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Hipster Holy Grail: Doin' Time on Planet Earth (1988)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I wish I hadn't watched Doin' Time on Planet Earth so soon after I saw One Man Army, because it's another movie that left so little impression on me that I don't think I can sustain too long of a review. I can't let too many of these go by at once or this blog will become even more of a vacant pit.  Anyway, what was I saying?  Oh, right.  The movie's okay, sorta, kinda.

My Rating: 3 / 5 (Nothing To Say)

The Plot Summary

The film opens with virtually the entire cast speaking to the camera, documentary-style, about the main character: Ryan Richmond (Nicholas Strouse).  Ryan is a goofball teenager.  He's a nerd with strange habits and affectations who sleeps in an indoor hammock, tinkers with computers, and builds booby traps in his bedroom.  Not everybody is a fan.

After the mockumentary / opening credits are over, the movie picks up at an engagement party for Ryan's older brother, Jeff (Timothy Patrick Murphy).  Jeff is getting married to Jenny Camalier, daughter of the esteemed Richard Camalier (Hugh O'Brian).  There are passing references throughout to Richard's fame and prestige - he's clearly well-to-do and renowned nationwide.  I think what they were trying to get at is that Richard ran for the US presidency, but lost the election.  Where I get confused, though, is by who he lost to - they make him out as if he's a stuffy Reaganite jerk, and the movie was made at the peak of Reagan's popularity.  Shouldn't he have won?

Anyway, the point is, the Camalier family is from the upper crust, but the Richmonds are kinda not.  Ryan and Jeff's father, Fred (Hugh Gillin), owns and runs a Holiday Inn with an adjoining rotating restaurant.  Fred is awfully proud of the restaurant and likes to boast about its impressive speeds to anyone who will listen.  As the engagement party winds to a close, he tries showing off the controls to Richard, while Ryan awkwardly bumbles his way through a slide show.  The Camaliers are not terribly impressed, but they've already agreed to spend the week at the Richmonds' house as they build up to the wedding.

Richard's wife, Virginia (Martha Scott) takes an immediate dislike to Ryan.  This will be the single note her character gets to revisit as the movie goes on.  At first it's just a personality conflict, but later there are a string of offenses, both perceived and actual, that put them at odds.  (The worst of them, which is glossed right over as if it were nothing, is when Ryan sleepwalks into the bathroom one night while Virginia is using it.  The implication is that he unconsciously pisses all over her while she's sitting on the toilet, but nobody ever mentions it again.)

Jeff has picked up on the tensions between the families and starts to freak out since his wedding is only a week away.  He pulls Ryan aside and demands that he bring a date - a nice, plain girl - to the wedding so he can show the Camaliers that he's capable of being a normal kid.  Ryan accepts the challenge, but he's not very good with ladies.  He's currently crushing on Lisa Winston (Andrea Thompson), a surly biker chick who sings lounge songs at the restaurant and is rumored to be an escort on the side.  However, Lisa doesn't return his affections, so that seems to be a dead end.

Ryan consults with the 1980s Internet and finds a dating service that might help him out. He starts filling out a personality questionnaire for the service, and the questions steadily become more and more intrusive and accusatory ("Do people think of you as a nerd?  Are you an outcast?").  Then they start to get weird ("Do you breathe non-standard substances?").  Eventually, the screen flashes a cryptic message that basically says, "Guess what?  You're an alien!"

Ryan doesn't believe it at first, but the thought of being an alien dogs him.  As farfetched is it might be, it makes total sense: he is an oddball who can't fit in.  He embarks on a short series of misadventures to test out his alien qualities, such as inhaling helium and finding out that it doesn't affect his voice, and eventually concludes, yup, I'm an alien.  Well, goddamn, who knew?

Enter Charles and Edna Pinsky (Adam West and Candice Azzara).  They are a couple of kitschy 1950s goofballs who also believe they are aliens.  They set up the dating service quiz to find other people like them so they can meet their own kind and come together as a community.  There's a couple of infodump scenes here where the Pinskys impose on Ryan at inopportune times and try to bring him into their group / cult.  A few of these moments are funny, but since the upshot is that they just need to explain the plot, here it is in all its glory:

Aliens got trapped on Earth many generations ago and interbred with humans all over the planet, leaving behind random blocks of alien DNA here and there.  Some people are born with more of this DNA than others, which makes them more like aliens.  The better you score on the test, the more alien DNA you have, and since Ryan got a perfect score, that means he's 100% alien.  They also have a prophecy that the first full-blooded alien they meet will be The Navigator, a holy, chosen figure with a "DNA packet" in his brain that will explode and reveal to him the name of their home planet, as well as a homing instinct that will allow him to lead his people through space and back to where they belong.

The next step, then, is for Ryan's DNA packet to explode, which the Pinskys say will be triggered by an intense emotional state.  They try to force it to happen since their entire lifestyle / cult is centered around the idea of following The Navigator into space.  The next few scenes are a bunch of wacky antics as both Ryan and the Pinskys alike try various shenanigans to put him on edge.  This includes Ryan acting like a dickhead at school and then the Pinskys imitating cops and arresting him in front of his classmates.

Eventually Ryan comes up with the idea of visiting Lisa, that biker / lounge singer I mentioned many moons ago.  You might not have known this, but Lisa is apparently the female lead of the movie - basically the rest of the run-time is a romcom about their relationship.  There was one previous scene where he visited her trailer and explained his belief that he's an alien, but that was kinda inconsequential - really it was just building up to the present scene where he crashes her place and says, "Hey, these weirdos outside are going to kidnap me unless I have an intense emotional experience.  We should bang."

Lisa thinks about this, shrug, and says, "Why the hell not?", which leaves me feeling very squicked out since he's supposed to be only seventeen and they keep acting like she's in her mid-twenties.  She shoves Ryan onto her bed, and then... ah-hem... goes down on him.

Yup, the emotional climax of the movie is a hummer.

Ryan's DNA packet explodes (didja get it?) and he concludes that the aliens' home planet is named B52, based on a series of random references to "B52" throughout the movie so far.  He thanks Lisa for the blowjob, shakes her hand, and invites her to be his date to his brother's wedding that weekend.  She accepts, because apparently now she likes him for some reason.  I don't know, I guess casual, borderline-legal sex acts do it for her.

Ryan and the Pinskys briefly celebrate their newfound quest.  Then Ryan goes to his brother's bachelor party, where he finds out that Lisa has been hired as a stripper.  He storms away in disgust, and then the next day is the wedding, where Lisa shows up unexpectedly and has a heart-to-heart with Ryan to win him back.  And if that sounds like a whirlwind while you're reading it, trust me when I say that it's not any easier watching it.

The wedding starts, and the priest comes to the "if anybody has any objections, speak now" part.  Virginia, the Camalier matriarch, speaks up and publicly shames Ryan for being a weirdo, saying she doesn't want him to be her daughter's brother-in-law.  Then Lisa gives a brief, but sincere, speech about how Ryan's actually totally awesome and Virginia should go fuck herself.  Everybody applauds and Ryan's brother is now officially married.

Cut to the reception, which is being held in the revolving restaurant.  Ryan realizes that he's found happiness, peace, and belonging at long last (Yeah, I know, kid, seventeen years of that is rough, you poor fucking baby) now that he and Lisa are together.  He realizes he doesn't want to join the Pinskys when they leave Earth, but unfortunately, the Pinskys and their cultists have just raided the restaurant and are holding everybody at gunpoint so they can ratchet up the gears on the restaurant's motor and - in theory - launch it into space.

This leads to Ryan taking the microphone from the wedding band and making his own impassioned speech.  He rambles a bit about love and happiness and tells the Pinskys to knock it off, but they've already started their plan, so now it's just time to hang on tight and see what happens.

...which is nothing, because the restaurant is just a restaurant and not actually a spaceship.  The motor breaks and the Pinskys run away before the cops can arrest them.  Ryan and Lisa slip away during the ensuing chaos to go have sex in a van or something, and then the credits roll.  Hooray.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

It's going to be hard to get into this without sounding like I hated the movie.  The trouble with writing a review for something like this is that I can concisely sum up the stuff that I liked, but when it comes to the stuff I didn't like, I either need more words or it's just more fun to talk about.

So here's the short summary of the positives, which are actually strong enough that I'm giving this a 3 / 5 - a rating that's still technically in the "good" range.

First up: the acting is all pretty good.  Adam West and Candice Azzara lay on the right amount of ham, the stuffy conservative types are all played with the right amount of starch, and Nicholas Strouse does a commendable job being nervous and affable.

The set design and overall look of the movie are wonderful.  It parodies / takes a lot of inspiration from cornball 1950s schtick, which seems to have been a really popular move during the '80s, and which is especially funny today since we're now basically aping and taking inspiration from sleazy 1980s schtick in contemporary comedy.  (Consider Trump as a presidential nominee.  Ha!  Timely political jokes.  My humor never grows old.)

The pacing is excellent and there's a fantastic energy that keeps things moving from start to finish.  The movie snaps along and never feels boring.  It's the kind of breeziness that must have engaged a lot of folks who watched it as a kid, and they've now spent the last thirty years thinking, "Was there a movie about a rotating restaurant that Adam West took hostage or something?  I swear to God that was a movie I watched all the time when I was six."

And that right there is the strange paradox of a movie like Doin' Time on Planet Earth.  The visuals, ideas, and energy are so vivid and bright that it will stick in your brain, yet after a few weeks, it will fail to register on any kind of literal or narrative level.  It's a terrific concept, but not so great a movie.  It's the sort of thing you might as well experience as a pill for all it does for you.  ("Take one with food to experience an ambiguous sense of color and oddball antics.")

My main beef is that the movie's just not very funny.  It makes the mistake that the majority of quirky comedies make: it thinks that quirkiness is, in and of itself, hilarious.  So you have these big set pieces and lingering shots to put the quirk front and center.  Look, it's a rotating restaurant!  Isn't that hilarious?!  Or maybe, Look, it's a bunch of cultists in orange jumpsuits!  Aren't they hilarious?!

...uh, no, not especially.  I mean, they've got a lot of comic potential, sure.  But they aren't really doing a whole lot.  When you put that stuff out there without a good setup/punchline, it gets tiresome, or even worse, cringe-worthy.

Here's a good example of one of the worst gags.  There's a part where Ryan is talking to Lisa and they have some mundane farewell.  Like, "I have to go" / "Where are you going?"  And then Ryan just points up at the sky and says, "The final frontier."  And then the Star Trek theme plays for like fifteen seconds.

That's... not a joke.  Literally all you're doing is reminding us that Star Trek had a theme song.  And if this was the only bad joke in the movie, I wouldn't bother to bring it up, but most of the humor is like this.  "Hey, remember how wacky our premise is?  Well, here it is again!  But this time, we're referencing Plan 9 from Outer Space!"

What makes it all worse is that the payoff to this not-so-great comedy is a completely unearned redemption sequence at the very end that assumes you're so invested in the quirkiness that you're happy to let it serve as the movie's goalposts.  When Lisa gives her heartfelt speech at Jeff's wedding about how the world is better with quirky people like Ryan in it, the attendees all applaud for her - either literally or just spiritually - and turn on the crotchety old mother-in-law-to-be who freaked out about his behavior.  This is supposed to be our high point.  "Hooray!  Quirky independence wins over social conformity once again!"

It simply doesn't work.  For one thing, Lisa didn't have much of an arc to come around to Ryan's advances, so who knows why the hell she's so eager to white-knight him in public.  More importantly, Ryan hasn't actually done anything to establish that he's all that good of a guy.  I'm not saying he isn't likable - just that you can't actually have him be "the hero" if there's no heroism involved.

If they used that moment purely as a lever to get Ryan and Lisa together at the end, then it could be kind of a cute little bow to put on top of their love story and then you could just wrap up the movie there.  But they go on to have a lifeless hostage sequence with the cultists, and in that sequence, Ryan gives his own speech about not wanting to leave Earth, and so on and so on.  By the time all of that stuff is finally over, the main thing you know for certain is that Jeff's wedding has been well and thoroughly ruined.

There's something unsettling about the way the movie gleefully ignores that as Ryan and Lisa go off into the sunset together.  Maybe if the movie portrayed the other guests as being more upset by it, I'd at least appreciate it for the dark / awkward comedy of the situation.  But since you don't get enough of Jeff in that finale - compounded with the applause everyone gave to Lisa's speech earlier - it comes across as though the entire movie universe has given Ryan a free pass to ruin weddings with abandon.  Because he's just so quirky, guys, isn't that great?

That's the stuff that makes it very hard for me to actually enjoy this movie as much as I want to.  Being kinda unfunny is one thing, but cramming in a weird quasi-lesson that doesn't actually make sense in context or in real-world terms is a new level of frustration.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It gets an obscurity bonus of 35 points.  Technically it should be 40 because it has under 200 ratings on IMDb, but it's close enough to the 200 mark that I'm docking a few.  It also gets a pedigree bonus of 20 points for being a Cannon production and featuring Adam West.

Next comes the cast and crew bonuses.  I'll give it 10 points for being directed by a famous actor's less famous son (in this case, Charles Matthau, son of Walter Matthau), and another 15 points for a "did it first" bonus since the lead actor looks and acts exactly like Michael Cera a solid fifteen years before Arrested Development premiered.

That adds up to a very respectable 80 hipster cred.  If only you could remember that you watched it a week later, this would be a good one to name drop at your next hipster party.

Where You Can Watch

It doesn't appear to be available on DVD, although there are some VHS copies on  But it'll probably be easier for you to watch it on Youtube, as long as you go before it gets pulled for copyright violations.