“Christian Slater even plays video games sarcastically!”
As difficult as it might be to admit, some of your childhood’s more endearing creations were, in fact, nothing more than glorified advertisements, designed solely to entice you (and your parents) to part with your money. In retrospect, looking at these things from adult eyes, one can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of these things that seemed oh-so cool. The guys at Rifftrax—Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett—know this quite well, and have made a nice little career for themselves by mocking the absurd.
“Absurd” is a very generous adjective to describe The Wizard’s plot, an “adventure film” for young adults, released in 1989. It’s the story of a young boy, Jimmy, who is suffering from selective mutism and who, when not wandering away, often build structures out of anything around him. Naturally, he is also masterful video game player. His family is dysfunctional, to say the least; his mother and stepfather want to institutionalize him, while his father, Sam—played by Beau Bridges—is a bumbling clod who doesn’t seem to mind. Jimmy’s half-brothers, Nick (Christian Slater) and Corey (Fred Savage), refuse to accept this. Corey is hit especially hard, and runs away to the institution Jimmy is in, and the two run away together, heading west to California, with no real specific goal in mind other than to leave behind their dysfunction.
At a bus stop, they are approached by Hayley (Jenny Lewis), a feisty red-head with a chip on her shoulder, a grifting personality not seen since Paper Moon, and an equally dysfunctional home life—mom’s a stripper, dad’s a truck driver, neither are around. After hustling her with Jimmy’s talents, she and Corey form an uncomfortable alliance—“They’ve only known each other for an afternoon, but it’s like they’ve been married for years,” quips Murphy—and set off to California in hopes of using the savant Jimmy to win a fifty-thousand dollar prize at a video game tournament. Their journey is being followed by Sam and Nick, as well as a creepy runaway child bounty hunter, Mr. Putnam, who cares not about the safety of the boys, but about getting paid, and the two camps are routinely getting into physical altercations.
If you think the above is absurd, then hold on, it only gets weirder. When the video game storyline is introduced, Nelson says, “I’m concerned about the video game plot developing in the middle of this depressing family drama,” and he’s right, as the dysfunction takes second place to the video game plot. Not only does the video game plot take precedent, it quickly becomes apparent that The Wizard is nothing more than a glorified full-length advertisement for Nintendo—which makes for some excellent riffing from the fellas. When Sam watches Nick playing Nintendo, he asks his son what that is. “It’s the star of the movie,” Corbett belts out, and he’s right, as is Murphy, who would shortly remark that, “At this point I wouldn’t even call it ‘product placement’; it’s more like ‘product metastasis.’”
As the kids travel on, they encounter bikers, thieving farmers, and, worst of all, aggressive teenagers who steal their money, bully the trio, and offer up their nemesis, Lucas (Jackey Vinson). When he is introduced, we see a scowling kid wearing sunglasses and surrounded by his tough friends, and Nelson states, “There he is, my friends: the Gamergate study patient zero,” a comparison that’s not at all inappropriate, when they reveal a disturbing fact about Vinson. As antagonists go, he’s not much of one; he exists solely to introduce the first of two soon-to-be-released Nintendo products: the power glove. Lucas appears for only a brief moment, simply to demonstrate the power glove, and then is whisked away until the end of the movie.
Worried about that depressing, odd dysfunctional family storyline? Don’t worry, It gets weirder. The lunch box Jimmy carries around is finally opened, when some tough guys take it from him. It is here that we learn that Jimmy had a twin sister who drowned two years prior. Her death? “It was weird. She didn’t go upstream. She was in three feet of water,” Corey tells Hayley. “Was it weird, or was it suspicious,” Murphy questions, and he’s right; it is bizarre, as not only did the death split up the family, but apparently older brother Nick was right there when she died. So…what exactly happened? It’s never adequately explained, and that is enough to make an already creepy story downright disturbing.
The film climaxes with the kids arriving for the final showdown between Lucas and Jimmy, where the duo go head-to-head with the movie’s second about-to-be-released product, Super Mario Brothers 3. We then learn why he fixated on California; he wanted to leave his sister’s lunchbox and mementos in a happy place, a park that is pictured in one of Jimmy’s photos, a place none of the adults or kids seem to remember ever visiting. His quest complete, he is suddenly no longer mute and weird, it’s hinted that his parents will get back together, and they go riding off into the sunset.
As utterly ludicrous as The Wizard may be, there’s something quite charming about its mediocrity. For their part, the Rifftrax crew offer up one of their best post-MST3K commentaries, and there’s something charming about watching a teenage Jenny Lewis in one of her rare child acting roles. Surprisingly, the only direct reference to her band Rilo Kiley is saved until the end, as is the trio’s theory on what really happened to Jimmy’s sister. Don’t be disappointed that the best is saved for last; that particular exchange is the funniest one in the entire commentary.
The Rifftrax/MST3K concept has always been rooted in nostalgia, and for Gen-X’ers like yours truly—who, yes, saw the film in 1989 and fell into a deep crush with Lewis—this particular episode serves to connect the blatant commercialism aimed at Gen X subcultures and the cynicism that made MST3K so successful in the first place.Forget the MST3K reboot, Rifftrax is the show’s true standard-bearers. The Wizard is an A+ experiment in humor and social commentary, performed by three masters who have yet to lose their stride.
The Wizard is available via Rifftrax