Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, February 28, 2019

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Mannequin (1987)

In my previous “Why Do I Own This?” entry, I discussed “Date with an an Angel” and accurately described it as a rip-off of “Splash.” While I connected those films with humanity's long history of wanting to fuck fantastical creatures, the magical girlfriend genre is a long-running as well. The idea of some loser having his life turned around by an extraordinary female – a fundamentally sexist premise that lives on in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – is a a concept that dates back to at least “Bewitched.” For whatever reason, it was an especially popular premise in the eighties. Aside from the aforementioned films, you also had “Weird Science,” “Xanadu,” another former WDIOT entry “My Stepmother is an Alien,” and even animated series like “Video Girl Ai.” Released the same year as “Angel” was “Mannequin,” which brought things full circle by updating the story of Pygmalion, perhaps the original magical girlfriend story, for the eighties. Despite being among 1987's worst reviewed film, “Mannequin” achieved a certain level of box office popularity. I also, for some unknown reason, own the DVD.

Jonathan is a young man with artistic endeavors. However, his obvious talent is not enough to keep him employed, Jonathan cycling through a series of odd jobs. Among these is painting and assembling mannequins in a factory, Jonathan becoming especially fond of one mannequin. After he saves an old lady who is the owner of a failing department super-store, Prince & Company, Jonathan is reunited with the mannequin... Who is actually a resurrected Egyptian princess named Emmy. Anyway, the two fall in love and inspires Jonathan to put together fantastic displays in the store window, bringing up business. This is bad news for Illustra, Prince & Company's rival that was conspiring to buy the store.

Even by the standards of gimmicky, high-concept romantic-comedies, “Mannequin” is egregiously stupid. Just look at Emmy's back story, which is hastily explained during the opening scene. Her wish not to marry a dung farmer was answered by the gods seemingly by sending her soul all throughout history. How this led to her being in a mannequin body, who can only interact with Jonathan when no one else is looking, is never explained. It's pretty evident that writer/director Michael Gottlieb thought up the concept first and then tagged on that cheesy opening scene to provide the vaguest of explanations. If this was the film's only bizarre leap of logic, that would be one thing. Yet “Mannequin” also asks us to believe that a spiffy display window would be enough to boost an entire store, which is otherwise depicted as always empty, from failing to successful within a few weeks.

Supposedly, Gottlieb was inspired to write “Mannequin” after he thought he saw a mannequin in a shop window move. Instead of writing the obvious horror movie about that premise, he instead decided to create a film cynically devoted to exploiting the teen girl market. This is why the non-intimidatingly boyish Andrew McCarthy stars as Jonathan, while Kim Cattral plays a centuries-old princess/mannequin as a teenage girl. Neither performer is bad and both commit fully to the material. It's just that “Mannequin's” script is so dumb that no actor could emerge from it and make a good impression on the viewer. The film's strictly mercenary roots are evident in other ways. A good twenty percent of the run time are montages, devoted to Jonathan and Emmy dressing up and goofing around the oddly empty mall. Despite its century-spanning timeline, the film's scope is utterly restrained to this stationary location. (Presumably because stereotypical teen girls like shopping?) 

When not devoting screen time to its male protagonist having lots of implied sexy sex with his mannequin girlfriend, “Mannequin” indulges in some truly pedestrian slapstick. The film's physical comedy gags are large and broad. Jonathan is swept up onto a giant swinging sign, his bottom shocked repeatedly by a sparking cable. An attempted date with his ex-girlfriend ends with Jonathan using a waiter's toupee to put out a fire. A car vs. motorcycle chase concludes with the large vehicle jumping a ramp and being stuck between an alleyway. While these moments are aggressively wacky, they all feel utterly lifeless. There's no chaotic energy injected into these gags, resulting in the comedy seemingly hopelessly toothless and limp.

About the only thing “Mannequin” has going for it is a bizarre collection of supporting characters. The film's group of sidekicks and antagonists are all exaggerated cartoon characters. Such as James Spader as Richards, an underhanded and weaselly corporate stooge that is especially underhanded even by the standards of James Spader characters. Or Felix, the mentally unhinged security guard that pursues McCarthy for most of the film. Actor G.W. Bailey mugs furiously in the part, a completely insane man who keeps dogs named after action heroes, treats his feeble job like its a war. His obsession with exposing Jonathan's mannequin love extends far beyond the normal boundaries of a night watchmen. The most extreme character in the film is Meschach Taylor's Hollywood, a flaming gay man. Hollywood is not a flattering character, a textbook Gay Best Friend and embarrassingly flamboyant stereotype. Yet Taylor is clearly having the time of his life in the part, goofing it up in a way that's far more entertaining than the film around him.

While rightfully doused by critics, “Mannequin” is another one of those random turkeys that somehow scored an Oscar nomination. Starship's love theme, “Nothing's Going to Stop Us Now,” was a number one pop hit and would be nominated for Best Original Song at the 1988 Academy Awards. Director Gottlieb would gift the world with other similarly high concept comedies like “Mr. Nanny,” “A Kid in King Arthur's Court,” and “The Shrimp on the Barbie.” (Which was so bad, even Gottlieb took his name off it.) At least he didn't direct the film's misbegotten sequel, 1991's “Mannequin: On the Move,” which is supposedly even worst. Kristy Swanson and William Ragsdale's careers never really recovered from that one. As for the original “Mannequin,” it's a really special kind of dumb. Too brainless to be genuinely good but far too shallow in its goals to be an off-beat cult item, it's a truly bad movie.

Why Do I Own This?: I don't know, you guys. Sometimes I just buy stupid bullshit for no reason. [3/10]

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