1941 Review

Big names do not equate to big results. Duds are few and far between the filmography of Steven Spielberg. The appeal of working with the man that made Jaws was far too alluring for the likes of Christopher Lee, Toshirō Mifune and Warren Oates, all of whom appear alongside Saturday Night Live alumni Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. A weird and odd ensemble indeed, but it is what Spielberg does with them, or the lack of what he does within 1941 that is most concerning of all. With so much talent on display, nobody is inevitably going to get their fair share of screen time. At the very least, though, there is an expectation of quality from those involved. It is hard to provide quality when the actors do not gel with the content.  

Spielberg’s odd, raunchy humour mocks his own direction. “Hollywood!” a Japanese soldier screams as he looks up to spot a naked woman perched on top of a submarine. His mockery of not just war but of the typical American of the 1940s is nicely demonstrated, and it has a manic, crazed energy to it. It is unlike anything Spielberg had or has ever directed. He presents such a love for slapstick and parody, but 1941 is never sure what to do with it. There is no sense of pace or direction to it. Hijinks and hilarity happen, but for no good reason. His jokes are rapid, half-baked and inconsistent. Soldiers praying at the feet of women, small support or cameo appearances from some of the finest actors in the industry. From John Candy to Dick Miller, Mickey Rourke to Michael McKean, they are all present and, again, they are present for no good reason. 

That is the basis of Spielberg’s efforts here. Everything happens and with zero consequence. America is ravaged by the fallout of emotions that came from Pearl Harbour. He lacks the pacing necessary for a comedy feature. Far too much time is spent on the opening throwaway jokes, and much of their impact on the story and the direction it takes is minimal at best. The tree-chopping joke works well, the slapstick moments provide a strange, ironic twist to them. Most of 1941, though, is plain annoying. Characters that feel more like caricatures for measly scenes than anything proportionate or convincing, it undercuts the strong comedy when these actors are portraying punchlines rather than people.  

As director’s cuts go, 1941 is unnecessarily long. Comedies must be short and sweet. It is the reason Judd Apatow struggles. He cannot get his pacing right, and those mammoth two and a half hour pieces give him more than enough time to hit the ground running. It happens here to Spielberg. Filmmaking, in particular, should show the best results of the writing process, all conforming to narrative cohesion. It is what Spielberg lacks throughout 1941, and as his brand of humour clashes with his ensemble, the incompatibility spreads. Strong sight gags and oddball bits of slapstick cannot save the lengthy, underwhelming premise and the boring, one-note characters. Still, it was all worth it to hear Belushi screech “can opener,” smash a Coca-Cola bottle off the top of his plane, and gurgle what remained of his cool beverage, grunting like a caveman.  

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