Jeff Daniels lives in Chelsea, Mich., a small bucolic town just west of Ann Arbor. He grew up in the area and opened the Purple Rose Theater 12 years ago to spotlight local talent and his own theatrical works. When you talk to him, he speaks of the abundance of untapped talent in the upper Midwest, and how he has lived on the coasts and how it's not real, how this is real. He wants to give back, he says, and he puts his time and money where his mouth is.
This is admirable. In my opinion, one movie star or celebrity should adopt every 15-square-mile area of this country, much the way corporations or rich individuals adopt a highway. Jamie Farr or Katie Holmes could adopt Toledo; Halle Berry should take Cleveland; and let's give Stevie Wonder Detroit, you know, for old times' sake.
Having said that, it is with great sadness I report that Mr. Daniels has made a very bad movie showcasing the town and untapped show business resources of Jackson, Mich. Indeed, he seems to have hired the entire population; there is one scene in which every last person in southeast Michigan seems to be cheering a man waving a vacuum cleaner attachment in the air. The scene is meant to be funny because, you see, there is this man and he has a vacuum cleaner attachment and he is waving it and people are going wild. It's not the most, oh, organic moment in American film. One can only hope something relatively nice soon befalls the poor people of Jackson, like a plague of locusts.
The Daniels movie is Super Sucker, and if anything, it is true to its title. Indeed, this is truth in advertising at work. You are now asking yourself: What is this Super Sucker? Never heard of it. Fair enough: So far, Daniels' biggest success as a playwright has been the Upper Peninsula comedy, Escanaba in Da' Moonlight. He adapted that into a very lame movie that didn't do badly in the Michigan-Wisconsin market, and will probably do even better on video.
So he made another film and is distributing it himself. Daniels would like to create a small, homegrown movie troupe. But his sophomore effort as a writer-director is a puzzler, a chaotic Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-ish comedy told like an inside joke no one is in on. It doesn't even seem to be particularly specific to the Midwest. The topic is vacuum cleaners; hence the title. Daniels plays a vacuum cleaner salesman obsessed with vacuum cleaners, and remembers vacuum cleaner salesmen of his youth being “Santa, Jesus, and the young Elvis all rolled into one.”
You're supposed to laugh there. Other suggested laughs include: Dozens of lines using the word “suck,” a restaurant full of vacuum cleaner salesmen chanting “steak and beans,” the Fargo-like accent of a few salespeople, and a naked man hanging from the back of a speeding vacuum repair van. There are still more, including: a man trying to pry a vacuum cleaner from his dead mother's hands, a cat eaten by a vacuum, numerous bad wigs and bad sport coats on the salesmen, a man wrestling a vacuum , salesmen concerned they've “gone negative,” and sex with a vacuum cleaner. There's an extended cameo from Dawn Wells, the actress who played Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, who plays Dawn Wells, Super Sucker spokeswoman, upset how her name is being used. I can only imagine.
I haven't a clue what this movie is about. I believe it is intended as a satire of something: Midwest personalities, obsession, salesmen, nostalgia. Daniels is a good actor in so many films, fast ones (Speed) and slow (Terms of Endearment), high ones (The Hours) and low (Dumb and Dumber). But as a filmmaker, he is pure Ed Wood, enthusiastic and oblivious. My guess is he used the inspired lunacy of Barry Levinson's Tin Men as a starting point, and then unwittingly removed all the poignancy.
There's a sense here of someone cracking himself up while he's writing the screenplay but failing to run the gags by a second party. His plot involves rival cleaner salesmen, though I say that only through deduction. It is easy to describe a bad movie as a Saturday Night Live skit stretched to 90 minutes, but Lorne Michaels, as blase as he is, would have never let this move beyond the idea stage. Even the box the Super Sucker comes in is bad. If there's any good in all this, it's that, again, Daniels hired locals to make it. Approach it on this level, as a community art project charging $9 a head.
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