A cool thing about film festivals in general, and LAFF in particular, is that it’s not just about new movies, best-of-other-fest movies, and the occasional studio flick to grab mainstream attention. There are also revivals and celebrity interviews open to the public, and thus it was that I spent three hours of last night in an auditorium with John Lithgow.

Being a front-row guy is particularly advantageous at times like this. Lithgow sat at a table opposite David Ansen, with something like ten bottles of water, many different shapes and sizes, that I’m not sure either of them ever touched. Lithgow, for the record, is tall, and looks exactly like you’d expect him to.

The event was dubbed “Over the top,” as we were there to focus on two of Lithgow’s most outrageous performances – THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI, and his segment of THE TWILIGHT ZONE movie that recreated the classic William Shatner episode about a gremlin on the wing of a plane.

Ansen and Lithgow were roommates at Harvard, we are told.

Lithgow says he’s never seen BUCKAROO BANZAI with an audience. Says, “Those of you haven’t seen it: This is a LIFE-CHANGING experience!”

BANZAI and Third Rock From the Sun were his favorite projects to work on: “I laughed and laughed.” Tells audience there’s a scene near the end of BANZAI where you can see him cracking up on camera.

Then without further ado, the movie. And I haven’t watched this film in about 20 years; never seen it on the big screen.

I am very much a child of the ‘80s, but unlike so many other movie geeks my age, that doesn’t give me a rose-colored filter when it comes time to re-watch the stuff that was targeted at me back in the day. Yes, GHOSTBUSTERS, GREMLINS, and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM are still classics. No, GOONIES and THE MONSTER SQUAD are not.

BUCKAROO BANZAI is maybe half-great. It’s a whole lot of thought put into a movie in which not very much happens. As movies of its kind and era go, it is no REPO MAN.

Director W.D. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch clearly created an elaborate backstory for their tale of a half-Japanese neurosurgeon/rock star/action hero named Buckaroo (Peter Weller, in his second-most-iconic role) and his posse The Hong Kong Cavaliers, and in some ways predicted the rise of the multimedia star (Buckaroo has an arcade game based on his exploits). Jeff Goldblum, in bizarre red cowboy chaps for no particular reason during most of the movie, is in his zone as “New Jersey,” a fellow doctor who joins Team Banzai, mostly to offer non-stop deadpan narration in his trademark style. But the rest of the team aren’t all that fleshed out – one gets the sense, given their distinctive outfits and appearances, that all the supporting characters have elaborate tales and characteristics in Richter and Rauch’s minds. Unfortunately, little of that comes across to the viewer.

The story, such as one can interpret, is this: Buckaroo creates a device that can allow him to drive through solid matter by rearranging sub-atomic particles and transversing the empty space in every atom. This also allows him to penetrate the 8th dimension, where lurk the Lectroids from Planet Ten. Years ago, the most evil of said Lectroids, Lord John Whorfin (Lithgow) possessed the mind of an Italian scientist named Emilio Lizardo. Now, seeing that Buckaroo has perfected a device to return him to the 8th dimension, Whorfin busts out of an asylum and assembles a team of bad guys, among them the equally overacting John Bigboote (Christopher Lloyd) and John O’Connor (Vincent Schiavelli). Running gag: all Lectroids are named John.

Unfortunately, the good Lectroids back home don’t want Whorfin back, but rather than help Buckaroo catch him, they threaten that if our hero fails, they will fake a US attack on the Soviet Union to start a nuclear war in order to be totally certain Whorfin is wiped out. It’s a thoroughly illogical plan, but that’s kind of the point.

Yakov Smirnoff makes a cameo as the U.S. president’s national security advisor.

In practice, all this campiness and backstory doesn’t add up to a whole lot when the end result is mainly a bunch of people running around a damp factory shooting at each other. And I still don’t quite get why Ellen Barkin’s Penny voluntarily becomes Buckaroo’s love interest after finding out that his former love interest was somehow her identical twin. Barkin had some buff arms back then, though.

Best part of the movie, for me, is the final shot, which was used as the theatrical trailer, and aped by Wes Anderson in THE LIFE AQUATIC, of Buckaroo walking down the street heroically, as others of his team walk up to him one by one, and they all start synchronizing their movements together, as a cheesy whistling tune plays. I’d like to see these characters go on a great adventure...just didn’t think the one we just saw was outstanding. Buckaroo is an empty character, not campy enough to be Adam West’s Batman, or interesting enough to be anything more complex.

Lithgow, Lloyd, and Goldblum are hilarious. And Clancy Brown’s here as well, looking the same as he does now, just with less gray hair. Lithgow, I find it amusing to note, resembles right-wing muckraker Andrew Breitbart.

Movie ends. Lights come up. Back to interviewing Lithgow. Here are as many of the highlights as I could write down:

-Says of 20th Century Fox: “I’m not sure they knew what they signed on for.” Studio execs didn’t get that it was a satire, and fired the first director of photography after a week for being too artsy. The opening action sequence and the rock concert are the only parts he shot, and are notably the most visual parts of the movie – the visual inspiration was DIVA. The movie was released just after a change of management at the studio, which is why it didn’t get pushed as it could have.

-Since Lizardo/Whorfin was a combination of eager scientist and evil dictator, Lithgow patterned his character on Mussolini. Also figured that an alien in a human’s body would have temperature issues, so the character wears two of every item of clothing. He was also inspired by German expressionist villains like Caligari and Nosferatu.

-He liked the Italian accent of a tailor in the wardrobe department so much that he had the guy say all of his lines so he could copy the inflection. In the final film, he got the tailor a credit as “dialect coach.”

-Says BUCKAROO BANZAI and TWILIGHT ZONE are among his favorite of his movies because “sometimes I’m uncomfortable watching myself in films just being ordinary.” Easier to detach as a viewer if he’s watching himself play a caricature. Says he never watches dailies – they’re boring and they make him insecure.

-Earl Mac Rauch and W.D. Richter had been roommates at Dartmouth, and came up with the Banzai mythology back then. “They didn’t seem to be stoners at all, it’s interesting, because everyone in the audience was!”

-Was glad he was one of the few aliens who didn’t have to wear prosthetics. Said he became great friends on-set with fellow alien Carl Lumbly, despite never seeing his actual face.

-He’s writing a memoir, of which he says “it’ll be a while.” One tidbit he gives is that Cliff Robertson became a mentor to him on the set of De Palma’s OBSESSION. Robertson taught him that you could ensure you get a lot of close-ups in the movie by deliberately giving a bad performance in medium shots so they have to use the close-up.

-Audience member asks if he saw SHREK THE MUSICAL. He did, “I thought it was delightful.” Enjoyed Chris Seaver as Farquaad, and the way he did the whole show on his knees; the night Lithgow attended, Seaver came in on his horse and said, “Whoa there, Lithgow!” He loved that, and was sorry to hear it wasn’t part of every performance.

-He loves mixing up genres: playing a character one way who is later revealed to be something different. Is developing a one-man show that should play L.A. in January; specifics to be announced later this summer. He prefers stage acting to any other medium. “I always felt God never intended for actors to see themselves act.”

-Always reads scripts from beginning to end; says he’s done a few movies where his heart wasn’t in it. He knew immediately TERMS OF ENDEARMENT would be great, but thought SHREK was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard...two years later I finally see the damn thing, and realize these guys are visual comedy geniuses.”

-Loved working with George Miller on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, because he was tired of directors telling him to underplay and tone down. “With George, nothing was ever enough...he said ‘I want to see your face crack!’ I thought, ‘This I can do!’” He nearly lost his voice by the end of the shoot.

-A false face with giant inflatable eyes was created for the finale, and only used in about four frames. It was nearly impossible to sync the eye-blinks correctly, but Miller loved it so much they spent a long time on it.

-Lithgow says: “Together we hit on an underlying story; it’s really about fear of flying.” Well DUHHHHHH!! (sorry John, luv ya and all, but that’s not exactly underlying). He consulted an actor friend who was afraid to fly, and learned all kinds of nuances: friend was terrified of the phone ringing, lest it be his agent telling him he has a location shoot to fly to; terrified of walking down the airplane aisle for fear he’ll overbalance on one side and the plane will tip over; even though he’s an atheist, he feels better about flying with someone like John Lithgow, because his logic is that God won’t let a good person like John die in a crash.

Nobody asked if he based any of his performance on Shatner. That I would have liked to know.

Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

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