The Nutt House

Director: Adam Rifkin            
Stephen Kearney, Traci Lords, Amy Yasbeck

Is there no one who considers himself a movie buff and yet is not familiar with director Alan Smithee and his colorful career? For anyone who isn't, a quick look at his filmography will not only list a vast variety of films he's been credited with directing, but that the circumstances for his being attached to each of these movies has been the same: to take the place of the empty director's chair when the original director disowned the particular movie and left. The use of Mr. Smithee was originally an open Hollywood secret, but as the years went by, knowledge of him slowly grew with the public, and reached a critical point with the Director's Guild of America in 1997 when An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn was released. With Smithee now widely known, the DGA more or less put out a contract on him, publicly declaring that he was now dead. But somehow Smithee dodged the bullet, and continued with his directing career, his last direction credit to date being the 2004 TV movie Team Spirit.

Whatever you have to say about Smithee's talents as a director, you at least have to admit he is one ambitious individual; unlike most Kearney sees the ugly truth staring at him right in the facedirectors who stick to a few genres at most in their careers, he has freely tackled any and all genres he has been offered to helm. But his ambition does not end with directing; unlike just about any other director, he has taken on other roles you'll find credited with the making of a movie. A second look at his filmography shows he has at least once taken such roles as cinematographer, editor, composer, and even actor. Plus there have been a few times when he has taken on the role of screenwriter, one of those times being The Nutt House. Though he wasn't the lone scribe of this comedy; he was joined by his son "Alan Smithee Jr.", and two other individuals named "Peter Perkinson" and "R. O. C. Sandstorm". Seriously, though, all of these names are pseudonyms. The real names of the  screenwriters are Evil Dead and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, his brother Ivan Raimi, director Scott Spiegel, and actor Bruce Campbell. Their reasons for removing their names from the movie comes from the hectic behind-the-scenes history of the movie. It seems that when the project was coming together they lost a good amount of creative control, partly due to assigned director Adam Rifkin vetoing a lot of their original plans (one of them being their wish to cast Jim Carrey as the lead instead of Australian actor Kearney.)

The main reason why the foursome removed their names from the movie, however, was that when the movie was completed, they were so horrified by the results that they wanted to distance themselves from it as far as possible. Apparently they weren't the only ones who found it bad; it took three years after its completion for the movie to get a video release on its home turf (before that date I saw it in a Korean video store under its original title, The Nutty Nutt.) So... is The Nutt House as bad as this evidence leads you to believe it is? Well, before getting into that, a plot synopsis first. Kearney plays two roles in the movie, identical twins with the last name of Nut (not "Nutt", as the title might lead you to believe.) Philbert (P. Nut, ha ha, get it?) is the success story of the family, wealthy from having married rich heiress Diane (Yasbeck, Problem Child 1 & 2 and The Mask), a willing mistress on the side coming from his maid "Miss Tress" (Lords), and influential friends who want him to be their ticket for President of the United States - an admirable gesture given that there's no sign he's currently involved in even some minor political position.

Then there is Nathan who is as far removed from Philbert as you can imagine, both in personality and in distance. Deranged since he was a baby, he was quickly abandoned by his mother and ended up in a lunatic asylum. Suffering from a severe case of multiple personalities, causing him to believe he's anyone from A hunk-a hunk-a smelly crapa narcissist nightclub singer to a yee-haw cowboy with just even the slightest disturbance in his surrounding atmosphere, he learns from his doctor that his condition comes from being abandoned and separated by his twin brother, and possibly only a reunion might cure him. (What Nathan - as well as the audience - doesn't get to learn from the doctor is how he happens to know Nathan is a twin.) But ironically, the only way Nathan can get out to see his brother is to first prove to the asylum board that he is sane enough to be released, and the hearing takes a bad turn when a clock striking the hour in the room turns Nathan into his acrobat personality. Though in a subsequent turn of events as twisted as Nathan's personality, Nathan not only finds himself out of the asylum but at the gates of Philbert's mansion, where Diane is not only preparing a world hunger fund-raiser party, but Philbert preparing to prove himself to his potential backers. Of course, mistaken identity and Nathan making a mess of things is inevitable, though it's also inevitable that problems arising from this will be aggravated and last far longer than they should when the participating characters are so stupid they can't sense something is wrong when Philbert gets to destinations ahead of them at light-speed or manages to change into a new outfit in less than five seconds.

Yes, I know that this movie is a comedy and was not intended to be a serious drama. Yes, I realize that when it comes to comedy you often have to accept what would be considered absurd. But there is a difference between being absurd and simply unbelievable. A lot of what we consider funny comes from what we can simultaneously identify with; if we can see ourselves in the material, or could see the material actually happening in real life, then a great deal of our subsequent joy comes in this recognition. However, when it comes to people doing actions that are unbelievable, that's a different ball of wax. In real life, we would no doubt be stunned and frustrated by those dimwits somehow being unable to sense something's up with Philbert suddenly changing clothes and personalities. I'm not saying that these cases of mistaken identity couldn't be funny, I'm saying they are not funny in how they are presented here. What if, instead, the surprised people actually questioned these surprises coming from Philbert? The confused answers coming from Nathan (or even Philbert) could easily and unintentionally continued the charade had the screenwriters just taken the time. It would not only make the misconceptions more believable in our eyes, but it would more likely have made things funnier because there are now reasonable explanation for why this confusion manages to continue.

I'm not saying that completely absurdist humor can't be funny - I've laughed at such humor coming from The Marx Brothers to Airplane. So I guess I must admit that, theoretically, the absurdist tone to The Nutt House could have worked. It's just that people (like the ones who made this movie) often forget that successfully executing such humor requires the same Appropriate to give a feather-head a feather dusteramount of planning and work as any other kind. Whether the world depicted in a movie is sane or insane, you still need to have a character or characters that the audience may not necessarily like, but will be at least interested by enough to care to see where they end up. The movie does have some understanding that since Philbert is to be the comic foil, he should be made into a particularly unlikable character so that not only will we be able to relish the subsequent bad fortune that falls on him, our sympathies towards Nathan will be greater than they would ordinarily be. Though the movie understands this, it seems unable to properly do it. To being with, Philbert is hardly seen and barely gets a word in before Nathan arrives at his mansion, so he's not properly set up to be the villain. There are some subsequent revelations to show Philbert is not exactly a nice guy, but they are all pretty light and superficial attempts. As a result of all this, my sympathies actually fell towards Philbert and not Nathan, and I was rooting for him to not only triumph over all his problems, but to shut up Nathan once and for all with a corkscrew applied to the throat.

As you might have guessed by that last statement, the movie also fails in making Nathan a character that we like or are even engaged enough by to make us interested where he will end up. For starters, take his personality. He has multiple personalities, but he has no real personality during one of his more saner moments. All he is then is a bland whiner who wants to meet his brother more for an attempt at a cure than any sense of family. It's at least a step up in palatability from any of those multiple personalities. They are all stereotypes to the worst degree; his cowboy personality just yee-haws and gets-along-little-doggie, his clown personality just sprays seltzer and laughs, and his baby personality just cries and cries. It would be tough for any actor to make such stereotypes funny, especially when they also have to suffer the humiliation of having to wear costumes for each personality that include not just baby costumes but dog ones as well. Still, Kearney's performance is so utterly unfunny that you have to wonder why the powers that be chose him over other performers, even Jim Carrey. From his performance, he seems to only have two ideas as to how an actor can be funny: shamelessly mug for the camera, and be VERY LOUD. It's agonizing to experience.

The other actors in the cast don't get material that's any better, but they are more subdued and likable, even ex-porno actress Traci Lords. In fact, Lords actually does pretty well as the mistress/maid; though she isn't funny, her part is written to be more or less straight, and I thought it was a perfectly competent performance - certainly more competent than how a lot of the movie is put together. It's clear that something went wrong during the filming that even the filmmakers realized; there's no other way to explain things like suspicious narration by Nathan that pops up occasionally to try and explain things, characters Yeah, but can he do a postive spin for the movie itself?suddenly in different positions and/or suddenly holding things from one shot to another, footage being reused, or scenes seemingly missing that would explain things like why a completely dressed turkey (served during lunch) tastes like varnish. The biggest screw-up The Nutt House makes, however, is that it just isn't funny. I only laughed the equivalent of three times (to be more exact, two actual laughs and two chuckles) during the entire movie. It's tough to explain why a comedy doesn't work apart from saying you didn't find it funny. After all, when it comes to humor, everyone's viewpoint is unique; what one person might find utterly unfunny someone else might find hilarious. Maybe you'd find these things funny, but I didn't:

  • Blatant plagiarism of gag sequences from older classic comedies. I recognized a couple of routines from Jerry Lewis movies, and it's perhaps inevitable a movie about twins would resurrect the infamous mirror sequence from Duck Soup. Not only that, but screenwriter Sam Raimi even rips off from himself, having a pair of asylum orderlies who have more than a passing resemblance to the Paul Smith and Brion James characters in Crimewave
  • Gags that have punchlines you'll immediately guess as soon as the gags begin. When Nathan sees his reflection in a mirror, we immediately know he will run to what he thinks is his brother and will be spun around in circles when he collides with it. When Nathan sits in a big chair, we know he'll topple over the chair and go head over heels. When Philbert finds himself clad only in his underwear and near some plant life... you guessed correctly.
  • Slapstick sequences that go on and on. Slapstick can be funny, but it usually works in small and quick doses. When we are constantly shown something that's of this or an equally simple-minded nature, it's not only tiresome (even Jerry Lewis knew when it was time to cool it), the movie takes on a simple-minded nature that almost seems to be insulting our intelligence. If the slapstick is as badly choreographed and stiffly performed as it is here, it will just aggravate things even further.

Believe it or not, according to recent news reports in the trades, there are plans to have The Nutt House remade as a major studio feature. Since it's hard to believe a remake could prove itself to be somehow inferior to this debacle, I am optimistic. Cautiously optimistic, since both Hollywood - and for that matter, the remake's producer Jerry Bruckheimer(!) - never cease to surprise me. Stay tuned.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Amanda & The Alien, The In-Laws, Viewer Discretion Advised