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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I know, I know… I haven’t updated this feature in months and months. But I had to bring it back, because the Sinbad/Phil Hartman comedy vehicle Houseguest popped into my head over the weekend for some godforsaken reason. I haven’t seen this film in years, but I’m going to attempt to write at length about it anyway. So, here goes:
The ’90s were a weird time in film. Harmony Korine somehow became an indie darling and was allowed to make several trashy, horribly-dated-at-this-point movies about teenagers having sex. Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard 3: Die Hardest (With a Vengeance!) came out, cementing Bruce Willis’ legacy as an unkillable, unholy spectre. Also, someone decided that it would be a good idea to combine the talents of Phil Hartman (who is sadly missed) and Sinbad (who is not). It probably wasn’t the best idea.
Directed by Randall Miller and released in the winter of 1995, Houseguest is the story of Kevin Franklin (Sinbad), who pretends to be the childhood friend of Gary Young (Hartman, in one of his first and only leading roles) in order to escape the mafia, whom he owes a significant debt to. Hijinks inevitably ensue, as Franklin is put into all kinds of awkward situations (like pulling teeth — because Gary’s real friend is a dentist and also because surgery performed by an unlicensed impostor is hilarious) as well as many identity-based near-misses, double entendre, and what not.
One of the things I found interesting about the movie were its attempts to (unsuccessfully) blend genres as well as drop in bits and pieces of popular culture that don’t really fit in. In one scene, Hartman’s young daughter pulls a Home Alone and disposes of two mafia bad guys using only her kindergarten-level wits and moppish cuteness. In another, Sinbad name drops grunge rock gods Pearl Jam, dating this movie almost instantly. Hartman’s daughter Brook, played by Kim Murphy, is almost hilariously Goth, playing into the then emerging underground techno/industrial movement. Oh, and the film features copious amounts of product placement, including a gratuitous McDonald’s commercial in the middle of the film.
There was once a time when Sinbad was popular enough to be a leading Hollywood comedic actor, but that time has long since passed. I would be lying if I said Sinbad didn’t have any charm. He’s clearly a smooth-talking, good-natured, and charismatic presence. He’s just not very funny. Hartman, on the other hand, had immense talent, especially as a voice over actor for The Simpsons (where he played multiple characters, including Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz) and as a sketch comedian (where he appeared on Saturday Night Live for an extended period of time). He gives a decent performance in Houseguest, but I was never convinced he was totally all in on the role. Honestly, I can’t really blame him; the film just isn’t that good.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag as well. Kim Greist (who has never been good in any movie ever) plays Hartman’s wife, a would-be frozen yogurt mogul whom Hartman is actually secretly envious of in a not-predictable-at-all-plot ploint. In a minor role, excellent character actor Jeffrey Jones (Ravenous, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) plays an antagonist and rival dentist to Sinbad’s Franklin. Also starring are The Wire’s Paul Ben-Victor and long time “That guy!” Mason Adams.
I haven’t seen this movie in ages, but I remember it almost beat for beat. That’s probably because it’s such a generic movie. Even if I don’t really think about this movie all too often, I do think about Hartman’s senseless death every now and then. His was one of the most shocking celebrity deaths of my lifetime, and it still hurts that he’s gone. He no doubt would have continued to be a great comedic force, and I’m certain he would have ended up in better films than this. As for Sinbad… well, when was the last time anyone even thought about him? It’s weird to think of a time when Sinbad was a legitimate leading man in Hollywood. I guess in a way Houseguest is kind of a relic of a long-forgotten time. May it rest in peace.