Friday, May 24, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Wayne’s World’

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Wayne’s World has the vibe of a stoner movie without actually being a stoner movie. It has a sweetness and a goofiness about it that gives it an almost celebratory feel. Immensely rewatchable and innately sweet, the film works because everyone knows a Wayne (Mike Myers) or Garth (Dana Carvey).

Penelope Spheeris sure did. Before directing Waynes’ World, she made a two-part comprehensive documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization and The Decline of Civilization Part II: The Heavy Metal Years. Part one was about the Los Angeles Punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s, while part two looked at the Los Angeles heavy metal scene of the late 80s. I mention this because Spheeris’s profound and intimate knowledge about the music world sprinkled throughout Wayne’s World brings much of the film to life.

Meyer’s Wayne Campbell is a character he created for “Saturday Night Live” as is Carvey’s Garth Algar. The two are metalheads who shoot a cable public access show from their basement in Aurora, Illinois. Meyers and Carvers created the characters and the lingo from people they knew, but Meyers in particular is not the world’s biggest metalhead. Spheeris is, and she brings that love and knowledge to bear in a way that’s never cruel or mocking towards the music Wayne and Garth worship.

Public Access is considered the forefather of youtube and vlogging, and in a way, it is. But the thing about cable access is that it didn’t care if you were watching it or not. Subscribers, hits, likes, and view counts didn’t matter. They just did it because they needed to do it. It’s the type of thing that draws a unique brand of people, and part of the charm of Wayne’s World is how Spheeris understands this.

Most importantly, she understands how people relate to music. The iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene is embedded deep into popular consciousness not because of how well she filmed it but because of how indelibly it resonates with everyone who’s ever jammed out to their favorite song with their friends.

Wayne and Garth are not out to conquer the world or even do much of anything. Their biggest dream is to sit on the couch and good around with their friends and neighbors. By contrast to today, and even by 90s standards, Wayne and Garth have an innate sweetness to them. Meyers’s and Garth’s humor is at times sardonic but in a way that never comes off as dismissive. Spheeris and Meyers have no love for the corporate lackey, Benjamin (Rob Lowe). He’s a guy so insincere and full of himself he can barely bring himself to care about anything. Even his laugh comes off as hollow.

Wayne’s World breaks the fourth wall but not in a way that takes us out of the film. Instead, Spheeris uses this to bring us into the fold. We meet a cavalcade of characters as Wayne introduces us to the people who populate his world. It’s the way Wayne and Garth speak to us, not like audience members, but as people who happen to be hanging out with them for a bit, that makes Wayne’s World so unique.

Spheeris and her cameraman Theo van de Sande, a man who has shot many cult films in his day, play with the film’s look and feel constantly. Sande’s camera is often a type of faux documentarian style but never in a way that feels forced. So much of Wayne’s World is a mood of grounded absurdism. Spheeris and Sande’s decision to keep the camera light on its toes is a stroke of genius because it effortlessly switches between POV shots, comedic zoom-ins for sight gags, or wacky spot-on pop-culture homages. The camera is a chameleon, and it is startling how Spheeris and Sande control it so deftly without us noticing it.

Wayne’s World shouldn’t work, but it does every step of the way. The script credited to Meyers himself as well as husband and wife team Bonnie and Terry Turner. They give the movie just enough of a plot to hang the gags on and give us just enough to propel us forward. Yet, the script finds time for little moments that make us care for Wayne and Garth not as caricatures or one-note jokes but as fully-fledged characters.

It may seem odd to say, but aside from its director and its two stars, what makes Wayne’s World tick is Tia Carrere’s Cassandra, Wayne’s love interest. Carrere learned to play bass for the film, and that is her actual voice we hear in the movie as she leads her band “Crucial Taunt.” An objectively gorgeous woman, Spheeris and the script go out of their way to give Cassandra goals and dreams, making her more than just the prize for Wayne to earn.

Spheeris even gives us a scene between Wayne and Cassandra in bed with the two just flirting with each other and having fun. Wayne even goes out of his way to learn Cantonese to try and impress her. Their conversation in Cantonese leads to one of the film’s best jokes involving subtitles and translations.

Stacy, the crazy ex, “psycho hose beast,” is one of the film’s jokes that hasn’t aged as well as the rest of the film. However, the gun rack scene is still gold, as is Wayne’s line preceding it, when Stacy tells him to open his present. “If it’s a severed head, I’m going to be very upset.”

But Meyer himself even acknowledges the cruelty of how they treat Stacy. Based on real-life experiences, he reportedly called the woman Stacy was based on and apologized. It does not excuse how the film treats Stacy or the stereotype it perpetuates, but it is an example of a time and a mindset.

In a way, despite the film’s endurance, Wayne’s World is a time capsule. The older pop culture references the film makes don’t hit the same because we are further removed from them than even the film was at the time. Alice Cooper’s cameo, while still hilarious, probably doesn’t hit quite the same to a generation who didn’t headbang to “Feed My Frankenstein.” 

Wayne’s World is a sly ode to hair metal and to those who loved it without ridiculing them in a way. The film and its characters glow with a sort of sweet innocence. Spheeris made a film so effortlessly enjoyable, intelligent, and funny, it’s often taken for granted. 

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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