Nether Regions 06.14.11: North
Posted by Chad Webb on 06.14.2011
This week I begrudgingly revisit the movie that Rob Reiner, Elijah Wood, and Bruce Willis probably don’t like answering questions about. Read all about this disaster from 1994…
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Elijah Wood, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and many other poor saps Directed By: Rob Reiner Written By: Alan Zweibel and Andrew Scheinman Running Time: 87 minutes Release Date: July 22nd, 1994 Missing Since: March 13, 2001 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Available Through Netflix Instant Watch Availability:Mildly Rare
The epic catastrophe that is North was released in the summer of 1994. It was directed by Rob Reiner who, by that time, had made the following films: This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and A Few Good Men. Not too shabby for Meathead, but all that changed when Reiner assembled an all-star cast for North, led by a young Elijah Wood. It is perhaps most famously known because of Roger Ebert's review, which led to him using a sentence from his article as the title for a future book, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. He and Gene Siskel destroyed the film on their show, Siskel and Ebert At The Movies, and named it the worst film of 1994. It's impossible to write about North without mentioning their outspoken distaste of it (See below). Were they right? Granted, I might not list North among my least favorite films, but it is certainly in that ballpark.
North's comatose parents reflect viewers' reactions after the movie.
Aside from the fact that the execution of the premise is manipulative and unbelievable even for a fantasy, on the surface it is relatively intriguing. Unfortunately the ending of North is one of those moments where the viewer automatically shakes their head in disgust, regretful of the time they wasted on the preceding experience. It is a cheat, but a predictable one, which only makes it worse. To be a lazy cheat only gets under our skin. Also, it is creepy to imagine kids asking their parents to take them to see this considering the setup.
North starts with the titular child, who is the smartest kid in class, the best athlete, a star on the stage, and revered by parents everywhere as perfect in every way. Suffice to say if North was a real kid, he would be despised by every other student. How he did not get beaten with soap like Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket by his peers is beyond me. After one night at the dinner table of his parents not paying attention to his fake coronary, North goes to his secret spot (a mall furniture store; way to aim low) and is given the idea to divorce his parents by Bruce Willis dressed as the Easter Bunny. Already this sounds God awful on paper. Did no one else stop and say "Ummm, maybe we should try something else?" North's parents are played by Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, looking very un-Seinfeld like. So they had bad days at work. That hardly warrants a search for new parents. I think Reiner, or the severely misguided screenwriters Alan Zweibel (based on his novel) and Andrew Scheinman, could have attached a montage of North's parents acting like pricks over time, instead of just one evening.
Oh North does try to phone his parents at work during school for one last chance, and is shocked and dismayed to discover they don't drop everything to listen to his whining adolescent worries. North's father makes money trying on pants. There is a bit where we see his place of work with random idiots and it is designed to be funny. Personally, I would like to sit and watch anyone associated with this film legitimately laugh when Alexander tries on pants. I almost forgot to mention Mathew McCurley, who is as supremely annoying here as Winchell as he was in Little Giants. Through Winchell, North gets a lawyer named Arthur Belt, portrayed by Jon Lovitz. His entrance is one of the few scenes I enjoyed. All scenes afterwards with Lovitz are tough to stomach. After Alan Arkin overstays his welcome with only a couple minutes on screen as a Judge, North is granted his freedom, but he has a limited amount of time to choose a new mom and pop, go back to his original ones, or he will be remanded to an orphanage.
North then meets a series of potential parental units. Perhaps you were still on board at this juncture of the film, which was a tad over the 20 minute mark. When Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire drive through the airport as wealthy Ma and Pa Tex in a stagecoach golf cart, everyone watching, even a toddler who understands right and wrong, had to know they were in store for a long m'fn' night. Reba and Dan even have a musical number, and it will take counseling to stop the nightmares after seeing that unfold. Observing Lovitz and McCurley receive massages ranks as a close second. There are many reasons I'm sure why people loathe North, but the auditioning of parents segments have to be #1. Each set is the definition of an obnoxious ethnic stereotype, they are borderline offensive, and definitely excruciating. As parodies, satire, farce, or whatever style of comedy you care to cite, they fail on a level that I as a critic cannot accurately describe. Broad caricatures can occasionally be amusing, but these are not, they are grating.
North endures Ma and Pa Tex
Winchell then builds a program where he gathers children to rally against parents. He has aspirations for world domination by making Mr. Belt the President, lowering the voting age, etc. I found myself thinking that this sub-plot gives "going too far" a new meaning. Bruce Willis narrates the picture. Don't ask me why he does, but he provides a voice-over that viewers must listen to if they wish to reach the conclusion. North is as simple a plot as one could hope for. Why the audience needs narration to divulge North's deep-rooted angst is a question I cannot answer. He also persistently pops up in enigmatic, wise old man roles. Eventually, as North routinely requires "time to think", you will foresee these heart to heart encounters and let out a heavy, aching sigh. Willis is giving it 110%, but the character is a pointless distraction, and above all else, not funny at all. Willis can do comedy. Just watch The Whole Nine Yards or Last Man Standing. Err, wait.
Elijah Wood had already etched out an impressive career for himself by 1994. Radio Flyer, The Adventures of Huck Finn, and The Good Son were all quite competent and enjoyable flicks. He had undoubtedly demonstrated his ability to be a lead, but no matter how much talent he possessed at that age, he drowns swiftly in North. We don't care if his character finds replacement parents. We're just hoping someone slaps him around and knocks sense into his head. It is not Wood's fault necessarily, but he couldn't help but overcompensate on the cuteness. He strives desperately to be the flawless child, but North's conceited and bratty qualities are hard to subdue completely. So many well-known performers embarrass themselves in this stinky rotten garbage. Here are a handful, including two Oscar winners: Alan Arkin, Kathy Bates, Kelly McGillis, Richard Belzer, and yes even Scarlett Johansson, who made her debut in this mess. Ben Stein at least supplies his normal shtick and walks away unscathed.
North is not totally devoid of positive qualities. Out of 100%, only 98% of it sucks. The Alaskan tradition of sending the elderly out on pieces of ice to die had an opportunity to induce a laugh or two, but it followed a scene where Kathy Bates, Graham Greene, and Elijah Wood ice fish, knit, and whistle the theme to The Andy Griffith Show, which will make you catatonic or prompt a violent outburst. I suppose to those involved, Kelly McGillis and Alexander Godunov poking fun at their movie Witness by depicting an Amish couple was hysterical. To the rest of the world, it's sad and depressing. A smidgen of intelligence employed by the writing staff could have resulted in some wittier picks for testing parents, but we have a Chinese couple set on cutting North's hair as an Emperor, an African pair where the mother is topless, and a French duo who watches Jerry Lewis on every channel. These take up a substantially shorter chunk of the running time, which one would assume was merciful, but they are all irritating even in brief spurts. Finally, there is the Nelson family (featuring John Ritter), all of whom are named after characters in classic family television shows such as Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Little House on the Prairie, and so on. These people are so wholesome it makes Full House seem edgy. Ugh.
John McClane wears a pink bunny suit.
North's most notable offense is being the longest movie in history to clock in at under 90 minutes. I have voiced criticisms before to those who always complain that a movie was "too long" when the running time is two hours and over. The fact is, many movies that are under two hours are overlong, and North falls into that category hard. The 87 minutes lasts an eternity with erratic and uncomfortable pacing, insipid dialogue, and a sappy score. Following the release of North, Rob Reiner's career as a director would not be the same again. He rebounded in 1995 with The American President, but then unleashed a streak of misfires until recently, with the underrated Flipped. The script is more at fault than Reiner's direction, but he is the man at the helm, and didn't make the extra effort to obtain tolerable performances from ANYONE, so he must shoulder an equal portion of the blame. Many scenes in North, no matter how watered down, contemptible, and lame, are intended as humor, while others are meant to be philosophically profound, and some poignant tearjerkers. It misses the boat by miles on each count, and is one of the most tasteless, nauseating, sorriest excuses of a coming-of-age tale that moviegoers have ever been bludgeoned with.
North was a Castle Rock Entertainment production, with some financing from New Line Cinema and domestic distribution rights by Columbia Pictures. Eventually Columbia/Tri-Star purchased full rights, but it was only released on VHS in 2001. It is now assumed that MGM holds the rights, but there are no plans to issue this on DVD in the US. What a surprise! It has been released in some areas outside of the US via independent distribution chains. I, for one, would love some special features down the road if a DVD ever becomes a reality. It would be fascinating to get the thoughts of the cast and crew all these years later. Fans of North should not fret however. It is available through Netflix's instant streaming service. Give it a shot only if extremely drunk and a plan to make fun of it with friends. Even then though, you might all pass out.