I’ve loved actor Richard Benjamin ever since I first saw him as Dick Hollister opposite real-life wife Paula Prentiss in the 1967 TV show He & She, an undervalued comedic gem that paved the way for the much more famous Mary Tyler Moore Show. Benjamin not only starred in the sitcom, but he was also responsible for much of its tone.
So it came as no surprise that he evidenced a similar humanistic and dry comic flair when he turned his hand to directing years later, with what is still his best film, My Favorite Year (in which he coaxed a thoroughly delightful Richard Benjamin impression out of Mark Linn-Baker). And while a good many of his subsequent films have been variable to say the least, Marci X trudges its way past that middling mark with grim determination — straight into the realm of being altogether pretty bad.
Marci X is not, however, unwatchable. There are, in fact, some pretty funny stretches — though at its worst, the film has the mesmerizing appeal of something you see happening, yet still don’t believe could be happening. Most of the movie is simply an essay in misdirected talent: Benjamin is both a gifted performer and director; screenplay author Paul Rudnick has a fairly distinguished list of writing credentials; Lisa Kudrow is an appealing comic actress; and Damon Wayans has had his moments.
The problem is that nobody involved in Marci X should have gotten within 100 miles of this material. This is a movie that might best be summed up as music historian Alec Wilder once described the Gershwin song “Slap That Bass”: “Old folks making rhythm.” In other words, it’s too phony for words.
Marci X was made by people who apparently don’t know a damned thing about hip-hop, and yet have taken the subject, slapped on a bunch of not-very-funny (but very, very faux) hip-hop songs and then shoehorned the consequent mess into a lame sitcom format with 30 minutes of story stretched out to 90 minutes of movie. I don’t claim to know or even much appreciate rap (something “fans” of my 8 Mile review will undoubtedly second), but I know enough to realize I’m no expert on the topic. And those responsible for Marci X appear to be in the same boat, except that they don’t know — or don’t care — that they haven’t got a clue. The results are rather like those bitterly reactionary “generation gap” sex comedies Bob Hope ended his film career making.
The movie’s premise is pure sitcom: Hip-hop star Dr. S (Damon Wayans) has scandalized the nation with his latest album, which includes such tunes as “Shoot the Teacher.” (The America presented in Marci X is very easily scandalized.) The record has incurred the wrath of right-wing Sen. Mary Ellen Spinkle (Christine Baranski, coming off better than anyone else in the film), who’s vowed to “look out for the best interests of the people, not actually listen to them.” The senator’s mission (“There are millions of people who think like me — they’re in Utah”) is to bankrupt the parent company of Dr. S’s label, and her efforts put media mogul Ben Feld (Benjamin) in the hospital, prompting his daughter, Marci (Kudrow), to try to “rehabilitate” Dr. S and get him to do PSAs and apologize for his album.
Of course, nothing goes as planned. Dr. S quickly turns the ersatz Back Street Boys group Boys ‘r’ Us into an openly gay act that makes the Village People look butch. He generally refuses to conform and, of course, turns out to be the man of Marci’s dreams — despite utterly destroying her efforts at damage control by performing a song about anal sex on the MTV Music Awards. And all this might have worked had the filmmakers cast a real rapper rather than Wayans, or at least someone who sounds a little less like a spectacularly whiny Michael Jackson.
Wayans is far and away the least successful thing about the movie, and that’s no small feat. There is also absolutely no chemistry between him and Kudrow. The musical numbers are occasionally amusing, but quickly bog down in their one-joke approach. The script is at its best when making good-natured fun of gay stereotypes (no surprise considering Rudnick’s other writing credits). Benjamin wisely keeps himself offscreen for much of the film by being confined to a hospital bed — and it’s easy to believe that this is also the position from which he directed most of the movie.
Go rent My Favorite Year instead. For that matter, go rent Benjamin’s My Stepmother Is an Alien — or better still, spend the time you saved in missing Marci X by writing to TV Land and encouraging them to run the old He & She episodes.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke