My Year Of Flops Extra Innings, Case File # 110: Wired

My Year Of Flops Extra Innings, Case File # 110: Wired

In his wonderfully titled but less-than-wonderful memoir, Tell Me How You Love The Picture: A Hollywood Life, venerable producer Edward S. Feldman presents the making and distribution of Wired as a heartwarming case of fearless iconoclasts bravely risking the ire of fearsome Hollywood powerbroker Mike Ovitz so they could bring John Belushi's story to the big screen in all its ramshackle glory. Ovitz's Creative Artists talent agency represented Belushi and allegedly put its considerable power to work on sabotaging the project from its inception, out of concern that it reflected poorly on its clients.

In a New York Times piece on the film's troubled distribution, Feldman complained, "We didn't get the usual kind of answers you get when you're showing people a $13 million dollar picture. The majors turned it down even though we were going to pay the prints and advertising costs. They wouldn't turn down your wedding pictures if you pay for the prints and advertising." That may be true, but it doesn't take into account that the average wedding picture has more artistic value than Wired. Unless, of course, your wedding pictures also open with John Belushi's bloated corpse belching, then fleeing his body bag so he can embark on wacky posthumous misadventures with a wisecracking Puerto Rican guardian angel cab-driver.

I am not Pollyannaish enough to imagine that every major studio in Hollywood turned down Wired for strictly, or even primarily, moral reasons. But I'd like to think that Hollywood treated the film version of Wired like a cancerous boil at least partially because reputable writers, directors, and actors would, all things considered, rather not urinate lustily on the decaying corpse of a beloved entertainer. To call Wired an unconscionable act of grave robbery/defilement would be an insult to the good name of grave-robbers everywhere. There are snuff films with more integrity.

The battle over Wired is in many ways a skirmish over which image of John Belushi would endure. Would it be the prodigiously gifted overgrown kid of Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Saturday Night Live, or the wild-eyed, obnoxious, coked-up bully that rampages through the book and film versions of Wired?

Some images are so powerful that they leave a permanent impression. For example, there's a scene in Julia Phillips' You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again where Phillips stumbles upon an unwashed, coked-up Marvin Gaye absentmindedly masturbating under a filthy sheet. So now whenever I hear a Gaye song, there is some small part of me that remains fixated on that indelible image of Gaye in sad disarray. Someday, somebody will make a Marvin Gaye biopic. Hopefully it will focus on the beautiful, spiritual man who sang about peace and brotherhood in a voice that radiated tenderness and soul, and not Gaye the unwashed, coked-up semi-public masturbator.

So it's understandable why Belushi's family and friends would be protective of his image. In life, Belushi had the strange quality of simultaneously seeming indestructible—the "Albanian Oak" of comedy legend—and deeply vulnerable. The people who loved Belushi not wisely but too well didn't stop trying to protect him after he died.

Wired immediately throws down the gauntlet by opening with a Blues Brothers song that leads to a blank screen and the following exchange:

"You know who we should get for this movie? John Belushi."

"Leo, he's dead."

"I know everyone's made lousy movies. Who hasn't made a stiff every now and then?"

"No, you don't seem to understand me. John Belushi is really dead."

The film then lurches even further down the rabbit hole of unconscionable bad taste with a sassy black morgue attendant wheeling around Belushi's corpse while singing a ditty with lyrics like "I hate to talk about your momma, she's a sweet old soul / She's got knives on her titties that'll open the door."

Just when it appears that the film can't conceivably get any tackier, Belushi's ghost belches, bolts upright, mutters, "Where the hell am I?", and flees his body bag. He then takes off into the night, where he's picked up by a mysterious Puerto Rican cab driver (Ray Sharkey) who overdosed on junk eight years ago and is now a guardian angel with such a thick, unconvincing accent that he calls his hapless charge "Chahn." Sharkey then takes Belushi (played by young then-unknown Michael Chiklis) on a sentimental journey through the wreckage of his life. Chiklis keeps trying to talk to his loved ones, but Sharkey ominously warns him, "Dey cahn't hear you, Chahn. Dey cahn't see you, Chahn."

Chiklis tries to buy off Sharkey, though he first bombards him with ethnic slurs. I can see how Belushi's widow might find this, and every other aspect of the film, deeply offensive. But the filmmakers have truth on their side: It is a matter of historical record that John Belushi's ghost was a racist. While alive, Belushi might have been extremely tolerant, but once he died, he became an ugly, ugly hate-monger. A veritable Klansman, even. Thank God the filmmakers captured this aspect of his posthumous personality.

Meanwhile, J.T. Walsh's fake Bob Woodward decides to launch an investigation into Belushi's life and death. Bob Woodward's real-life book Wired: The Short Life And Fast Times Of John Belushi—the supposed basis for the movie Wired—is about as far from New Journalism as you can possibly get. Woodward talks briefly at the beginning about sharing a hometown (fabulous Wheaton, Illinois) with Belushi, but otherwise, Woodward keeps himself wholly absent from the narrative. Yet the film awkwardly shoehorns Walsh's colorless Woodward into the proceedings at every opportunity. I yield to no one in my love of the late J.T. Walsh, one of the all-time great character actors but he gives an utterly lifeless performance here. Unlike his biographical subject, Walsh's generic truth-seeker doesn't have any personality flaws, because he doesn't have any personality.

Wired has two framing devices, one terminally bland (Woodward's deeply boring investigation), the other terminally overwrought (ghostly Belushi's posthumous mystery tour) that overlap and bleed into each other in ways that are both annoying and conspicuous. Buckaroo Banzai screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch makes Belushi's ghost cognizant of Woodward's quest. At one point, Chiklis' Belushi impersonates Woodward as an obsequious, mincing queen who offers to reveal the identity of Deep Throat to Richard Nixon, as portrayed by Dan Aykroyd in Conehead garb. (In a further layer of oddity, Dan Aykroyd is played by an uncannily unconvincing Gary Groomes.) "You scratch my heinie and I'll scratch your heinie, my heinie," Chiklis leers to Groomes' Conehead Nixon in a characteristically dire attempt to mirror the irreverent, countercultural humor of early Saturday Night Live.

Why? Who the hell knows? Watching Wired, the two questions that pop up constantly are "What the hell were they thinking?" followed by "What the hell were they smoking, and where can I get some?" Belushi's relationship with Aykroyd forms the emotional heart of Woodward's book, just as their dynamic largely defined SNL's early years. But director Larry Peerce reduces Aykroyd to the man behind Belushi—John Oates to his Daryl Hall, Andrew Ridgeley to his powerhouse George Michael.

The book contains one scene that's enormously powerful, but that dies an unmourned death onscreen. In the film, Groomes' Aykroyd confesses to Walsh's Woodward that if he were with Belushi the night he overdosed, he probably would have shot up heroin and cocaine alongside him. It's an enormously revealing statement that derives its shattering resonance from the nature of their personal and professional relationship.

Aykroyd and Belushi had antithetical but complementary comic styles. Aykroyd was all about precision and control: He's as close as American comedy will ever get to a comedy android. Belushi, meanwhile, was all about attitude and energy. He was sloppy, anarchic, and gloriously out of control, a consummate comedy punk. So for Aykroyd to concede that he would willingly surrender control and give in to the terrifying darkness of shooting up speedballs just so he could feel closer to his best friend for a few hours is enormously powerful.

But since Wired never presents Aykroyd as anything other than a guy who was lucky enough to hang out with Belushi, the scene falls flat. Nobody cares about Oates' angst.

When the film tries to convey the tenderness of Belushi's relationship with his long-suffering wife, it devolves into TV-movie schmaltz. As it staggers blearily from low to low, Peerce's abomination blurs fantasy and reality in ways that diminish both. So the film's grotesque caricature of Belushi becomes convinced that Woodward is merely pretending to investigate Belushi's life as a pretense to "snake" his "old lady." In another cringe-inducing moment, Belushi posthumously tries to get straight-arrow Woodward to shoot junk, taunting, "How about you, Woody? You want a hit?"

In the grand tradition of half-assed biopics, Wired conveys relevant information about Belushi's career in the most awkward, artificial manner imaginable. It deftly conveys that its protagonist tried to overhaul his image with a serious romantic role in Continental Divide by having a coked-up cartoon of a new-waver accost Belushi in a bathroom and subject him to the following exchange:

"Belush! Hey! How's it going? I'm really loving your new image, playing a serious romantic role!"

"Oh, you mean Continental Divide? Time magazine loves it too. You know what they're calling me? The new Spencer Tracy."

It similarly conveys the spiraling costs of addiction by having a supporting character spout the pricelessly awkward line "So, I understand you're spending about a thou a week on the white stuff."

Belushi struggled his entire career to escape the straightjacket of "fat man fall down, make funny," but his ugly insult of a biopic reduces his entire complicated, contradictory existence to "fat man shoot junk, fall down, make funny, die horrible death." It's pop-culture shorthand of the ugliest sort.

I will give Rauch's screenplay this much: it sure is audacious. Watching Man On The Moon, I suspected that Andy Kaufman would have despised it as the sort of sentimental, formulaic treacle he spent his career railing against. Rauch apparently set out to write a biopic as irreverent, wild, and unconventional as Belushi himself. The stakes were high. Had the filmmakers succeeded, they would have reinvented the biopic by injecting it with vast ocean of gallows humor, magic realism, and postmodern mindfuckery. The filmmakers took enormous chances, none of which paid off. They shot for the moon and fell flat on their asses.

I'd love to be able to report that Chiklis transcends this whole sordid affair but he sinks to the level of his material. I don't think anyone could have predicted that the man flop-sweating his way through this sad little embarrassment would someday become a revered actor on The Commish and The Shield. (Not to mention as Ben Grimm in the Fantastic Four movies.) It's a testament to Chiklis' talent, determination, and persistence that he survived Wired at all.

"I want people to see him as he was: the drugs and more," Belushi's samurai widow pleads with Walsh's Woodward early in the film. Wired captures the drugs and the boorish bad behavior in exhausting detail. But when it comes to the "more" part, the film comes up empty.

Failure, Fiasco Or Secret Success: Fiasco

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