300TH REVIEW: Wayne's World (1992)

Wayne's World (USA, 1992)
Directed by Penelope Spheeris
Starring Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Rob Lowe, Tia Carrere

I've spoken at great length in my reviews about the questionable cinematic legacy of Saturday Night Live. The show which in its prime provided a springboard for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd has all too often resulted in poor, one-joke affairs which have no place being on the big screen. As I stated in my review of Tammy, the number of actors (both male and female) who have successfully made the transition to a solid film career post-SNL is disappointingly small.
To some extent, we could hold Wayne's World responsible for this state of affairs. Its success at the box office opened the floodgates for the likes of Coneheads, It's Pat and Stuart Saves His Family to clutter up multiplexes on both sides of the pond at the expense of smarter, better comedies. But while those travesties are now largely forgotten in the minds of the movie-going public, Wayne's World has endured even as the careers of its main stars have waned. The reason for this is both simple and hard to explain - but rest assured, it's still pretty funny.
It's easy to think that Wayne's World has been embraced purely because it is so gleefully and unapologetically goofy. It makes no apologies for its rough edges, modest character development or the performances of its leading men, and that confidence is naturally endearing. But for all the cult appeal of individual lines or sequences (head-banging to Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is now almost automatic), there is still more to it than that.
What separates Wayne's World from the likes of Coneheads and others from the SNL stable is not simply a feeling of confidence about its style. It also has a lack of arrogance about it - which is pretty impressive if you believe all the stories about Mike Myers' diva-ish demands behind the scenes. While other SNL vehicles bumble around with their head in the clouds, feeling as sure as the sun will rise that an audience will find the same joke funny for more than five minutes, Wayne's World is altogether more modest and far less obnoxious. It puts in the hard yards without feeling the need to shout about it, and it accepts its small, self-contained identity rather than striving to be something that it's not.
At its most basic, the story of Wayne's World is neither especially complex nor overly original. It's the tried-and-tested story about young artists who are faced with the choice between getting rich and selling out or staying true to their art but living in poverty. It treads the line between right-on satire of the music business and just depicting the status quo, helped in no small amount by the casting of Brat Pack alumnus Rob Lowe as the good-looking, early-1990s descendant of Swan from Phantom of the Paradise, or Max Renn from Videodrome.
The natural point of comparison with Wayne's World is This Is Spinal Tap, particularly given director Penelope Spheeris' background in music documentaries. There are, naturally, a number of differences, most of which only serve to provide evidence (if it were needed) of Reiner's brilliance. Wayne's World is not as intimate a work as 'Tap; while Reiner's film was borne out of free-flowing improvisation, this has more of a conscious artifice, feeling less like a documentary than a high-concept film with a low-budget aesthetic. Equally, Reiner's film had a very clear and committed vision, while there is evidence on-screen of the clashes between director and stars off-screen. Wayne's World isn't crippled by this, but it prevents it from being a great film as opposed to merely a very good one.
Spheeris' background in music history, particularly her work on the history of punk rock and heavy metal, would lead us to assume that she would want to use the characters in this film as a vehicle to satirise the music business. Even without attempting ether a full-blown savaging like its contemporary The Player, or something as fantastical as Brian De Palma's efforts, there is plenty of scope for using the characters in this manner. But at every turn she is confronted by Myers and his co-writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, who just want to set up a situation and throw the most gags at the screen. It's a bit like imagining Slade in Flame intercut with bits of Austin Powers; it's a memorable contrast, and it kind of works, but only up to a point.
This conflict is most clearly demonstrated in the famous jokes about product placement. When the joke is done the first couple of times, it's a neat, clever gag, poking fun at the double standards present in show business and breaking the fourth wall by also targeting the film industry. But the more times the gag is repeated, the more we start to question the intentions behind it, and on repeat viewing it all feels rather lame. The same goes for the multiple endings; it works the first time, but things rapidly become tiresome and we begin to lose patience.
Fortunately, like the best work of the Zucker brothers, there is enough good comedy in Wayne's World to largely justify its running time - and unlike a lot of modern comedies, it isn't overly long. It adopts a similarly scattershot approach to Airplane! or the work of Mel Brooks, throwing as many jokes at us as it can, so that if one or two fall flat, we don't have time to dwell on them. Most of the humour is low-brow, not to say rather stupid, but it's an honest stupidity borne out of sympathy with humble-minded characters rather than contempt for our intelligence.
One of the very best sequences in the film is the section featuring Alice Cooper, which finds a harmonious middle ground between Myers' shtick and Spheeris' more high-minded ambitions. Cooper is really enjoying the part without milking it or drawing attention to his presence in the way that so many American comedians would; he gets the premise of the scene and he serves the material really well. This scene also finds Myers and co-star Dana Carvey at their most endearing; they're still goofing around, but you also get the impression of them taking things seriously and giving Cooper the respect that he deserves.
As far as its visual sensibility goes, Wayne's World is very much a product of its time. Spheeris' lo-fi approach is complimented by her cinematographer Theo van de Sande, who would later lens Blade and Cruel Intentions, and the film's editing keeps things rolling along as a sensible pace. It's hard to argue that the fashions have aged well, or that some of its camera positions would be de riggeur today, but the visual decisions still serve the comedy well, and that's what matters.
Wayne's World remains a funny if ramshackle comedy which overcomes its internal struggles to hold our attention for the majority of its running time. Like a lot of comedies, its structural shortcomings can ultimately be excused by the consistency (or at least sheer quantity) of its gags, and for all the little niggles with the script both Myers and Carvey remain endearing screen presences. For all the misfires in Myers' subsequent careers (including the sequel), he can still take a lot of pride in this.

NEXT REVIEW: Suicide Squad (2016)