Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Super Sucker

SUPER SUCKER (Jeff Daniels, 2002)

Putting the words bad, bomb, or turkey in the title tempts fate and the critics, especially if the film stinks to high heaven. It’s like lobbing a big, fat pitch over the middle of the plate and expecting the hitter to keep the bat on his shoulder. So what is a critic to do when faced with a movie called SUPER SUCKER, whose tag line is “a new comedy that doesn’t blow…it sucks!”? As Joaquin Phoenix’s SIGNS character was instructed, swing away.

True to its name, SUPER SUCKER does indeed suck and suck hard. Contrary to the tag line, it blows too. Simply put, this movie about sweeper salesmen is a comedic vacuum.

Jeff Daniels is a SUPER SUCKER triple threat as writer, director, and star. (His production company Purple Rose Films is distributed the film.) Daniels plays Fred Barlow, a Super Sucker door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Fred attributes everything good in his life to the Super Sucker and the joy he gets from selling them.

Fred is one of two Super Sucker distributors in Johnson City, Michigan. Rival Winslow Schnaebelt (Harve Presnell), the devil in a red three-piece suit, is the more successful distributor. Winslow and associates soundly beat Fred and his motley salespeople in a month-long contest, leading the parent company to consider consolidating the two companies. One more thirty-day sales challenge will determine who will continue to distribute Super Suckers for the area.

Circumstances look dire for Fred. He can’t make any inroads while Winslow is trumpeting his distributorship with marching bands and airplane advertisements. After a particularly disastrous sales day, Fred returns home dejected. He accidentally, but serendipitously, finds his wife writhing on the bed in rapture while putting the Super Sucker to unconventional use. It seems that an antique drapery attachment, for those hard-to-reach places, is extremely effective in ways for which it was not originally conceived or designed.

Fred commissions a modern version of the discontinued attachment, and then he and crew start peddling the Super Sucker and its accessory as a domestic pleasure device, albeit as one big, expensive vibrator. The so-called “homemaker’s little helper” is an immediate success, sending sales to stratospheric levels. Vacuum cleaner sales can be cutthroat, and Winslow schemes to defeat his industrious opponent.

SUPER SUCKER isn’t remotely funny. The premise calls for lots of outrageous physical comedy, but all things considered, the film is tame. Assuming that a funny movie can be made about competing door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman--a major assumption considering how flat the jokes fall here--Daniels’ biggest mistake was to center the film on sweepers as sexual aids. It’s a one-joke idea that might sustain a sketch or a running gag tied to a character. Daniels’ choice to keep this from becoming full-tilt raunch is admirable, but if the concept calls for it, then follow through rather than be meek. There’s a scene, shot in one long take, where Fred is in bed with his wife while she pleasures herself with the Super Sucker. Obviously it’s supposed to be funny, but neither character says or does anything remotely humorous. His wife’s moans and groans are too subdued for a scene that needs to be played broadly, and Fred seems indifferent to his wife. SUPER SUCKER lacks the conviction to go all the way with the jokes, preferring to stay polite.

SUPER SUCKER isn’t told in the mockumentary style, but one wonders what Christopher Guest and his repertory players might have done with the premise in that format. He has nearly mastered the art of putting ordinary characters into situations that massage the absurd for laughs. A film featuring Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Parker Posey engaged in a vacuum cleaner sales battle akin to GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS could be hysterical.

SUPER SUCKER is literally laugh-free. Lame wordplay around the words sucks and blows doesn’t cut it. Supposedly “funny” names and a character who has different “wacky” hairstyles every time we see her doesn’t do it either. Surprisingly, we’re spared an obligatory scene with a salesman ruining someone’s carpet during a demonstration, although the second most obvious joke we could expect, a cat getting sucked into one of the sweepers, does appear.

Daniels, a Michigan native, has given back to the state in the form of his Purple Rose Theatre Company. He has also given Michiganders a taste of moviemaking, shooting ESCANABA IN DA MOONLIGHT and SUPER SUCKER there. SUPER SUCKER feels like a small, independent film which people enjoyed making and which the community heartily supported. Good times and good intentions, though, don’t necessarily equal a good movie, something SUPER SUCKER is far from being.

Grade: F

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