Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
Slackers stars Devon Sawa as Dave a lazy college bum who along with his two cronies Sam (Jason Segel) and Jeff (Michael Maronna) cheats his way through school in a variety of schemes that involve elaborate ways of getting advance peeks at test questions and then paying the smart nerdy kids to provide the correct answers. (Methinks it would be far easier for them to just do the work themselves.) While stealing the midterm test from a physics class Dave meets a pretty girl Angela (James King) and asks her out. It turns out to be a big mistake because Angela has previously attracted the attentions of Cool Ethan (Jason Schwartzman) a psychotic geek who is stalking poor Angela without her knowledge. Happening upon a document that will expose Dave's misdeeds Ethan blackmails Dave and his gang--in return for not incriminating them they must work their magic and get Ethan the necessary information to win the heart of unsuspecting Angela.
Ethan is clearly the film's antagonist and Schwartzman's (who was brilliant in Rushmore) fearlessly repellent performance is as insanely funny as it is completely disturbing. (It's also the one true thing that sets Slackers apart from complete anonymity.) There's no sweet side to this guy that Angela might fall for if she only got to know him. Schwartzman's Ethan is abrasive aggressive unrelenting hyperactive socially inept and full of ill-advised impulses he never filters. Meanwhile Sawa and King come off as a bland cut-and-paste Ken and Barbie who never set the screen on fire. Aside from the sock puppet gag bit Maronna and Segel are wasted as Sawa's slavishly devoted friends. Laura Prepon (TV's That '70s Show) tantalizes us as King's lascivious roommate but we just don't get to see enough of her fine performance.
There's little wittiness found in Dewey Nicks' direction or in the writing though there are a handful of moments that rise above the film's generally uninspired technique. Nicks effectively rips off Spike Lee's floating camera movement in a scene where Dave walks through an operatic graduation celebration and the alternate reality sequences (Cool Ethan's kissing threesome; Jeff's sock puppet; the cheaters imagining themselves as superheroes rap stars and Peter Pan) are genuinely funny and almost innovative. Nicks almost inserts enough of this to make Slackers more than just your routine gross-out romp rife with weird sex masturbation and toilet humor--but just almost. Ultimately in Nicks' hands the movie never rises above its pedestrian plot and dialogue.