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  Americathon Your Crystal Ball Is Cracked
Year: 1979
Director: Neal Israel
Stars: Harvey Korman, John Ritter, Fred Willard, Chief Dan George, Richard Schaal, Peter Riegert, Nancy Morgan, Zane Busby, Meat Loaf, Elvis Costello, Terence McGovern, Howard Hesseman, Jay Leno, Allan Arbus, David Opatoshu, George Carlin, Cybill Shepherd
Genre: Comedy, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  3 (from 1 vote)
Review: We can pin the blame on the fuel crisis of the nineteen-seventies for how the future ended up. The United States of America ran out of money fast in the eighties, and everyone was forced to take up cycling, rollerskating or skateboarding to get around, since most were living in their cars, which had become the latest low cost housing now hardly anyone could afford an actual house. As for the powers that be, China had become the dominant superpower, and the Middle East had finally set aside its differences as the Arabs and Jews united to create a superstate, one which was seeking to sabotage America. They needn't have bothered, as the government there had borrowed billions from an Indian Chief, and he wanted his money back...

You could well observe nothing dates like yesterday's satire, and satire predicting how the planet was going to wind up was even less durable. Take Americathon, for instance, they got the rise of China right, but everything else they conjured up was desperately grounded in 1979, making this far more of a time capsule of the targets for humour in that decade than it had anything to do with 1998, when the film was set. Not helping was that to put across the gags was a bunch of talent that would remind audiences they could watch them all on television instead of traipsing off to the cinema to watch them deliver mild jokes posing as a ruthless takedown of politics and society it aspired to be.

John Ritter, then riding high in the ratings in sitcom Three's Company, played President Roosevelt - that's Chet Roosevelt, not either of the others, an idiot, basically, who is more keen on sleeping around than he is coming up with viable ideas to save his nation (which now includes Great Britain as the fifty-seventh state). Nevertheless, when the axe is about to fall, he does bring in a media expert, Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert), who proposes a way to get the money: Americans love watching television, therefore what better way to raise the necessary billions in funds than a telethon - "Americathon!" as Chet Christens it? However, there is a saboteur in league with the Middle East, Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) who may be in the Cabinet but is in the pay of America's enemies, and he means to prevent the cash flowing in.

In practice this means rendering the telethon as a cross between the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy charity drive and The Gong Show (Chuck Barris gets a mention, though isn't seen), presenting acts so downmarket that nobody in their right mind would pledge anything - they'd be more likely to pledge to take the thing off the air. Which left the movie in something of a dilemma, as it was trying to be very smart, but in doing so was putting on deliberately poor and idiotic entertainments as objects of ridicule, except we were simultaneously asked to be diverted by them, sort of a having their cake and eating it too operation. What Elvis Costello thought about being part of a fictional TV show of garbage goes unrecorded, but at least Harvey Korman as the presenter Monty Rushmore was in on the joke.

Indeed, he improvised the sole moment of genuine laughter in the whole thing as he gets rid of a poor impressionist by passionately kissing him - you can tell it's improvised by the comedian's reaction and the band in the background cracking up. But mostly we were not so much watching low rent acts one after the other, as there was the behind the scenes business to concern us as Vanderhoff contrives to shut the power off (the audience keeps watching for five days anyway) and even going as far as kidnapping Chet, which backfires when the Government can't afford the ransom and certainly aren't going to take it out of the charity funds. This was based on a stage show by members of the Firesign Theater, adapted to the screen by others including director Neal Israel (soon to strike it lucky with Police Academy), and the fact it was dated within a year of its release gives you an idea of how it plays now that Jimmy Carter quips are less relevant these days. Though you do get to see Jay Leno box his (screen) mother, and Meat Loaf duel the last car in America. Music by Tom Scott.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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