Hollywood was positively dizzy with schadenfreude when Steven Spielberg tanked on this jumbo-sized WWII comedy. The huge commercial & critical success of JAWS/’75 and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS/’77 had set him up for Hollywood martyrdom (and in his 33rd year!) with this laughless farce about L.A.’s post-Pearl Harbor hysteria. Not that it’s his worst pic, (there’s HOOK/’91; ALWAYS/’89; THE LOST WORLD/’97), but it’s surely his least funny. (There are more laughs in SCHINDLER’S LIST/’93.) Like many a megger, Spielberg’s a whiz at spotting gags in dramas where it’s less comic-relief than tension-relief, but in his one purely comic outing, he pushes too hard, the characters become loathsome. Even a good comic idea, like a ‘lost’ Jap/Nazi sub forced to navigate with a toy compass out of a CrackerJack box, gets tossed aside. Technically, the film is a fun watch, and John Williams comes up with a swaggering march theme when he isn’t forced into musical pastiche for some dopey self-referencing joke. And the one well-received sequence, a wild Jitterbug Dance contest, now looks joyless, strenuous & oddly choppy. Spielberg still defends this one, but, taking no chances, it remains the only comedy on his long, long C.V.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Norman Jewison’s THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING/’66 gets infinitely more out of a similar coastal invasion storyline with great underplaying leads working perfectly against OTT supporting comics. Compared to 1941, it’s a relief . . . and a lesson.