As the Brazilian rainforest is destroyed, two American missionaries try to teach the native people English using a "Dick and Jane" children's book. But the lesson is interrupted when a huge, irate Cocorada bug arrives and chases everyone from the area. The bug notices the book, and a plan is hatched. A group of these shape-changing insects are sent to a typical suburb of the U.S.A. to masquerade as the typical American family, and draw up plans to blow up the local nuclear power plant. These four bugs call themselves the Applegates, and they do indeed become the typical American family - unfortunately for their mission...
You know that well known fact about insects being the only creatures left alive after a nuclear holocaust? Or even a nucular holocaust? Well, we have all seen from watching old science fiction movies that radiation causes insects to grow to enormous size, but Meet The Applegates is different in that the insects are already pretty big, and intend to turn that radiation on the humans. Written by Redbeard Simmons and the director Michael Lehmann at the time when the threat to the Amazon Rainforest had grown topical, the film is less comfortable being an ecological treatise and happier being a satire on modern American values.
Never mind that the rainforest is in the process of destroyed at the rate of an area the size of Wales every minute, or whatever the statistic was, the Applegates are distracted by the same things that occupy the minds of the, er, nuclear family of the time. After Dick Applegate (Ed Begley Jr) gets a job at the power plant to spy and steal important blueprints, the rest of the family has to act normal so as not to arouse suspicion. Having taken their idea of normal from the "Dick and Jane" book, they are more like something out of the 1950s, with an endearing innocence that is quickly corrupted.
The cast are splendid, especially when things start to go wrong. Although they are planning the destruction of the human race, you feel sorry for the Applegates when they get out of their depth. Dick has an affair with his secretary, his wife Jane (Stockard Channing) turns shopping addict and runs up astronomical bills, daughter Sally (Cami Cooper) is raped, left pregnant and becomes a lesbian, and son Johnny (Bobby Jacoby) gets addicted to drugs. All the way through their experiences they are forced to cover up their shortcomings, not only from each other but by cocooning the people who discover their secrets, leading to a hysteria about a kidnapper in the neighbourhood.
The film is largely a one joke story, but enough variations are found to keep it entertaining throughout the relatively short running time. The humour comes to a head when the Applegates, having lost just about everything, are told that they have been won a competition to find the most average family in America. All the while, militant bug Aunt Bea (Dabney Coleman) has been heading towards the power plant to instigate the destruction, and the character's brusque attitude adds a little caustic humour - more of that might have helped the film hit its target more squarely.
Is this all a savage attack on the consumerist and hypocritical attitudes of America? No, it's more a "why can't we all get along?" comedy, yet that's not to say it doesn't make many valid points along the way. Would life be more contented if people addressed their faults instead of aiming for an ideal they can't hope to achieve? It could be that accepting your failures is one way of moving on, which the insects manage to do. Or maybe (if you're in a cynical mood) humanity is so insidious that it messes up everything it touches? Meet The Applegates may be an oddity, but its heart is in the right place and it is genuinely funny, even if it could have been sharper, and the "save the Earth" message is a bit lost. Music by David Newman.