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The Manic Professor

This antiquated vehicle becomes a showcase for digital effects

First, The Heiress was unofficially remade as Washington Square, then Ace in the Hole as Mad City, and The Day of the Jackal as The Jackal. But now we get The Absent Minded Professor, all dressed up in new threads, as Flubber.

In this frenzy of plundering the past, is nothing sacred?
For those of you too chronologically challenged to remember the original film, Fred MacMurray starred as bumbling but brilliant Ned Brainard, a chemistry prof who invents "flubber" -- that is, flying rubber -- and uses it to make both his Model T and his college's basketball team airborne.

The 1961 Disney production was one of the commercial high points of Disney's first live-action comedy phase, sandwiched between The Shaggy Dog (also with MacMurray) and the less stellar Son of Flubber. It was one of the highest-grossing films of the year and was nominated for three Oscars in art direction, cinematography and special effects.

The latter is particularly telling: It's easy to forget just how primitive effects technology was back in those pre-2001 days. To call it crude would be an understatement.

And the effects are, of course, the most obvious justification for remaking such a hoary antique. Much as the professor's flubber breathed new life into his wheezing old car, so do the new digital special effects goose up the energy level of this equally antiquated vehicle.

The other justification is the casting of Robin Williams in the MacMurray role. Williams is so sui generis that his presence automatically changes any project he stars in. Surprisingly, in this case, the change isn't particularly welcome.

The new version -- directed by Les Mayfield and produced by John Hughes (sharing the screenplay credit with the long-dead Bill Walsh, who wrote the first film) -- is reasonably faithful to its model. Phillip Brainard, as the character has been renamed, is a professor at the nearly bankrupt Medfield College. He is so wrapped up in his research that he fails in every other aspect of his life: Though he claims to love his fiancee, Sara (Marcia Gay Harden), he has missed their wedding three times. (In an interesting sign of the times, the fiancee character has been changed from the college president's secretary to the college president.) The understandably exasperated Sara is finally beginning to consider her other suitor, loathsome Wilson Croft (Christopher McDonald), who has built his career on stealing Brainard's ideas.

Brainard tries to explain to Sara that he only missed their wedding because he was working on flubber, which could financially save the school. She doesn't believe him, but, unfortunately, evil magnate Chester Hoenicker (Raymond J. Barry) does. Together with his lamebrained son Bennett (Wil Wheaton) and some hired goons (Clancy Brown and Ted Levine), he steals flubber.

Just as in the original, the plot of this new Flubber is full of holes. And new problems have also been introduced, to provide a showcase for digital effects. Inexplicably, Flubber '97 is anthropomorphic flubber -- when it suits the filmmakers' purposes. Sometimes it's a cute little Pop 'n' Fresh clone with a will and a personality; other times it has the power to become a whole roomful of clones. And yet other times, it's just flying rubber. Kids might not mind, but adults will find their patience tried.

There is also the introduction of Brainard's robot/computer/companion, Weebo. Weebo is so clearly a more important invention than flubber that Brainard should already be richer than Edwin Land. In fact, Weebo can already fly, prior to the invention of flubber, by means just as mystical and impressive.

Weebo is the most interesting new element -- a weird cross between Tinkerbell and the robot from Short Circuit. Weebo is actually so in love with her inventor that she materializes herself as a Mademoiselle-cover-girl type and visits him in bed in a diaphanous gown. Eventually, she more or less bears his child, in a plot twist that suggests Flubber as a fitting companion to Demon Seed and Alien Resurrection on a triple bill. It falls somewhere between the daringly inventive and the downright creepy.

Despite the general fidelity to Walsh's old screenplay, John Hughes's grimy fingerprints are all over the film, particularly in the inclusion of the same sort of broad, sadistic slapstick that characterized the Home Alone films. The sight of Levine getting hit on the head by a flubber-charged bowling ball is apparently such a guaranteed laugh-getter that it becomes a running gag. (And, truth be told, these Stooge-like moments were invariably the most hysterical to the little kids in the audience, so maybe Hughes knows what he's doing.)

If the update is mainly distinguished by its glossy effects and the hyperkinetic shtick level, what is least successful is Williams's performance. He's relatively restrained -- which, by Williams standards, may not mean much -- but he doesn't convey the bumbling charm that MacMurray had perfected in nearly 30 years of light comedies. His obliviousness is so total that he doesn't seem absent-minded so much as dangerously psychotic.

Flubber.
Directed by Les Mayfield. With Robin Williams, Marcia Gay Harden, Christopher McDonald and Raymond J. Barry.

Rated PG.
92 minutes.

 
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