In a running joke that has never worn out its welcome and probably never will, the charming, delightful Paul Rudd appears on Conan O’Brien’s talk shows to plug his latest project, then offers to show a clip. Instead of giving audiences a bite-sized morsel of I Love You, Man or Role Models, Conan invariably runs a deathless sequence from 1988’s infamous Mac And Me.
Everything about the clip he shows is shameless and wrong, from the desperate use of a wheelchair-bound moppet seemingly plunging to his death as a cheap plot point to the bargain-basement production values—even the mannequin that serves as the boy’s double appears ashamed to be associated with the film—to the hideous character design of the alien that watches impotently while a boy rockets off a cliff into a watery abyss.
Then again, everything about Mac And Me is shameless. If you were to look up the word “shameless” in the dictionary, you’ll find its definition, origin, and a list of synonyms and antonyms. That doesn’t really have anything to do with this Case File, except that Mac And Me embodies every one of its synonyms: brazen, indecent, bold, unabashed, unashamed, hardened, unprincipled, and corrupt.
Mac And Me was designed as an especially brazen knock-off of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Instead, it plays like an indecent bizarro-world incarnation of Steven Spielberg’s beloved family classic. E.T. is a marvel of daring, inspired character design that somehow manages to look simultaneously ugly and adorable, but Mac is a repulsive little monster that looks like an overgrown, horrifically scarred fetus covered with blisters. As my editor Keith noted, the creepy little alien’s mouth is permanently fixed in the O shape of a blow-up sex doll, though the average blow-up sex doll is more animated and has more dignity than Mac. Mac And Me’s alien doesn’t move, so much as he twitches and burbles randomly; over the course of the film, its hideousness and comic inexpressiveness engenders morbid fascination. Suspension of disbelief becomes impossible: Mac is never anything more than a poorly manipulated puppet. Just look at the much-seen Conan clip:
Where E.T. brilliantly synthesized cutting-edge special effects with masterful storytelling, Mac And Me indifferently weds incompetent filmmaking to sub-amateur puppetry. If E.T.’s famous Reese’s Pieces sequence represents the unassailable apogee of seamless, organically integrated product placement, then Mac And Me represents the nadir of the disreputable practice. It’s as if marketing executives at Coca-Cola wrote the first half of the film, and merchandising bigwigs at McDonald’s wrote the second. Product placement generally involves filmmakers working a product or products into a movie; here, the filmmakers shoehorn the bare bones of a movie into a feature-length celebration of glorious, glorious consumer products.
Mac And Me opens on the home planet of the repugnant title character. It’s a barren, desolate wasteland apparently populated solely by Mac and his family, disturbing frog people who resemble Jar Jar Binks’ inbred cousins. Mac is then sucked up by a NASA craft and transported to Earth, a mysterious land defined by its abundance of top-notch fast-food franchises and mouth-watering sodas. Mac escapes his NASA captors and begins stalking wheelchair-bound Jade Calegory, who thoughtfully squeals all his lines as loudly as possible for the benefit of the hearing-impaired.
For reasons known only to the screenwriters, Mac possesses preternatural abilities with electronics, is a whiz with power tools, digs home renovation, and sneaks into Calegory’s house to take a shower and drink a soda. Mac is the first mysterious alien creature to behave like a bored suburban dad. A sequel would undoubtedly have revealed Mac’s love of Scotch, golf, and timeshares in Florida.
More importantly, Mac loves the crisp, refreshing taste of Coca-Cola. Actually, “love” isn’t a strong enough word to describe his affection for Coke; an insatiable lust for this delicious beverage consumes him body and soul. In this clip, Calegory cunningly uses Mac’s love of Coke to lure the mischievous extraterrestrial (Jesus, Mac And Me even rhymes with E.T.) out of hiding:
As the above illustrates, the hardened, morally corrupt filmmakers are utterly unabashed about putting small children in peril. In addition to driving Calegory off a cliff, they have his equally grating next-door neighbor Lauren Stanley careen violently against walls and ceilings like the victim of a demonic possession in an Exorcist sequel, after their plans to trap Mac using a vacuum cleaner go horribly awry.
Meanwhile, Stanley’s older sister is lucky enough to work at McDonald’s, which affords the unprincipled filmmakers an opportunity to put her in a McDonald’s uniform for the entire film, and lets Calegory engage in the following banter with older brother Jonathan Ward:
Ward: You know what I feel like?
Calegory: A Big Mac?
Ward: The man is a genius!
Calegory: I’m psychic!
Ward: I tell ya!
Ah, but all that talk about the delicious taste of McDonald’s serves as mere foreplay for the main event: a cameo appearance from Ronald McDonald! (Sadly for those who hate spoilers, his appearance was prominently billed on the film’s poster.) A spontaneous production number follows his arrival. Why does everyone at McDonald’s suddenly break out into an elaborately choreographed routine? As anyone who has ever enjoyed beloved McDonald’s favorites like the Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, McGriddle, or the new Grilled Chicken Snack Wrap can attest, customers are so overjoyed by their meals that they can only express their appreciation through rapturous movement. Mac traveled across the universe solely to build brand awareness of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s:
That’s the genius of Product Placement: The Movie—oh, I mean Mac And Me. Just about every major plot point revolves around McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. It pinballs from one product-placement setpiece to another, unencumbered by shame or self-consciousness. Mac’s Spidey senses lead him to a cave where he encounters his dead family. All is not lost, for Mac, Calegory, Ward, the woman in the McDonald’s uniform, and Stanley discover that they can bring the dead aliens back to life by pouring cold, delicious Coca-Cola into their mouths. Not only is Coca-Cola the perfect thirst-quencher, and far superior to Pepsi, it literally has the power to bring the dead back to life. Jesus has nothing on Coca-Cola.
The unbearable child actors and resurrected aliens then head to a grocery store to procure more of their beloved carbonated elixir. To paraphrase Dave Barry, I am so not making this shit up. The aliens are willing to risk detection, being dissected by NASA scientists, and/or a fate worse than death in their mad pursuit of Coca-Cola.
Sure enough, the sight of hideous frog-monsters (some naked, some clothed) traipsing the aisles of a grocery store arouses the attraction of security guards and law-enforcement officials, who pull guns on the terrifying ghouls from a distant planet and fire at them. The aliens try to escape to a nearby mall. Calegory follows and appears to die in a fiery explosion. (Apparently if you fire a gun at a mall from a long ways way, it explodes.) No! All is lost! Calegory is a goner! But wait, that isn’t the end—the aliens emerge from the fiery wreckage and bring Calegory back to life using the magical restorative powers they learned from Coca-Cola, the nectar of the gods and the beverage of choice for friendly, unintentionally disturbing-looking aliens.
In the final scene, the now-domesticated aliens are granted citizenship on the basis of their love of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s alone. They’re now decked out in human clothes—Mac, unsurprisingly, wears a “Mac Kids” shirt from the McDonald’s children’s clothing line—and they ride away in a giant pink American boat of a car.
During a scene where Mac’s father extends his arms to grotesque lengths and purloins a can of Sprite from a nearby car, my girlfriend wandered over and asked if I was watching a horror movie. In a curious way, Mac And Me is a horror movie and not just because it features terrifying monsters from outer space and children in life-threatening peril. Mac And Me is fundamentally about the horrors of conscienceless capitalism, of the ugliness of unfettered greed and consumerism run amok. Ironically, the nonstop plugs for Coke and McDonald’s prove counterproductive; where being featured in E.T. was a source of pride for Reese’s Pieces, being associated with Mac And Me should be a source of shame for McDonald’s and Coke. Moreover, did either of these venerable cultural institutions really need Mac And Me?
Shameless to the bitter end, Mac And Me ends with its titular grotesque blowing a giant bubble emblazoned with the words, “We’ll be back.” No. No, you won’t.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure