Cold War Comedy Case File #140/My Year of Flops II #37 The Experts (1989)
Welcome, friends, to John Travolta month here at My World of Flops. In addition to today’s entry, The Experts, we’ll also be covering his new Fred Durst-directed stalker thriller The Fanatic as well as Travolta’s poorly received, barely released NASCAR drama Trading Paint. Now at this point you might be asking yourself, “Didn’t you just have a John Travolta month where you covered the regrettable likes of Gotti and Speed Kills?”
I sure did! I’ve also covered a fuck ton of other Travolta flops for this column, like Moment to Moment (the final Case File before a two year long hiatus during which I left the A.V Club for The Dissolve) and of course Battlefield Earth. I’ve also covered Staying Alive and Look Who’s Talking Now for my Zeroes column over at Rotten Tomatoes. Travolta has made so many movies that have received the notorious zero rating in the past few years that even though The Zeros is only updated once a twice or year I was invited to select a Travolta abomination for the next entry in the column, and chose Life on the Line, which paired the Grease icon with Devon Sawa several years before The Fanatic.
Honestly, at My World of Flops every month is spiritually John Travolta month as well as Nicolas Cage month, as these two legends of the bad movie universe are pretty much the patron saints of the bad movie universe. They give and give and just keep on giving not just to this website and column but also to The Flop House and We Hate Movies and How Did This Get Made, which have devoted some of their finest episodes to the garbage-packed filmographies of these trash culture Gods.
It’s almost as if Travolta realizes that a real comeback is impossible at this point, that he’s simply made too many cinematic trash fires that have reduced his brand to ash and rubble, and has decided to really lean into making the most flamboyantly terrible movies possible. It’s as if he’s making movies specifically for the purpose of being mocked on podcasts and columns like these.
If that is the case I am only too happy to acquiesce. To the bad movie world Travolta is the gift that keeps on giving, one I am perpetually happy to receive.
The Dave Thomas-directed Russian-American culture clash comedy The Experts, a mid-period flop for Travolta, was supremely fucked by timing. It had the misfortune of being a Cold War comedy that spent two long, cold, excruciating years on the shelf while the Soviet-style Communism at its core died a slow, painful death at the hands of capitalism.
But it didn’t take Glasnost or two years on a shelf to render the premise of The Experts anachronistic and irrelevant. The Experts was never relevant or timely at any point in its misbegotten existence. How perplexingly perfect that a movie whose one stale joke is that the Russians have such a backwards conception of American culture that they imagine that Leave It To Beaver is a documentary about life in contemporary United States own conception of life in the Soviet Union and the KGB would be so cartoonishly, preposterously off.
In order for the premise of The Experts to make any sense comedically, let alone be funny, the Soviet Union would have to be nearly as cut off from modern life as the villagers in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. I lived and worried through the end of the Cold War and I can vouch that the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union were considered a little un-hip and a little behind the times, but they weren’t seen as so primitive that a Russian child would stare at a walkman with the kind of open-mouthed awe and wonder we might reserve for encountering a space alien or laser gun for the first time.
Charles Martin Smith stars in The Experts as Mr. Smith, an American-culture loving KBG agent with a suspiciously flawless American accent he conveniently never breaks who helps run a KGB-operated village designed to train Russian spies to flawlessly impersonate real Americans by perfectly replicating a typical Midwestern town, specifically Indian Springs, Nebraska.
The problem is that “Indian Springs” resembles an idyllic American town from the mid-1950s rather than a village that might have anything to teach spies about life in the United States in 1987. “Indian Springs” is Pleasantville. It’s Mayberry. It’s Ed Debevic’s the town, minus the sass.
Though it’s never explicitly established in dialogue, The Experts apparently inhabits a world where media and entertainment do not exist because if Mr. Smith were to return to the KGB village after his trip to New York with a newspaper, a Time magazine or a videocassette containing a week’s worth of nightly network news broadcasts, it would provide just as much, if not substantially more, practical information on the particulars of life in contemporary America as drugging and kidnapping two morons and then tricking them into setting up a New York-style nightclub in the KGB village does.
Ah, but in the analog world of The Experts in order for Russians to learn anything about modern American life they have to do everything the old fashioned way, through flesh and blood interactions rather than, I dunno, looking at a Rolling Stone magazine or watching a fucking documentary about some aspect of life in God’s own United States and learning about it that way.
The Experts opens with a fake-out. Mr. Jones, a glowering Russian heavy played by the always wonderful Brian Doyle-Murray is interviewing Bonnie, a standout spy played by Kelly Preston but even the KGB’s most advanced agent labors under the delusion that “heavy metal” is not a form of music but rather a “catalyst for the plutonium bomb.”
Needless to say, if an American were to ask Preston if she enjoyed heavy metal, and she were to reply that she thinks it’s a wonderful catalyst for plutonium bombs her cover would be blown.
Mr. Smith is horrified that the backwards denizen of the fake KGB American town know nothing of such fixtures of mid 1980s American life as ghetto blasters, punk rock, New Wave, sushi bars and “Gimme Five!” He mentions punk rock so often, in fact, that it starts to seem like he’s recently gotten into the music himself and is honestly just looking for someone to talk to about the Clash.
Mr. Smith could always return from America with a slang glossary or some informative books or videocassettes. Instead he returns with two singularly oblivious, useless human beings, John Travolta’s Trevor and Arye Gross’ Wendell under the dubious logic that the KGB and its undercover operatives have much to learn from wisdom and knowledge of two half-wits who appear to know substantially less than nothing.
The Experts wastes little time challenging my theory that there is no line of dialogue so clunky or convoluted that Brian Doyle-Murray’s gravelly Midwestern authenticity can’t make it ring true when he snipes at his Westernized rival/colleague Mr. Smith, “Take that Glasnost back to Moscow, where it’s so popular!”
I could say that Doyle-Murray makes even dialogue that terrible vibrate with gritty authenticity but that would be a goddamn lie. Doyle-Murray does as much as he possibly can as a reactionary, joyless functionary intent on keeping the town in the 1950s and free from contemporary American corruption but there’s only so much he can do.
That goes for Travolta as well. The Pulp Fiction icon, still a few years removed from his comeback role as handsome boyfriend in Look Who’s Talking, looks uncharacteristically terrible here. A singularly hideous mullet goes a long way towards hiding his usually dazzling movie star charm and charisma and even Travolta can’t pull off playing a character this impossibly stupid.
To give a sense of the film’s ham-fisted, hokey sensibility, Travolta’s nightlife entrepreneur is so overjoyed to see a nerdy black man named Nathan applying for a job in his nightclub that he gushes, “A brother! All right!”
That would be embarrassing enough, but he then greets him with a guileless, “Blood!”, to which the nervous Russian replies “AB Positive.” This clueless Commie knows nothing of dated slang from the late 1970s! Why why when Travolta busts some moves and then graciously jokes to the black man that he used to be on Soul Train this awful Russkie just stares at him blankly, not appreciated the hilarious joke.
Thankfully Nathan enjoys quite the arc; his final line of dialogue is “What it is.” It takes some doing, but under the tutelage of our dumb-ass heroes Nathan makes a remarkable transformation from cartoonish nerd to over-the-top soul brother.
Mr. Smith brings the Americans to Russia so they can bring a blast of contemporary authenticity to the town but they do their job too well. The town is essentially cos-playing badly at being a typical American enclave but once Travis and Wendell introduce these relics from the Eisenhower era to rock and roll music and consumer goods they want to experience the real United States for themselves.
In the third act Travis and Wendell discover that they’re actually in Russia, not out of any special insight but rather because the KGB makes no attempt whatsoever to monitor the Americans in their midst and let them wander where they will. The Americans are forced to denounce their home country and themselves as capitalist pigs but they just can’t do it. They just love their country too much to betray it.
If I were ever in a position where I had to denounce my country, I would just let her rip. An hour in, they’d be begging “Jesus, enough about this Trump guy! I get it. You fucking hate him. Can you speak of anything else? We get it. He sucks. Isn’t there anything shitty in your country that doesn’t involve him?”
The nicest thing that can be said about The Experts is that it ends eventually and at least Travolta seems to be enjoying himself. The nightclub setting/theme is little more than an excuse to have Travolta boogying onscreen as much as possible, most notably in a “setting up the nightclub” montage set to, what else, a shitty cover of “Back in the USSR” and a later set-piece where Travolta and Preston wow the rubes with a genuine display of sexually charged dance.
It’s always great to see Travolta dance but on the great continuum of movies where he boogies Pulp Fiction and Saturday Night Fever occupy one extreme and The Experts another. Travolta could spend a half hour breakdancing here and it still wouldn’t save this turkey. Nothing could. Not even the presence of Yacov Smirnoff.
The Experts’ terrible, violently unpalatable premise is that during the Soviet Union’s death throes it was so backwards, and so cut off from American popular culture and technology that its conception of American life lagged three decades behind the times, that they were so bad at being Americans that they seemingly took all of their cues from The Andy Griffith Show.
In actuality, Russians know how to be Americans better than Americans do these days, at least where cyber-sabotage and electoral chicanery are concerned. Over the past few years they have used that technological knowledge to subvert and corrupt the American political system through the election of their puppet, Donald Trump.
Russians are still pretending to be Americans for the sake of spy craft, manipulation and subversion but they’re a whole lot more sophisticated these days and we’re somehow even stupider than the maroons at the center of this idiocy. The joke, this time, is most assuredly on us, and as with The Experts, nobody, but nobody, is laughing.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
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