Monday, February 20, 2012

Doctor Detroit

Directed by Michael Pressman.
1983. Rated R, 91 minutes.
Dan Aykroyd
Howard Hesseman
Fran Drescher
Lynn Whitfield
Donna Dixon
T. K. Carter
Lydia Lei
Kate Murtagh
George Furth
Nan Martin
James Brown

In the immortal words of The Geto Boys, my mind’s playing tricks on me. Google it if you must, youngsters. The trick performed was indeed a dastardly deception. I really thought the woman had been sawn in half. You see friends, I found myself in my favorite used book store wandering through aisles and aisles of DVDs someone else no longer wanted. Eventually, I meandered over to the bargain bin. That’s where they keep the movies they really didn’t want to take in and hope some sucker will snatch them up at a buck or two. Knowing there’s an off chance I might find a real gem, I dig in. Shortly, I get my hand on a copy of Doctor Detroit. I immediately recognize as a movie from Dan Akroyd’s heyday, that time between the opening skit of the first episode of Saturday Night Live and the closing credits of Spies Like Us.

Folks, this where the lies begin. I told myself that everything Akroyd did during this period was pure gold. After all, this stretch includes The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and Ghostbusters. I remember seeing hilarious ads for Doctor Detroit. This was one of those iconic movies from my youth that I somehow missed out on. I vividly recall it was a smash hit either shortly before or after Trading Places. Well, as it turns out DD did come out about a month prior to Trading Places However, as evidenced by the fact that it was gone from theaters before that month ran out, it was not a hit in any way. There is a good reason.

It should go without saying that Akroyd plays the title role. He’s by far the biggest name in the cast at the time. His character’s real name is Clifford, and he’s a college professor for a school mired in financial problems. Doctor Detroit is his pimp alter-ego. Let me explain. Doctor Detroit is actually an alter-ego created by someone else for Clifford. Smooth Walker, played by the eternally cool Howard Hesseman, is a real pimp who’s deep in debt to Mom (Murtagh), who runs the local crime world. As a way out, he tells Mom that a big time bad guy named Doctor Detroit has muscled in on his territory and Smooth’s getting out of town for fear of his life. Naturally, Mom and her goons go looking for the Doctor and find only Clifford. Of course, the only thing for the professor to do is don a blonde-wig, yellow jacket, lime green pants, a pair of Elton John shades, a false metal hand, speak like a constipated Edward G. Robinson and pretend to be a big time crimelord from Michigan.

Don’t fret, Smooth left behind some help, sorta. This is where the cast gets interesting. As mentioned, Akroyd has the biggest name but the rest of the troupe is certainly not without merit. Hesseman, of course, is best known as radio DJ Johnny Fever from the legendary sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. You already know he leaves town. So, to facilitate our hero’s transformation into Doctor Detroit there are five other key players: Smooth’s limo driver and the four girls in his stable. The driver is Daivolo, played by none other than T. K. Carter. If you’ve either forgotten or are too young to remember, Carter made a career out of playing the token jive-talkin’, bug-eyed black guy in movies with predominantly white casts. This is just one of a number of such roles for him. In true 80s fashion, our hookers are a purposefully diverse bunch: an all-American blue eyed blonde, a brunette with a thick New York accent, a sassy black girl and an Asian girl with the classic “me love you long time” accent. The blonde is played by Donna Dixon. At this time, she was suppose to be the next “it” girl. She hung around and did a number of movies, but it never quite worked out for her the way some thought it would. Lydia Lei plays the Asian girl and only has a handful of credits. The brunette and the black girl have the most notable careers. Fran Drescher plays the brunette, Lynn Whitfield, obviously, the black girl. Drescher went on to star in The Nanny a huge sitcom. Whitfield, would go on to critical acclaim in the title role of The Josephine Baker Story. Both have continued to pop up in television and movie roles to this day.

The cast isn’t the problem, here. True, there are no award-worthy performances but the acting was solid. The issue is the lazy and unfunny script. It follows all the machinations of tons of other flicks without much flavor of its own. Aside from Clifford pretending to be a pimp there’s also some academic big-wig trying to make his way to the university with a school-saving donation check. Yes, Clifford is supposed to make sure he gets there. Tired hijinks and shenanigans ensue.

Before you think that I’m jaded by the hundreds of other comedies I’ve watch in the nearly thirty years since this came out, remember this: no one liked it in 1983, either. It managed to make barely more than its budget, but that was likely due to a number of people going to see it simply because of Akroyd. He manages to get a few laughs, but it takes a Herculean effort. Much of his zaniness is in vain. Thank goodness Trading Places came out when it did. This ensures we’d have no time to dwell on how bad this is. However, it’s not totally void of value. It did confirm a lesson many have tried to teach me over the years: even your own memory can’t be trusted.

MY SCORE: 3/10

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