his own show (The G Spot), there’s no sense that in addition to the softy-puffy version of faith that he’s selling, he’s also putting over a palatable image of black masculinity, shaped by the lowest-common-denominator guidelines of TV.
G’s placid, foggy kindness, his ascetic needs, his promiscuous goodwill endear him to everyone but Ricky, who is yet another uptight suited white guy who exists to have his ass and mind freed by a confident black man, whether he’s a crook-turned-cop or Jesus making a cameo. Murphy has a twinkle but no comic zing; his performance feels strangely muted, as if the film’s final cut used some good stuff, some rehearsal stuff, a couple of reaction shots. Because the earthly populace has the unkind impulses, they get most of the laugh lines. G continually declines to use his power for evil. He doesn’t perform magic tricks, although he does hypnotize the clothing designer Nino Cerruti at a party in Ricky’s fabulous Miami apartment, which may explain why women are being asked to wear maribou knuckle-muffs and such every fall.
While it’s nice to see someone who cares so little about the conventions or importance of live television, G soon becomes the slick pitchman of Ricky’s dreams, indulging in rambling spiritual uplift of indeterminate origin (G is nicely nondenominational) while the GBSN techies scramble to show product that relates to the theme of G’s soliloquy. (“They wanted to buy something,” says Kate of the audience reaction after G’s first appearance. “They just didn’t know what.”) Naturally, G’s success and an ensuing scandal over the murkiness of his origins (quickly and mercifully dispensed with) lead Ricky to a crisis of conscience, in which he must choose between attaining his materialistic dream or having Kate and spiritual redemption, too.
The thing that makes an ethical quandary interesting is that it’s supposed to offer the tormented soul two choices, one noble and unappealing, one scrumptious and wrong. But the hell to which Ricky refuses to sign away his soul is tiny and tawdry. Holy Man’s messagedon’t sell out, be nice, people are importantis hardly something G needs to spread when everyone from Jim Carrey to Sandra Bullock is singing the same tune one screen over. It’s no wonder Ricky gives in so fasthe’s already been bludgeoned into compliance by a dozen other movies. They should have asked him to give up that apartment.
Strangeland is a visual evocation of its creator’s music. Twisted Sister’s Dee Sniderby all accounts one of the nicest, most sensible, and tolerant individuals in rockhas taken the pompous heavy metal of the ’80s, updated its satanic trappings, and dumped the whole godawful gumbo onto the screen, where it doesn’t make any more sense. Received decadence is much less interesting than the full-strength version, since the latter has the element of choice and, therefore, intelligent understanding behind it. Strangeland is a hodgepodge of all the latest cool shocker-o the kids are into, and it’s just kind of sad and sick and…old.
The opening montage sets the scene in super-close-up: blood drops, manacles, hypodermic needles, parts of people or maybe other thingshard to see in here. Snider has taken the old someone-is-torturing-the-young-girls-of-Smallville horror/detective premise and updated it with slathered-on contemporary detailsCaptain Howdy (Snider) is hunting teenage girls and other victims online, using newfangled computer thingies, and when he gets them in his dungeon, he modifies their bodies, using stitching, piercing, scarification, flesh hooks, and other oh-so-new torture techniques, about which we learn in detail since the tow-truck guy in an early scene soliloquizes intelligently on the ritual benefits of body modification and the spiritual goals of himself and other modern primitives. As my date sighed, watching yet another hapless victim get her eyes sewn shut, “All this because Twisted Sister never made it into the ’90s.”
So naturally, this criminal mastermind must match wits with a fitting adversary: Enter the world’s dumbest detective. How dumb is this guy? He knows his daughter (who’s disappeared) used her computer to meet friends and even boys, but he doesn’t know how to turn the thing on. As a detective, he’s never heard of the extraordinarily popular and truly debauched Smallville S&M club. When he stumbles on Howdy’s lair, he figures that’s no time to call for backup. He’s so stupid you’ll be sewing your own eyes shut in an effort to avoid watching this moron slog toward one revelation after another.
Snider doesn’t actually kill his victims; he tortures them. Oh, not with the sewing and the hooks and all, but with pompous speeches about the nature of pain; they start out, “The word ‘sadism’…” or “It’s been said the road of excess…” When angered, he snarls, “Pick up that!” Detective Muttonhead finally brings him down; he’s rehabilitatedbut not for long, since Officer Duh watches calmly while he loses his medication, and soon Captain Howdy is on the rampage again, talking, endlessly talking, to the pitiful souls trapped in his suburban dungeon, which the nice police officers might want to check in on every so often, considering it’s in the same house he had before.
Strangeland’s biggest problem, aside from the nonsensical title and the hilarious continuity and the fact that you’ll have to bribe your friend into ever talking to you again, is that it undermines the tow-truck guy’s message; I guess Snider’s not very pro-modern-primitive if he makes a whole movie about a guy who forces people to undergo its processes. Snider’s own sadism is on display, as wellthe dungeon is photographed and lingered over with fetishistic relish and thoroughness, all those naked teenagers helpless and riddled with holes. Is he saying something about the audience’s attraction to the sadistic possibilities of body modification? Yeah: Look, I made my own movie.CP