Even with a peanut butter/marshmallow fluff sandwich and a cold glass of Quik, Judge Bill Gibron argues that this kid vid mockumentary won't stir any meaningful childhood memories.
Children's Television: It's not dirty, it just smells funny.
In the early 1980s, former stage actors Tom Levinworth and Francie Deleuthe were tapped to host a NYC kids show called The Flower Shop. It quickly became a hit. But after six successful years, the program was unceremoniously yanked off the air when Tom was caught in a public scandal. Now it's some 15 years later and the professional couple is plotting a comeback. They hire two students from a local university as their documentary crew who turn their attempts at creating a new series into a cinema vérité look at their lives and careers.
The brand-new enterprise is called Accepting Everyone Through Music and it hopes to teach tolerance via song, to wipe out prejudice via interpretative dance and puppet theater. It looks like all the effort will finally pay off when their attorney, Sam Waters, sells the show to local TV impresario Mr. Dominion. But the new boss demands big changes, concepts about content and crew that make the pair very uncomfortable. Success again lays waiting at their doorstep. Will they go with the flow, no matter how flawed they feel it is, or strike out with the kind of individualistic creativity that made their first showcase such a memorable experience in the first place?
Children's television, as a subject, is difficult to derive satire from. It may be because, by its very nature and temperament, it already contains deliciously ironic overtones and self-spoofing ideals. The mindset for most of these programs begins by believing that kids should be treated as equals, not the life experience vacuums they truly are. As a result, the programs take huge leaps in logic and believability by painting a planet devoid of trauma, pain, or universal unhappiness. In its place are dancing numbers, asexual show hosts, and a never-ending desire to educate and elucidate. Unfortunately, unless you're The Electric Company, or a certain Sesame'd Street, you are usually guaranteed to only irritate.
Interestingly enough, such tendency to annoy is also part and parcel of Patrick Michael Denny's mockumentary to all things sunny and saccharine. Named after the subject of his sham cinema, Tom and Francie is a decent enough attempt at capturing that by now formulaic Spinal Tap feel. It wants to use the backdrop of a bargain-basement New York kid vid anomaly from the mid-'80s to illustrate how misguided and out of touch its cool/creepy hosts really were/are. It almost succeeds. Using an attention to detail that really piles on the authenticity, plus a true attempt at creating a believable alternative media reality (according to the film, all the kid show creators from back in the day used to hang out together, calling themselves "The Gang"), the foundation is laid for a very funny, very insightful spoof. What we get instead is a bunch of annoying characters doing things that don't derive humor so much as horror.
From the start, we feel virtually nothing for our two "lost in their own world" leads. Francie is by far the more likeable one, since her self-delusion is worthy of pity, not outright scorn. But Tom is a complete and utter jerk, a loathsome and untalented hack who can't recognize his own wretched below-averageness. All throughout the interview footage, we witness one narcissistic ego explosion after another. By the end of the film, when a supporting character pulls out a gun, you're hoping that there is at least one bullet with this grating jackass's name written on it. Part of the problem could be Chris Charles Fields's frenzied performance.
There is a particular moment when Tom laments the theft of his "Greek" frog puppet Kermitapolouos that highlights the potential hatred. Seems a certain J. Henson swiped the Mediterranean amphibian while The Gang was at the local coffee shop and, before you know it, a certain pig-humping toad was born. Tom's rage really seethes, leading to a strange sequence where he disembowels some puppets to prove that, unlike that fake fellow who's uneasy about being green, Tom's creations all had a heart—and lungs, and intestines, etc.
Frankly, to blame the film's failure on Fields is unfair. True, he is the catalyst for most of the aggravation, a fulcrum of malfunction spreading his arrogant hatred all over everything. But there are other players who piss on the movie's potential as well. Naturally, there is Sam Waters, a corrupt lawyer who lives off the legacy of the The Flower Shop, and is merely waiting for his attitude and abuse to pay off in really big residual checks. And as the penultimate personal assistant from hell, Christey is a one-note nothing that appears to be channeling a never-ending case of PMS at everyone around her.
Hopefully it's clear what is missing from Tom and Francie, an element that could have saved the film from all its savagery. There is an inherent joy in performance, no matter the level, that could be tapped into to exploit the pathetic nature of the people producing it. But aside from the flashbacks to segments from the original Flower Shop show (the best parts of the film, bar none), we see none of the happiness that can be had from being part of something special.
Instead, Tom and Francie relies on tired jokes about ethnic stereotypes (the entire sequence from the new show is just one foreigner jibe after another) and overly quirky archetypes (the puppeteer who's better dealing with his dolls than with real people) to prove its cleverness. The results are routine, rarely as ridiculous and rib tickling as the film thinks they are. Since most of it was scripted (there was some minor improv during the shooting), there are predictable narrative conceits that play like the work of a screenwriter trying to build conventional comic characterization. The lawyer makes threatening phone calls, thinking that belligerence will win the case. Tom and Francie use pop icon codenames to avoid "crazies and stalkers"—and you just know a certain Moonwalker's moniker gets a mention. And then there's Tom's troubled past, the problem that caused the cancellation of his previous series. And before you think the porn/Pee-Wee Herman angle has been played out as passé, you haven't met Denny's idea of a shocking last-minute cinematic revelation.
You see, part of the problem with this movie is that it doesn't understand how to push the limits of its material for maximum effect. South Park takes cartoons to levels previously before unheard of in the realm of animation by bowing to the precepts of the medium, and then ripping them to shreds. Tom and Francie thinks that a pervert as kid show host is something new, that a middle-aged woman marrying a boy barely half her age is scandalous, and failed actors and actresses holding onto a dead dream is the stuff that irreverent comedy is made of. But since the original Flower Shop show was so sickly sweet, and the new PC-friendly showcase is so bilious, there is no balance to the send-up. These people deserve their fate as fallen figures from the past, and anything good that comes their way is Karma's overly kind consideration for decades as whining whipping boys.
Still—and it may be hard to believe—there are reasons to watch Tom and Francie. Annie Golden is very good here, never delivering a false moment as the inhumanly perky Fran. The actor playing Dido, the puppeteer displaced once the big time comes calling, is very good with the cartoon voices and kid show accents. But the real stars here are the puppets themselves, entities that could have been monopolized and merchandised with names like Angry Bunny, Mick Irish, and Mother Appreciation. They are pitch perfect, the kind of corrupted icons you except from a kid vid lampoon like this. But Denny is not interested in exploiting their potential excess. He is not out to make a TV Funhouse or Greg the Bunny. No, he designs Tom and Francie like a true documentary, even down to having "the directors" appear on camera to introduce their mock-masterpiece. Even that inside joke fails in light of the real potential wasted here.
While the content may be questionable, technically the DVD is very good. Go Kart Films offers up a 1.33:1 full screen transfer that is filled with the kind of awkward camcorder moments you expect from a substandard student film. The colors are handled very well, especially in the flashback sequences, where they are expertly saturated and faded to give an authentic old school TV feel (though the occasional digital zoom and cropping tend to destroy this dimension). As for the other cinematic elements, we are definitely in low budget moviemaking land. The lighting is erratic and there are occasional framing and composition glitches. But overall, this homemade movie looks very good.
Equally impressive is the sound. Filled with diabetes-inducing singalongs and droll kid vid dirges, Tom and Francie has a nice aural offering. The Dolby Digital Stereo preserves all the dialogue and makes even the most whispered conversation clear and easily decipherable. The non-narrative music is kind of a mixed bag, reminiscent of outtakes from an old R.E.M. album. Otherwise, this is a professional package for a still sorting itself out DVD distributor.
The final bit of faux fun comes from the extras provided. We are treated to a few deleted scenes (some of which are very funny), a sequence of improvised bits that show how some of the material was created during the shoot (especially a sequence of Dido working with the puppets), and a nice trailer that really shills up a storm. In addition, there is a short film called The Wonderful Slapstick World of Child Care. Recalling the filmstrips from grade school that "beeped" every time the frame needed advancing, this is a witty bit of retro throwback that's clever and cutting at the same time.
Too bad Tom and Francie couldn't have found a similar way to vend its satirical sense. Every entity in kid vid, from Barney to the Boohbahs, needs a good comic colonic right about now, if only to rid them from their self-important public persona. Though it has the puppet skills to pay the bills, Tom and Francie just can't walk and talk the lampoon lane. While it may be worth visiting once, you won't be holding many fond memories of this missed opportunity once the final credits roll.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Go Kart Films
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