The Manic Professor

First The Heiress was unofficially remade as Washington Square, then Ace in the Hole as Mad City, and then The Day of the Jackal as The Jackal. 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 1961 Disney original, Fred MacMurray starred as bumbling but brilliant Ned Brainard, a chemistry prof who invents "flubber" -- i.e., flying rubber -- and uses it to make both his Model T and his college's basketball team airborne.

The Absent-Minded Professor was one of the commercial high points of Disney's first live-action comedy phase, sandwiched in between The Shaggy Dog (also with MacMurray) and the less stellar Son of Flubber (MacMurray again). It was one of the highest-grossing films of the year and was nominated for three Oscars: art direction, cinematography, and special effects. The latter is particularly telling. It's easy to forget just how primitive effects-technology was back before 1968, when 2001:A Space Odyssey suddenly upped the ante. To call them 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 too do the new digital special effects goose up the energy level of this equally antiquated vehicle.

The other big 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, updated 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 the original. 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. For instance, while 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 missed their wedding only because he was working on flubber, which could save the school from financial ruin. She doesn't believe him, but evil magnate Chester Hoenicker (Raymond J. Barry) does. Together with his lamebrained son Bennett (Wil Wheaton) and hired goons (Clancy Brown and Ted Levine), Chester steals flubber.

As was the case in the original, the plot of Flubber is full of holes. And because of the presence of the digital effects, new problems have been inadvertently introduced. Inexplicably, flubber '97 is anthropomorphic flubber -- at least when it suits the filmmakers' purposes. Sometimes it's a cute little Popin' Fresh clone with a will and a personality. Other times it has the power to become a whole roomful of clones. At yet other times it's just flying rubber. Kids might not mind, but adults may find the inconsistency irritating.

There is also the problem of Brainard's female 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 just as well as flubber, prior to the latter's invention, by means never explained.

Weebo is the most interesting new element -- a weird cross between Tinkerbell and the robot from Short Circuit. She is so in love with her inventor that she materializes herself as a Mademoiselle-style cover girl 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. As a plot device, it falls somewhere between the daringly inventive and the downright creepy.

Despite the general fidelity to Walsh's old screenplay, John Hughes' grimy fingerprints are all over the new film, particularly in the inclusion of the same sort of broad, sadistic slapstick that characterized the Home Alone films, which Hughes also wrote and produced. 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. (Truth be told, these Three Stooges-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' 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. Still, in Williams' hands the new Brainard has an obliviousness so total that the word absent-minded hardly does him justice. His relation to the real world is closer to psychotic.

The rug rats are likely to gobble up Flubber enthusiastically, but anyone over the age of about eleven may find the experience more wearying than entertaining.

Flubber.
Directed by Les Mayfield. Written by John Hughes and Bill Walsh, based on a story by Samuel W. Taylor. Starring Robin Williams, Marcia Gay Harden, Christopher McDonald, and Raymond J. Barry.

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