Weird Al became a pop-culture icon thanks to his musical parodies. His career spans more than three decades, meaning he's outlasted the careers of almost everyone he's parodied. His riffs on pop music aren't always brilliant, but even at their worst, they're always worth a smirk. And at their best, they're frequently better than the song he's parodying -- seriously, isn't "Amish Paradise" at least as memorable as the song that spawned it? His contributions to the arena of musical satire are unquestionably immense, and it's hard to imagine they will be topped in any of our lifetimes, if ever. But that's not all Al can do. For a brief, shining moment at the end of the '80s, his comedic genius and smart-alec attitude were unleashed on the world of film, with UHF.
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Weird Al's one and only contribution to the world of feature film proved his talent was not limited to music. His absurd sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture translated well to movies. No corner of the television or film landscape goes untouched by his sometimes biting, often absurd wit in UHF. Everything from local commercials to the Morton Downey Jr.-style TV talk show hosts gets skewered, with mostly great results. From the opening parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the innumerable throwaway jokes and references to far more obscure films -- ten geek points to anyone who catches the reference to B-movie classic This Island Earth that's thrown in without comment -- the film displays an unusual degree of comedic intelligence.
Coupled to that is a gleeful, willful embrace of absolute stupidity. Clowns are hit in the face with frying pans and fed dog biscuits. A pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards hurls himself across the screen in his role as a possibly insane man-child who becomes a TV sensation. Cartoonish violence that would put the most sadistic animated adventures of Tom and Jerry to shame suffuses the film, from Emo Phillips cutting off his thumb with a table saw to a deranged apartment dweller hurling poodles out of his second-story window in an attempt to teach them to fly.
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As Spinal Tap said, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." No film has ever done quite such an outstanding job of erasing that line as UHF -- and that probably explains its mediocre box-office success. Not a lot of Americans like truly smart films, and while plenty of us love stupid shit, they were presumably put off by all the smartness that surrounded it. Critics mostly hated it, or were simply bewildered by it, and even for a devoted fan of the film, it's not hard to understand why. The main plot is boilerplate nonsense that barely serves to provide a framing mechanism for what's basically a series of parodic comedy sketches. The pacing is uneven and the middle drags a bit. Some of the casting is suspect -- who told Victoria Jackson she could act? And why did they tell her that? -- and Weird Al himself never seems completely comfortable in his role.
Despite all that, the film is funny. As with any sketch-based affair, some bits are better than others but the best of them are well-worth the price of admission. (Seriously, has there ever been a more accurate or hilarious send up of action movie tropes than the Rambo sequence?) And while it took years, the film did find a devoted audience on home video, even if it was too late to secure more film work for Weird Al. In UHF, his little weirdo TV station that could beats out the corporate bullies and gets to live on, spreading its bizarre gospel to the world. In the real world ... well, the real world won, and he never had an opportunity to make another film. But at least we'll always have this one.
See UHF at 6 p.m. Sunday, January 11 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Tickets are $10.75; to buy them or get more info, visit the UHF event page on the Alamo website.
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Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.