[Screen It]

(1999) (Gibson Frazier, Susan Egan) (R)

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Comedy: Upon learning that he has one last shot at saving his job, a Manhattan newspaper reporter with a 1920's point of view and lifestyle sets out after a big scoop while trying to deal with various assorted characters in his life.
Johnny Tweenies (GIBSON FRAZIER) is an old-fashioned and ever chipper newspaper reporter for the New York Sun-Telegram. In fact, he's so old-fashioned that people would swear he was straight from the 1920s based on the way he acts, talks and dresses. His art gallery girlfriend, Samantha Winter (SUSAN EGAN), thinks he's swell, but is beginning to get fed up with his decidedly less than amorous ways, a point she complains about to her gay co-worker, Richard Lancaster (DWIGHT EWELL).

Yet Johnny's as oblivious to Samantha's longings as he is to the importance -- or lack thereof -- of the stories he covers in his daily column. His newly assigned photographer and Richard's former lover, Timothy Burns (ANTHONY RAPP), obviously senses it, and thus takes artsy-craftsy pictures instead of ones related to the stories they're covering.

Of course the ever optimistic Johnny always wants to help out his fellow human being, and taking pity on Virginia Clemens (CARA BUONO), a recently out of work but aspiring opera singer, gets her a job at a record store where she manages to impresses Roman Navarro (FRANK GORSHIN), a presumed opera impresario.

Nevertheless, Johnny's attention must return to work when he learns that his job is to be cut. Hoping to capitalize on a story involving a local crime lord and his henchman, including the violent tempered Tyrus (ALAN DAVIDSON), who have recently threatened him, Johnny races against time to investigate and write his story while simultaneously trying to please Samantha, his mother, and various other people.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Most every generation or decade of the 20th century has an archetypal character, one who best personifies what most people would think of as the stereotypical person from that specific era. While the one for the 1990s is still to be determined -- although the young Internet billionaire seems an appropriate choice -- other decades have long been set with their examples.

The 60s would be the tie-dyed, hippie protester, and the' 30s would involve the dust bowl farmer. While the 50s would be the rock n roll high school couple consisting of the bobby soxer and her leather jacketed boyfriend, the American G.I. and Rosie the riveter would personify the 1940s.

Few decades, however, have the fun characters found in the 1920s. An opulent and swinging time situated between the end of the first World War and before the stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression, it was a time of dames and gangsters, bootleggers and speakeasies and a newfangled type of person, the movie star.

While most of the latter appeared in the silent pictures of the era, films of later decades would portray those from the 20s as various characters, including the fast-talking, ever optimistic newspaper reporter. Of course, with the arrival of later, but more accurate and/or realistic portrayals of such characters by the likes of Redford and Hoffman in "All the President's Men," such earlier characterizations fell out of vogue and now seem charming and antiquated but definitely out of place.

That is, until the arrival of "Man of the Century," an odd but wacky and contemporarily set film where the protagonist is a newspaper reporter straight out of some old movie about the 1920s who lives and works in today's modern world.

While we never know why the appropriately and symbolically named Johnny Tweenies acts and speaks like he's a mixture of "Superman's" Jimmy Olson and an old-fashioned gumshoe detective, or why others don't completely dismiss him as nothing but a quack, such notions seem to be beyond the point of Adam Abraham and Gibson Frazier's screwball comedy.

Although when it's boiled down, the film is essentially a one-note comedy, first-time writer/director Abraham and co-writer/lead performer Frazier milk it for everything it's worth and then get out of Dodge, or in this case, the 1920s, while the going is good. They do that by keeping the film at an ultra-short running time of around eighty minutes.

Something of a cross between Woody Allen's black and white, period comedies and an elongated skit or artsy short film found on TV's "Saturday Night Live," this black and white film starts off looking like a long lost print from the days before talkies.

Complete with scratches, other marks, an overly contrasty and nearly washed out picture, as well as a subject who enthusiastically hops out of bed for a series of bent over toe touches, the film begins in a wonderfully wacky fashion and never really lets up from there. While it's never clear whether the filmmaking team was trying to impart some symbolic message about the disparate ways of the past and the present or simply wanted to deliver a highly imaginative film, the effect is often quite amusing.

Embodying the protagonist with the appropriate attire, attitude and a thesaurus of 1920s style dialect -- he calls women "dames," police "flatfoots" and uses terms like "That's swell" and "I'm in a pickle -- the filmmakers have created a character who's fun to watch, partially just for nostalgia's sake.

Interestingly enough, they don't play him as the standard "fish out of water" character, and beyond a few observational remarks from others, no one seems to care, mind, or even notice that this guy would ordinarily be making a quick trip to the loony bin for behaving as such. While it's nice that they avoided such stereotypical, "time travel" moments where the protagonist sticks out like a sore thumb and then tries to hide and/or adapt his ways to fit in, the fact that none of this setup is ever explained eventually does become a tad irritating.

Even so, the whole notion is inspired and Frazier (also making his acting debut) believably gets into the role of the 1920s era reporter. Perfectly playing the character, Frazier credibly walks the walk and talks the talk, at least to the point of fulfilling most people's stereotypes of the era and then some, especially for those with a greater working knowledge of the time. Supporting performances from the likes of Cara Buono ("Next Stop Wonderland"), Susan Egan (TV's "Hercules") and Frank Gorshin (the Riddler on TV's "Batman") are generally okay, but clearly fall into Frazier's all encompassing shadow.

Although the film eventually has to delve into something resembling a plot -- a marginally explained bit about some gangsters and a story they want written -- and just begins to run out of gas despite its truncated running time, it offers enough zany moments and an inspired concept and subsequent performance from Frazier to make it worth seeing, if just for the wacky novelty of it all. We give "Man of the Century" a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 19, 1999 / Posted November 26, 1999

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