I used to frequent a pizza place that, to this day, has never been topped, and no one I ever talk to is even aware of its existence. The place is called Mama’s Pizzeria, and it is located on Belmont Avenue in Philadelphia. It’s in an inconspicuous building with limited parking. The hours of operation are also odd (hey, maybe the joint is a front; Considering the quality of the eats, who am I to judge?). Inside, there is a small room for takeout orders and a couple of tables for people to dine. Up a narrow stairway is the main dining room. I never once ordered a pizza from Mama’s, but I also never needed to. Rather, they make what is, in my opinion, the single best cheesesteak in the universe. This delicacy was a little over a foot long, and for around ten dollars, it had more meat and cheese than you can comfortably fit into a human stomach (and colon). I used to order these things, and it was all I would eat for a weekend. I don’t know if the caliber of their cheesesteaks has held up some twenty-odd years later, but just the thought of one of those things makes me hungry even now (and I just ate). The reason I’m promoting cheesesteaks from Mama’s in a review of Glenn Gordon Caron’s Wilder Napalm is because the restaurant had nothing but clown art decorating its walls, and in this film, one of the characters is a clown by profession (a thin connection, sure, but that’s expected from me). That, and I miss Mama’s cheesesteaks and wanted to extoll their virtues.
Wilder and Wallace Foudroyant (adjective – Striking as with lightning; sudden and overwhelming in effect; stunning; dazzling) haven’t seen each other in five years. Wilder (Arliss Howard) has a crummy job, but he is also a volunteer firefighter. His wife Vida (Debra Winger) is a firebug who is due up for release from her house arrest in a few days. Brother Wallace (Dennis Quaid) is a circus clown who rolls into town on his way to The Big Time and stirs up old resentments and tensions. And both brothers are pyrokinetic.
Aside from the basic idea of sibling rivalry, the film deals with the dueling desires for normality and notoriety. Wilder craves a quiet life. He wears a tie and jacket to work at a Fotomat knockoff in an empty parking lot (guess where the circus sets up shop). He volunteers to call BINGO at the local rec center (the film is set in Midlothian, and I assume it’s the one in Virginia, not Scotland). When he is paged to a fire, he stops to hang his jacket on a hanger and lock the work booth door behind him. To lose control is unacceptable because it irresponsible. The exception to that rule is when he has sex with Vida, which can get pretty wild, apparently. Wallace, of course, is the antithesis of Wilder. He uses his power freely, zapping flies, melting air conditioners, and so forth. He wants to be famous, to be “somebody.” His big dream is to appear on Late Night with David Letterman and get rich. Wallace likes to have fun. When Vida’s house arrest is over, it’s Wallace who takes her out on the town. Vida, being the tether between the two, responds to both positively. She has genuine affection for Wilder and appreciates that he’s a solid guy (he lost a decent job because of her but never resented her for it), though she also feels constrained in their relationship to some degree. By that same token, she’s attracted to the wild side of Wallace, who knows what she likes. She is a musician (a cellist, not a rock ‘n roller), and she loves hanging out on top of her and Wilder’s trailer home. She sets fires just to get the fire crew to come to her house, so she can see Wilder (she’s also an arsonist, thus explaining why she’s enthralled by the Brothers Foudroyant). The thing about the brothers’ antagonism is that neither is one hundred percent wrong. Wilder thinks that exposing their powers will only bring harm to them both (“You read Firestarter, didn’t ya?!”) on top of the physical dangers of it (there is a very good reason for this). Wallace realizes that he and his brother are unique, and, if done correctly, his gift can be used to benefit himself. The two are so dug in on their positions, that they can’t see the value of the other’s perspective.
For my money, Wilder Napalm could easily have been one of the first Marvel Comics theatrical releases (you know, if it had anything whatsoever to do with Marvel). Screenwriter Vince Gilligan (who would write quite a few episodes of The X-Files but is far better known for creating and executive producing Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) and director Caron (also a television alumnus, having created Moonlighting and Medium) understand what makes Marvel’s characters work so well, even if they don’t refer directly to them. That is, they are people who have real problems to deal with on a daily basis who also just so happen to be superheroes (Wallace has a costume for his Dr. Napalm alter ego, and Wilder sort of gets one by the end). The most interesting things in Marvel comic books are usually not the obligatory slugfests but the interactions between the characters as they wend their way through their melodramatic lives (true to fashion, this movie contains both). Borrowing heavily from the famous Stan Lee wisdom of “…in this world, with great power there must also come - - great responsibility,” the filmmakers use the brothers as foils to illustrate this point. Further, their powers are secondary to their interrelationships while also representing the core of what is between all three of them (when the brothers get worked up, things tend to melt and boil).
The film is quirky in both good and bad ways. Four firemen are also an acapella group who provide a chorus for Wilder (they sing a nice version of The Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”). Character actors Stuart Varney and M Emmett Walsh both turn up in small but effective roles as the circus owner and the fire chief, respectively. There is the dry humor of Wilder’s character as he paces through his days (Arliss Howard has always excelled at this). Winger is genuinely charming as the earnest free spirit. Wallace, while in his clown persona of Biff, is both unsettling and a tad menacing. That said, the fighting between the boys turns a little too slapstick at times (there is not only a bonk on the head from a pipe but also a fire extinguisher to the face). Further, Quaid really overdoes the histrionics most of the time in an attempt to act funny, something which never works. He even jumps up and down like Yosemite Sam at one point. Still, the film is breezy, the pyrotechnics are truly impressive, and overall, it’s a very satisfying experience when it’s firing on all cylinders.
MVT: The originality going on in the script (remember, this was 1993) is admirable.
Make or Break: The finale cuts loose emotionally and physically, and even though, we know how it will turn out, it still works a treat.