There’s a notion baked into our national identity, as American as apple pie, that America is here to stay. The thing I personally love most about our national anthem is that it manages to make the very idea of soldiering on in the face of defeat and humiliation a heroic act. Rather than being about a great military victory or the inherent superiority of our democratic republic, “The Star-Spangled Banner’s” triumphant moment comes when Francis Scott Key realizes that the flag simply is “still there.” Although that says a lot about our national ideals of perseverance, self-reliance and determination, there’s a dark inverse of that idea implied by the anthem. It’s the idea that America can be “still there” even after it’s been broken, battered beyond all recognition, and left to limp along in a pathetic, crippled state. It’s an idea that may have had an influence on the national mindset in the post-Vietnam era. And once they made a movie about it where Jay Leno’s mother kicked him in the balls.
“Americathon” is a movie about a near-future United States teetering on the brink of collapse, brought low by decades of incompetence and greed. The nation is dangling like raw meat in front of the slavering jaws of our enemies, both foreign and domestic. World history has marched on without America’s participation, and no one misses it. And that bit I mentioned before about Jay Leno’s mother kicking him in the balls? Yeah, this movie is a comedy.
Released in 1979, “Americathon” takes place in the far-off future of 1998. The energy crisis never ended, so there’s no gasoline left in the entire nation, leaving the city of Los Angeles living in their now-motionless cars. The opening narration (provided by George Carlin) places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Jimmy Carter, cementing his place as history’s greatest monster. It’s to the credit of these fictional Californians, I think, that the lack of gasoline doesn’t transform L.A. into a “Road Warrior” cannibal holocaust, but rather an entire city of joggers and bicyclists. It’s the healthiest apocalypse I’ve ever seen in a movie.
The situation is made worse by the fact that the president is Chet Roosevelt, a hippy-dippy Scientologist and Transcendental Meditation adherent whose ideas for saving the economy don’t get any better than a bake sale. Played by John Ritter, Chet was apparently meant as a riff on California Governor Jerry Brown, who was famously derided by Mike Royko as “Governor Moonbeam” for his New Age spirituality and belief in alternative energy. Chet’s White House isn’t the White House at all, but a sublet condo in Marina Del Rey that he shares with his girlfriend Lucy. Cabinet meetings are held in the condo’s tiny dining room.
The nation has a bigger problem than the gas crisis by the time the movie opens. The only thing keeping America afloat over the last decade has been a series of loans provided by the nation’s richest person, the Native American owner of NIKE, Sam Birdwater. NIKE, of course, stands for “National Indian Knitting Enterprise,” and they’re the world’s largest manufacturer of roller skates and track suits. The problem is that the U.S.A. owes Birdwater $400 billion, and he’s calling in the loan. “I gotta eat, too,” Birdwater exclaims constantly throughout the movie.
Desperate for an idea to save the nation, President Chet calls on UCLA media professor Eric McMerkin to consult on a month-long telethon that will call upon all Americans to raise $400 billion in gold before the loan defaults. Complicating matters is the fact that one of Chet’s advisors, played by Fred Willard, is in league with the Arab-Israeli alliance that now rules half the globe. He wants Americathon to fail so the U.S. defaults on the loan and his bosses can buy the whole nation for pennies on the dollar. He tries to sabotage the telethon by booking almost nothing but ventriloquists for the entertainment and hiring a drug-addled sitcom star played by Harvey Korman to host. Never mind that asking each American to contribute an average of $1,333 (in gold!) should be a fool’s errand, anyway.
Mostly “Americathon” tries to pad time in the same way an actual telethon does, but the padding turns out to be the best parts of the movie. There’s a halfway-funny bit where Meat Loaf plays a daredevil who fights “the last working car in America” in a gladiator arena. There’s also an appearance by Elvis Costello, who gets to play 30 seconds of “Crawling to the U.S.A.” It takes longer for the movie to explain that Great Britain has become a U.S. territory than it gives Costello to perform. It’s a great song, at least. The bit about Jay Leno and his mother falls into the padding category, as well, but doesn’t deserve mention as one of the better parts of the movie. There’s also a subplot about Chet trying to sleep with a Vietnamese punk rock singer that does nothing but free up Lucy to sleep with Eric. Both couples have their relationships resolved in footnotes at the end of the movie. Once the premise of “Americathon” is established and the actual plot kicks into gear, it doesn’t have anywhere to go, just like the cars surrounded by their white picket fences in the opening scenes.
But even though “Americathon” is not a good movie, it’s at least an interesting one. It provides a sideways look at the national psyche during that strange period when the hippies were on their way down and the Reagan Revolution was on its way up. Sometime around the Bicentennial, both movements met in the middle to snort some coke and blearily agree that yeah, America was kind of messed up at the moment.
It’s interesting for me to think about this and the run of “slobs vs. snobs” comedies from around that same time period in the context of where America’s head may have been at the time. You don’t have to stretch that far to consider the United States in “Americathon” as the same type of shaggy, directionless loser that was the hero of a dozen of those late-70s/early-80s movies from Danny in “Caddyshack” to Winger in “Stripes.” There was an idea settling in that maybe America was going to be less John Wayne and Gary Cooper and more Woody Allen and Chevy Chase for the rest of its life. That is, until Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis rode in on a wave of renewed American swagger and slammed the door on that idea. But for a time there, with the Space Race over, the Cold War dragging on and the gas pumps starting to dry up, America wrestled with the idea of a fate worse than death. “Americathon” is an attempt to laugh off that idea, but it’s so interested in setting up the joke that it forgets the punchline.