Before the novel was even published, Chevy Chase was keen to make a movie based on H.F. Saint's Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Envisioning it as a serious movie with themes of isolation and paranoia that would help transition the actor into less comedic roles, he pushed it through the development process as something of a vanity project, hiring and then rejecting various directors before settling on horror icon John Carpenter. The final product was an abject failure, bombing with critics and audiences and failing to earn even half its budget back. As a result, Chase was unable to become the serious actor he hoped to be, and the movie was all but forgotten.
I remember enjoying the movie as a teenager, often rewatching a recording I'd made on VHS during an HBO free weekend. Going into it for the purposes of this review and watching it for the first time in two decades, I let my nostalgia get the better of me and get me excited. I had high hopes that I'd end my long series of articles about invisible man books and movies with a bang, waxing poetic about yet another unfairly maligned John Carpenter classic. The man practically made his career on bombs that went on to become cult favorites, so why should Memoirs of an Invisible Man--a movie I loved as a kid--be any different?
And as an adaptation, it has its bright spots. The script does a lot to streamline the often cumbersome novel, finding remarkably clever ways of cutting to the chase (pun intended) and building character relationships that film audiences can get behind. It also has some neat visuals. For example, in the accident that transforms protagonist Nick Halloway into an invisible man, there's the business with the building. In the novel, the entire building is made invisible, which makes for some fun problems that would be difficult to sustain on film. The filmmakers solve this by making the building's invisibility a scattered effect, with parts of it still visible as jagged, chaotic fragments hanging effortlessly in midair as a vague suggestion of the structure it once was. This is visually striking, and a clever way of giving the sequence more to look at than just a bunch of people walking around over an empty crater.
It might have worked as a romantic comedy
It also wisely eliminates the character of Anne and expands Alice to replace her in the beginning of the story. Thus, Alice is a consistent character throughout, rather than a deus ex machina, while simultaneously acting as an anchor for the story, making it clear which direction the narrative is likely to take. There's also some significant time compression--with Halloway's months of moving from apartment to apartment and club to club removed--and far less talk of brokerage accounts and stock manipulation. The novel feels meandering whereas the film script feels tight. The script also gives Halloway's pursuers better tools that they would of course have, things like heat-vision and spray paint.
Alas, for everything it does right, it takes a gross misstep in the wrong direction, like including a mind-numbingly unnecessary voice-over narration. The biggest sin in the screenplay is the gross oversimplification of the characters. Nick, while still portrayed as a shallow, womanizing alcoholic at the start of the story, quickly reveals himself to be the unambiguous hero beset by the malevolent machinations of antagonist David Jenkins. Halloway isn't seen committing many crimes, and when he does do illegal things--such as breaking into someone else's summer home--it's revealed that the victim is kind of a jerk in his own right who probably deserves the relatively minor inconvenience it turns out to be. As for Jenkins, who is easily the most interesting character in the novel, he is turned into a mustache-twirling villain stripped of all ambiguity and charisma. He even quite clearly murders the scientist whose only sin is knowing an invisible man exists.
Sam Neill is wasted
This is all exacerbated by baffling casting decisions. If Chase truly wanted to make a serious movie that would transition him away from comedy, why would he accept a cast made up almost entirely of well-known comedic actors? Chevy Chase, Daryl Hannah, Michal McKean, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Patricia Heaton are all funny people who have delivered great performances in several straight-forward comedies, but none of them are particularly well-suited for the more dramatic film Chase was aiming for. Even the moderately more serious Sam Neill--who I think could have been well-cast as a more enigmatic Jenkins--exaggerates his character's monodimensional qualities as though he's in a comedy.
This would be fine if Memoirs of an Invisible Man were actually a funny movie, but it feels like a movie that is allergic to jokes, with nearly every potentially humorous moment avoided, even ones that would work just fine in a dramatic film to cut the tension. I wasn't the least bit surprised to learn after watching it that the original version of the script was written as a comedy by William Goldman. Chase called the script "Clark Griswold becoming invisible" (as though that would be a bad thing) and had all of its humor removed, which is why the movie feels unusually joyless, a feeling that is again exacerbated by the cast (and marketing) that puts audiences in the seats expecting something more light-hearted and entertaining. As such, Memoirs of an Invisible Man fails at both comedy and drama. It has the simplistic characters, cast, and set-up of a situational comedy, but forces them to deliver an unearned dramatic payoff that is stripped of all nuance and dynamic character change.
It's a bad idea to remind people of a better movie
I'd love to give Carpenter a pass as director--his hands were no doubt tied by Chase's conflicting impulses and the unfamiliar demands of big-budget filmmaking--but even the directing feels half-hearted and uninspired. Everything else, too, lacks enthusiasm, from the effects to the music. Even as spectacle--which as I've noted for the last several weeks is usually a mainstay of even the worst invisible man films--the movie kind of falls apart. There are a few good visuals, but most of them are deliberately avoided by the inexcusable choice to frequently show Chevy Chase acting, even as his character is supposed to be invisible. This is a lazy shortcut, and whether it was done to give Chase more screentime, to cut down on the effects budget, or to try to show things from Halloway's perspective more clearly, it is a fatal mistake that all but ruins the entire movie. No other invisible man movie that I'm aware of does this, and this should stand as a very good reason why not.
So that's how I'm forced to conclude my series on the invisible man. I am truly disappointed with how poorly the idea has been handled since the heyday of Universal's monster movies, and my hopes for Leigh Whannel's modern reimagining, to be released next year, are tempered to say the least. (Read my review here.) While Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Hollow Man aren't "remakes" of the Universal adaptation of H.G. Wells' story, strictly speaking, I think they still count as torch-bearers. I don't, as a general rule, treat new versions as inherently inferior to their predecessors--1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1982's The Thing, and 1986's The Fly, for example, are at least as good as their originals, and I'm an enormous defender of 2014's Godzilla--but exercizes like this one are starting to turn me into a curmudgeon constantly railing about how more modern works are immaterial when compared to the classics of the past.
-e. magill 10/31/2019
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: