Reviewed by Reed Hubbard
Rating: 7.5 Beans
he next time you visit a Mom & Pop video store, venture away from the new releases and look through the older sections. There you will find scores of movies that you would swear no one has rented in years. In fact, one wonders why the video store would have bought the tape in the first place. In my local haunt, one such tape I always noticed, but passed over, was a 1983 Dan Aykroyd film called “Doctor Detroit.” After viewing it, I know why the tape case had an inch of dust on it.
The movie opens with geeky college professor Clifford Skridlow (Aykroyd) speed walking to his Chicago university as the strains of a forgotten Devo song pulse from the speakers. By his attire, we might think Skridlow is a quirky genius, but he’s not. He’s just a weirdo. On this morning he is passed by pimp Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) and his four working girls. They laugh at him as their limo splashes water on him, so the hookers are cool, and Cliff’s a geek…maybe.
Smooth is in debt to the local Mafia strong woman/limo service owner who goes by “Mom.” When she demands her money, he invents a crime boss called Doctor Detroit. Mom wants to meet this guy, so Smooth must get a sucker to become the Doctor. As luck would have it, Smooth and his girls choose the same Indian restaurant as Cliff that evening, so Smooth has found his patsy. The girls invite Cliff out and get attached to him. Smooth skips the country. Now, guess who becomes the Doctor? Aykroyd spends the rest of the movie trying to balance his “normal” collegiate life and his new pimpish alter ego. From here the movie becomes another version of the “guy with two dates at the same restaurant” gag where the hero runs between tables, changing clothes each time (e.g. the end of “Mrs. Doubtfire”).
This movie was Aykroyd’s first feature after John Belushi’s death and was a poor attempt to step out of his more talented buddy’s shadow. Had he not made “Trading Places” later that year, he might have been doing half baked sitcoms like “Soul Man” ten years earlier, prefacing a slide into oblivion. Regardless, he did go on to make better movies and “Doctor Detroit” has been largely forgotten, as well it should. Aykroyd is terribly unfunny here and overtly hammy as the Doctor. He seems to be trying to invent a new SNL character, but fails miserably. Doctor Detroit is not an interesting character at all, he’s just Aykroyd with a fright wig and a bad voice.
The four girls turn out to be whores with hearts of gold. One of these is played by Fran “The Nanny” Drescher who had that whiny, nasal foghorn of a voice even back then. Howard Hesseman, one of the most detestable actors in all Hollywood, gets second billing in the credits, but disappears thirty minutes into the film, reappearing only in a dream sequence and at the end. Hesseman was funny as Johnny Fever on “WKRP,” but that’s it. He’s one of those guys whose appearance in a movie is more for the “Look! It’s Johnny Fever!” reaction than anything else. Here, he’s nothing. Thank heaven! The less I have to see Howard Hesseman, the better.
Overall, the movie feels like the midsection of a larger film, as if the beginning and the end were lopped off for time constraints. We don’t get much of an introduction to Cliff, save his idiotic speed walking, which is never used again in the film. Smooth and the girls are just presented to us as characters we should accept and know. A backhanded explanation is weakly thrown in about Smooth borrowing money from Mom and spending it on clothes, but nothing else is mentioned. Be prepared to assume a great deal if you bring this movie home. On the other side, the film just ends. There’s a stupid sword fight with Mom, but afterward, we jump into those ridiculous postscripts that tell what each of the characters went on to do. The only movie that did this well was “Animal House” (Eric Stratton, ’63, Gynecologist, Beverly Hills, etc.) and maybe “American Graffiti.” “Doctor Detroit’s” endnotes don’t even rise to the substandard level of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “A Fish Called Wanda.”
There are a few great moments. The appearance of James Brown is a welcome moment of relief from the tedious script. In fact, a thumbs up goes to a rather eclectic soundtrack. Where else will you find James Brown, Rick James, and Devo all in the same movie? Also, it was great to see someone talking on an early 80s donut phone. I used to have one and hadn’t thought about it since I left high school. Okay, so it’s not much of a compliment. You can figure that the movie is a stinker when I have to praise it for one cool prop.
I didn’t laugh much during “Doctor Detroit,” but then again I don’t laugh much during a Carrot Top performance either. Both are equally idiotic, so if you’ve seen “Chairman of the Board,” you probably know how bad “Doctor Detroit” is. It was so bad, they didn’t make the sequel promised at the end of the movie. Just before the final credits, we are told that Doctor Detroit will return in, “Doctor Detroit II, The Wrath of Mom.” Some people might call this a teaser, but after suffering through this loser, I call it a threat. Thank goodness it doesn’t exist…yet.
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