Even boy wonders make mistakes. Every one seems disgusted with "1941," which is the most collosal failure Hollywood has given us in years. The trouble is, not only the talents of Steven Spielberg were wasted on the project. A vast amount of money (at least $26 million) also went down the drain , and a lot of energetic young performers were shown to very poor advantage. Yet there could be a silver lining to this celluloid cloud -- if it helps stem the trend of more and more dollars being gambled on fewer and fewer films. Financiers love to rake in the profits of expensive successes, such as Spielberg's own "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." But money alone does not a movie make -- a fact that is disastrously demonstrated in "1941".
The action takes a place a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A Japanese submarine gets lost in the ocean near California, and the commander decides to launch an attack on the only American place he's ever heard of: Hollywood. Meanwhile, Los Angeles is in an uproar of war paranoia. Amateur and professional soldiers are already massing their forces against an enemy thousands of miles away, and the smallest spark of provocation might set off a conflagration of response.
Into this pit of storytelling possibilities, Spielberg tosses two hours of relentless slapstick, broad farce, and bathroom humor. The screenplay, by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, has some funny ideas -- such as the submarine crew finding itself without a compass, and howling with joy when a new one fortuitously pops out of a Cracker Jacks box. But nothing is done with these promising moments. You start to laugh at a clever conception, only to find it's been smothered at birth by director Spielberg and his not-so-merry gang of accomplices.
Happily, a few bright fragments gleam through the wreckage. Robert Stack is both funny and touching as a general who -- alone among the characters -- has no wish to fight anybody. Instead he goes to the movies to watch Disney's "Dumbo," and there is a gorgeous scene of him sitting in the theater with tears flowing down his cheeks, speaking the lines along with the cartoon elephant.
The other performer who makes something of "1941" is John Belushi, who rampages through the film like a tank without a driver. It's physical humor of the bull-in-a-china- shop school, but it works better than almost anything else in the picture.
The failure of "1941" shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Spielberg's forte has never comedy, as the roughshod slapstick in parts of "Close encounters" proved. Savvy artist that he is Spielberg seems to know when he's blundered, and is currently re-editing "Close Encounters" to smooth out some of the lumps.
Unfortunately, no amount of cutting-room surgery could salvage "1941." It's a Dumbo of a movie -- silly, elephantine, and (unlike the Disney classic it pays homage to) thoroughly unlovable.