Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #52 Clean Slate (1994)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the ferociously sexy, intimidatingly brilliant Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for each additional selection.
When choosing what movie I will watch and then write about for this column I generally ask myself “Which of these movies would appeal to me most as an eighteen year old?” Like everyone, I am a sucker for cheap nostalgia and movies that remind me of my teenage and college years in the 1990s have an enormous advantage over, say, depressing art films.
So when I was offered the opportunity to watch and write about Clean Slate I jumped at it. Not only is Clean Slate exactly the kind of featherweight trifle I gravitated towards in those days: it’s a movie I actually saw in a theater, Chicago’s Davis Theater, to be exact, when I was eighteen years old.
I was a huge fan of Clean Slate star Dana Carvey’s work on Saturday Night Live, where he was the breakout star in a cast loaded with heavyweights and comic geniuses like Phil Hartman. I rooted for Carvey. I wasn’t happy that he was leaving Saturday Night Live, the perfect showcase for his gifts, but I wanted him to succeed in his subsequent endeavors.
The problem is that Carvey is a brilliant sketch comedy performer and an amiable mediocrity at everything else. Carvey is not a great stand-up. He’s not a great actor. He’s not particularly handsome or charismatic.
Carvey was most assuredly not a movie star. He didn’t have the looks, or the presence, or the personal magnetism to command the screen as a leading man. His sole cinematic triumph, playing Garth in the justly revered cult classic, Wayne’s World, succeeded wildly because it was an extension of Carvey’s career as a sketch comedy legend rather than an attempt to make him a matinee idol, a box-office attraction, a larger-than-life icon of the silver screen.
Without the crutch of layers upon layers of prosthetics, elaborate costumes, cartoonish accents and outlandish characters, Carvey seems weirdly naked and vulnerable in his two failed pre-Master of Disguise solo vehicles: 1990’s Opportunity Knocks and 1994’s Clean Slate. Carvey had the misfortune to seem smaller than life in a medium that rewards outsized personalities with strong, distinctive personalities and colorful personas.
Carvey is enjoyably miscast in Clean Slate as Maurice L. Pogue, a sly former police officer turned private detective as skilled at seducing beautiful women as he is cracking tough cases.
Alas, Maurice has a problem as massive as it is impossibly gimmicky: he suffers from a form of retrograde amnesia where he wakes up every day and cannot remember anything that came before.
This would prove difficult even if he were not a private detective and key witness in a criminal case against mobster Phillip Cornell (Michael Gambon), the man responsible for the explosion that led to Maurice’s amnesia.
To make things even trickier, Phillip cannot reveal his amnesia to anyone or it will undermine his authority as a witness against Cornell. Phillip doesn’t just need to stay alive long enough for his big day in court: he also needs to find the film’s MacGuffin, a coin worth seven million dollars that Cornell stole and very much wants back.
Since his malfunctioning brain resets completely every morning the gumshoe and unlikely Casanova gives himself what amount to CliffsNotes for living every night in the form of notes and recordings and even press clippings outlining who he is, what he’s up to, and what he must do before the next morning.
In that respect Clean Slate suggests a light, Touchstone version of Memento that’s soft-boiled rather than hard-boiled. Instead of Film Noir, this is Film Lightish Gray, a tale of shamuses, femme fatales, murder and conspiracies targeted to kids willing to reluctantly accept the average-looking future Master of Disguise star as a man irresistible to sexy women, including his best friend’s wife, as long as he doesn’t actually waste any time kissing girls onscreen.
Detectives make their living knowing more than anyone else. They’re wised-up, clued-in, know everybody and are able to move effortlessly between worlds in order to solve crimes.
So there’s something agreeably perverse about a detective movie about a sleuth who doesn’t remember or know anything.
Playing a character who spends much of the film’s first act with expressions that reflect attitudes ranging from “Huh?” to “What?” to “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?” does not help Carvey in his Quixotic, inherently doomed attempt to establish himself as a palatable cinematic leading man.
Carvey similarly does not benefit from a screenplay that asks us to believe that the average-looking man-child and big-league goof has spent much of his adult life bedding gorgeous women, including the wife of his best friend and lawyer Donald Rosenheim (Kevin Pollak).
Pollak spends most of his time onscreen darkly speculating on the nature of his wife’s infidelity, never imagining that the fuck-beast responsible for giving his wife the kind of intense sexual pleasure she never previously even imagined possible happens to be his best friend.
This ridiculous plot thread pays off predictably when Rosenheim finally realizes that he’s been cuckolded by his legendary cocksmith of a best friend in court while examining Maurice and angrily confronts his sexually insatiable friend for fucking his wife.
Clean Slate introduces the idea that Maurice’s amnesia, which is only ever as strong or weak as it needs to be for any particular scene, could disappear at any time and his memory could return with a vengeance early on so it’s no shocker when it does just that at the most narratively convenient moment imaginable.
Carvey makes for such a wan and underwhelming, if agreeable presence, that Clean Slate sometimes feels like the product of Carvey going to Cinema Fantasy Camp, where his instructors give him the experience of starring in a “real” movie opposite ridiculously over-qualified costars like Gambon (of Harry Potter and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover fame), James Earl Jones, Michael Murphy, Olivia D’Abo and Valeria Golino as just two of the many gorgeous women our dweeby protagonist beds, and, in bit parts, the then-unknown likes of Bob Odenkirk, Bryan Cranston and Christopher Meloni despite Carvey obviously not being much of an actor himself.
Even though Carvey clearly had no business playing an ex-cop, or a crime-fighter, they let him play the role anyway, because, hey, it’s his dime. It’s telling that the only time Carvey, who at one point was slated to star in Bad Boys opposite his Trapped in Paradise costar Jon Lovitz, is called upon to do anything remotely action-hero-like, in this case disarming a henchman through martial arts, it’s accomplished through wacky, sped-up editing so that it feels morel like Benny Hill than an actual action or detective movie. Even though Carvey’s persona is essentially “sexless man-child” he not only gets the girl here, he seemingly gets every girl and has already slept with plenty more.
As if all that weren’t enough for a single session of Cinema Fantasy Camp, Carvey’s “movie” was directed by Mick Jackson (not to be confused with Michael Jackson or Mick Jagger), an actual director whose previous two films were the much-loved Steve Martin vehicle L.A Story and the iconic blockbuster The Bodyguard.
To go from directing one of the top grossing films of the decade to helming an unusually slight, low-ambition Dana Carvey vehicle is a hell of a professional demotion. Jackson never quite recovered. He’s worked primarily in television in the years since Clean Slate and his work here is workmanlike at best.
Clean Slate does not just resemble a light comedy version of Memento as well as 50 First Dates. Clean Slate’s premise is also distractingly similar to another vehicle for a Saturday Night Live alum released in the blessed cinematic year of 1994.
I’m talking of course about Groundhog Day. It almost seems unfair to compare Clean Slate to Groundhog Day, or Groundhog Day to any other movie, really, because Groundhog Day is one of the only perfect movies ever made.
Seriously. Groundhog Day is a stone cold masterpiece. It cannot be improved. It’s one of the greatest comedies of all time. Of course Groundhog Day starred a bona fide movie star who also happens to be a brilliant comic and dramatic actor, a star who commands the screen like few comic superstars before or since.
Clean Slate, in sharp contrast, starred Garth from Saturday Night Live.
To paraphrase one of Carvey’s TV catchphrases, when it came to elevating Dana Carvey to the rarified heights of film stardom, Clean Slate was just not gonna do it. To paraphrase another, Carvey was not worthy. Honestly, it wasn’t prudent for MGM to expect Carvey to be able to carry a movie, no matter how slight, at that juncture or any other.
On television, in make-up and full costume, impersonating celebrities like George H.W Bush or H. Ross Perot, Carvey was magical. He was in his element. He was a star. In movies like this and Opportunity Knocks, Carvey was a blank slate.
Carvey seems to have realized his many weaknesses as a cinematic leading man because the next time he starred in a movie he doubled down on the make-up, wacky costumes, cartoonish characters and broad-to -the-point-of-offensive accents in Master of Disguise.
In Master of Disguise, Carvey was doing on the big screen exactly what he did on the small screen, albeit in an infinitely stupider, more insulting, less funny fashion. The result was much more memorable than Opportunity Knocks or Clean Slate but also more embarrassing, to the point of total, soul-consuming humiliation.
I will never forget Master of Disguise. When I die and my life flashes before my eyes, I’m guessing I will relive pretty much the entirety of the Turtle Club sequence alongside the births of my children and 9/11 and every other milestone in my life.
The same cannot be said about Clean Slate. I’m writing this two hours after re-watching the movie and it is already disappearing rapidly from my memory. This is a trifle designed to be mindlessly consumed and instantly forgotten. Clean Slate is painless and brainless, further proof that it takes more than starring in a movie to make someone a movie star.
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