Never start a romance you can't put out
Wilder Foudroyant and his wife Vida live in a small town smack dab in the middle of arid nowhere. He works at a drive-thru photo shop in a deserted strip mall parking lot. She is under house arrest for arson. When the carnival comes to town one dark night, it brings along "Biff" the Clown, a devious entertainer with a rare gift: he can produce and manipulate fire at will. Turns out that "Biff" is Wallace Foudroyant, Wilder's very real sibling rival. And it also turns out that Wilder has an equal talent for combustibility. Wallace has never forgiven Wilder for failing to capitalize on his (meaning "their") special skill. He is also jealous that Vida chose the mild mannered yet thoroughly explosive milquetoast over the far more flamboyantly flammable family member. Back in the company of his eccentric kinfolk, Wallace lays down the law: he wants to go on television (David Letterman to be exact) and showcase his talent. He also wants Vida. At first, Wilder seems more concerned about the prospect of publicity than his personal relationship with his wife. But as Wallace presses the issue, and Vida seems to respond, Wilder has no choice. He must put his fear of discovery and past traumas behind him and fight for Vida, fire with fire. It's going to be a hot time in the tiny township tonight as the brothers go flaming fisticuffs for honor and love, Wallace hoping to avoid a little Wilder Napalm.
Wilder Napalm is a failed romantic comedy that replaces simple straightforward boy-meets-girl mechanics and "will she or won't he" sexual tension for magic realism quirks and deadpan irony. Instead of telling an uncomplicated tale of two brothers and the girl who comes between them, we are privy to bouts of furious fireworks as our siblings are each granted the supernatural gift of pyrokinesis. Yet all this faculty seems to spur are endless discussions about milking one's natural abilities for the sake of a buck. You can sense that director Glenn Gordon Caron (TV's Moonlighting, Clean and Sober) has a vision for his inspired surreal inferno: everything has a drab drollness about it, from the sad, solemn mini-mall where Wilder Foudroyant (the last name is French, derived from foudroyer—to strike with lightning) works to the ultra-nasty band of carnies that revel with their star attraction Wallace. This farcical Firestarter should then, perhaps, crackle with untold possibilities: it is literate and loaded with wonderful individual moments. But it's as if the twisted tone and mystical accouterments can't comfortably co-exist, and this dooms Wilder Napalm. It misses being a good movie by a book of matches and several Dura-flame logs. It misses being a great movie by a raging forest fire.
If one had to try and pinpoint where this experiment in exotic exposition fails, a couple of contenders for the title of troublemaker immediately come to mind. The first is as apparent as it is disturbing. As an exercise in symbolism, Wilder Napalm is like representative imagery by way of Dr. Seuss. This allegory for the underdeveloped thinks that the only way it can "personify" passion or illustrate anger is to burn buildings or melt metal. Fire is such an obvious and accepted illustration of emotions in overdrive ("their love smoldered," "he was hotter than hell") that when it's thrown around (literally) in this film, it becomes laughable. A set-piece destruction of a miniature golf course, touched off by a stolen kiss between Wallace and Vida, is so stylized and yet offered so seriously that one cannot help but scoff at the message and the messenger. There are other instances of badly conceptualized cartography. The malevolent, attention-seeking goof-off Wallace is provided a Grecian disguise of evil clown menace with his "Biff," the brash bozo makeup job. He is the walking epitome of the harlequin as bringer of Hades. And Wilder, the shy and quiet family man who is really a reticent hot head, is turned into a toupee wearing member of the walking wounded, his cranium a twisted cap of scar tissue to illuminate just how intense his inner blazing can be. Had Wilder Napalm been a more restrained application of cryptographic metaphors, it could have kept itself from drowning in its own indulgences. As it stands, it's as obvious as a rug burn.
The casting also causes its own set of combustible issues. Frankly, of the main actors inhabiting roles here, Arliss Howard is the only one that understands what this story could be and actually is. His mannered, careful sketching of Wilder's internal chaos and potential for explosiveness is perfect for the hyper-reality of this movie. On the other side of the coin of control is Dennis Quaid, who can strut it like an overworked cock when he has to (his putdown scenes while wearing the clown outfit are very well done), but the minute he shifts over into hopelessly infatuated failure, he can only get the first and third parts of that label correct. He's all goon and no swoon. Wallace's motives always seem a little suspect. One gets the impression that he is in town to reclaim Vida and torment his brother, but never once does that selfishness surface. Wallace (and Quaid) is more wounded puppy than pissed-off pitbull. But perhaps the biggest predicament here is Debra Winger. We are supposed to sympathize with Vida, to understand the sacrifice and sincerity in her heart for Wilder (and to some extent, Wallace). But Winger plays this perplexed arsonist (why she wants to start fires is never truly explored—is it out of sympathy for her husband? to cover up for him?) as one big ball of horny hellcat, never able to control her throbbing biological urges for very long. She seems to be constantly "in heat," throwing herself at her co-stars as if to say "yep, you burn me up like a cigarette…let's screw!" This renders her cartoonish when she should be the realistic center around two completely wacky weirdos with paranormal powers. Without a normal guide to let us into the story, Wilder Napalm becomes all flash and very little freshness. In the end, we are stuck in a pyromaniac love triangle that is neither fiery or fun.
There are other troubling elements of Wilder Napalm, irksome fragments like the barbershop quartet volunteer fire department that constantly warbled multi-part harmony golden oldies to directly comment on the storyline. This Beach Boys style Geek chorus has a tendency to stop the movie dead in its waders. Then there is Jim Varney and his merry band of miscreant carnival hands. When they aren't being wasted as glorified extras, they seem to be yet another Mediterranean men's choir, speaking in filth instead of musical tongues. While the flashbacks to the fatal misadventures of the Foudroyant boys are very well done (the children do an excellent job), the movie as a whole never really comes together. For every clever line or telling monologue, there is an awkwardly staged moment (like the jail cell bit where all three end up side by side, the easier to curse each other out) or obvious bit of director doodling. Since it can't find the fine line to avoid crossing it, Wilder Napalm is one high concept that literally goes up in flames.
Columbia TriStar offers the movie in a very clean, very new looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that keeps the possible flaring from excessive onscreen explosions and fire fights to a minimum. Overall, the transfer is crisp and practically brand new. On the sonic side, we get a faux Dolby Digital Surround experience that tries to trick us (with occasional sound effects) that there is some atmosphere here. But just like the movie, it's all show. Perhaps the only annoyance with this DVD presentation is the lack of tangible extras. This is a movie that cries out for a director's commentary, a scene-by-scene description of what was on the filmmaker's mind and how successful (or not) he thought he was. Wilder Napalm is fairly enigmatic when it comes to its overall thematic concepts, so to hear the creator (either behind the camera or the page, or both) would be wonderful. Alas, no such luck here. All we get are a series of commercials (read: trailers) for upcoming Columbia releases. No ad for Napalm, just more Eddie Murphy and failed 2003 blockbuster adverts.
With an intriguing title, promising premise and collection of talented actors, Wilder Napalm should have been a better movie. But it can't generate the heat it so readily reproduces onscreen.
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