I once saw Mel Brooks tell a story about a sketch he was writing. He was working for, I think, Sid Caesar, and his sketch didn’t have an ending. So he came up with a bizarre thing where a bunch of sailors started singing a little song.
A couple of other people on the staff thought it was crazy, but someone went to bat for him and it went on the air. And most people didn’t get it.
What this story has to do with “My Name is Buttons,” I’ll get to in a moment.
Mel Brooks, of course, later stepped away from television and turned to making movies, many of them parodies of various films that had been hits sometime between the 1920s and the 1990s. Some of them, like “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” were brilliant and funny.
Some of them, like “Dracula, Dead and Loving It,” left something to be desired.
And a few, like “Spaceballs,” fell somewhere in the middle. Sometimes funny, sometimes grating, but worth watching for the occasional splash of comic genius. It is this category into which “My Name is Buttons” falls.
“My Name is Buttons” does not start out as a parody, and perhaps it wasn’t originally intended to be one. It details the story of Hunter, who is a failed modern artist by night and a failed employee of a bookstore by day.
Due to his hate of corporate America, he’s been unable to hold a job for any length of time, and is considering becoming part of a pharmaceutical test at Pharmakhem.
This decision is made for him when he and his two friends are fired from the bookstore where they all work.
It’s around this time in the film when the parodies start to rear their heads. One of the head researchers at Pharmakhem is named Dr. Williams, and he’s obviously meant to be a parody of Patch Adams. He spouts bad jokes (No, really, BAD jokes.) At one point in the film he opens up a cooler containing a liver and says, as though it were the height of hilarity, “Liver? I hardly know her!”) and talks about the “happiness” of each patient as though their joy was more important than, say, their need to not be dead.
As Hunter seems to be a great deal more angry than his two friends, he’s assigned his own room (the sign on the front reads “Healing in Progress,” which for some reason made me grin) and given a special happiness drug.
Dr. Williams continually raises Hunter’s dosage, eventually giving him a dose completely past what is legal or safe. Instead of dying, Hunter reverts to a childlike state – essentially a complete product of the Id.
He talks as though he were about three. He eats when he wants, sleeps when he wants, and watches three TVs at the same time, all of them tuned to infomercials. At this juncture we wander helplessly into the Forrest Gump portion of our show. Hunter, who has renamed himself Buttons (“My name is Buttons. People call me Buttons because that’s my name!”) gets a girlfriend named Jenny. He begins spouting off inane statements that people think are very wise. Like, “Can’t get in trouble if you don’t do nothing.”
And then it’s out with the singing sailors. Unable to resolve the two parodies into one cohesive storyline, the final twenty minutes of the film change from being anti-“Patch Adams,” to being “Patch Adams.”
There are other problems. Once Buttons appears, his gags start to wear like Mike Myers’ C material pretty quickly. Hunter’s story, for one reason or another, seems far less funny than the story of his two friends, who are going through what can only be called a torturous time. (Favorite line of the film – the woman over the intercom spouting “All red shirts please report to punishment room nine.”) In particular, Courtney Davis, as Hunter’s friend, lands nearly every joke she’s given.
It might be easier to judge this film if I knew whether it had a point. I was pretty sure for a while I was reading too much into the film as far as the parodies went, that perhaps it was just supposed to be “Flowers for Algernon” in reverse, until a news reporter showed up with the name Forrest Cronauer.
But, so what if the plot’s a mess. I watched the film, I had a few good laughs, and for the next week my answer to every question is going to be “Magic juice makes Buttons feel good.”