“Meet the Hollowheads” (aka “Life on the Edge”) feels like a studio executive gave the green light to “Harmony Korine’s The Jetsons” and then forgot to hire a screenwriter. This is a film in which plot, character, and theme whimper in the corner as production design rules over them with an iron fist. Part music video, part sitcom, and part fever dream, it’s a movie that’s definitely not afraid to be strange and off-putting. The question is whether or not that enthusiasm is enough to justify the results.
Henry Hollowhead (John Glover) is a faceless cog in the works of United Umbilical, a company that maintains the tubes that perform seemingly every function in a bizarre society. He’s angling for a promotion and wants to impress his new boss, so Henry finds himself pressed into inviting the unctuous Mr. Crabneck over for dinner. The news doesn’t sit well with Henry’s wife, Miriam, who frets over how she’s going to prepare the meal while her kitchen’s tubes are blocked. Meanwhile, their youngest son is having bully problems. Their daughter Cindy (Juliette Lewis) is preoccupied with a party she’s going to later that night and the boy she’s expecting to see there.
The world that the Hollowheads inhabit is the highlight of the movie, and I dare say it’s the only reason it was made at all. Writer/director Thomas Burman is a special effects makeup artist with a long career that includes an Oscar nomination for “Scrooged” in 1989. He and the art department simply went nuts, cramming every square inch of the frame with weird and unnatural-looking devices and creatures. Worms wriggle out of wall-mounted dispensers and are chopped in half. A mass of tentacles and eyeballs occupies the space a fish tank normally would. The family pet is a beast that looks the result of Wallace Shawn and a bloodhound sharing Seth Brundle’s telepod. All manners of sludge and slime are pumped in and out of the kitchen through the ever-present tubes.
It would be one thing if this oddness were left as background noise behind the real movie, the way the tiny computer screens and grotesque plastic surgery of “Brazil” helped build a dystopia worth escaping. But “Meet the Hollowheads” doesn’t seem interested in being a real movie for a long stretch. In fact, after Henry calls home and lets Miriam know about dinner, about 30 minutes go by before anything of importance happens. Billy and his friend Joey play a game that involves a slingshot and bloated parasites they pull off the family pet. Cindy tries on some dresses and recites a poem she wrote for her paramour. Miriam chops, purees, and crushes bugs, amphibians and worms as she prepares dinner.
There’s a brief excursion when Billy and Joey are sent to the main pumping station to fill a bucket with some type of gunk Miriam needs for dinner because the tubes are clogged. It’s here that the run afoul of Captain Babbleaxe, played by Anne Ramsey. Filmed shortly before Ramsey died of throat cancer, her scene is barely connected to the rest of the film. It was heartbreaking to see that they needed to use subtitles because her poor health apparently made her lines incomprehensible. The filmmakers make the choice to have every character’s lines subtitled during these scenes, which is a nice gesture but doesn’t do much to help the feeling that the movie is being weird for weird’s sake.
Finally, after a number of false starts, pointlessly gross set pieces, and aborted setups, Henry returns home with Mr. Crabneck. In true sitcom fashion, Henry is forced to smile through it as his boss insults him, ignores him, and makes passes at his wife and daughter. “Meet the Hollowheads” finally decides to be about something more than halfway through it. Miriam chooses to do something that would make June Cleaver faint dead away but is perfectly in line with the “Dennis the Menace at a GWAR concert” tone of the movie.
Where this movie shoots itself in the foot is that it wants to be a parody of “Nick at Nite” programming but can’t find a way to stretch a 30-minute TV plot into a feature-length film. The only impact the older brother and sister have on the storyline is when they’re brought home from the party wasted by a couple of cops (including a young Bobcat Goldthwait) and create a brief moment of tension. Billy is the focal character of the first third of the movie, and then he’s not. His friend Joey is played by Joshua John Miller, who was so good and creepy as the baby-faced vampire in “Near Dark.” He has nothing to do here once the Crabneck story kicks into gear. Glover is perfectly cast as a pathologically mild-mannered sitcom dad, but he’s stuck on the bench when he’s needed the most.
“Meet the Hollowheads” is barely remembered today, and that’s not surprising. Once you get settled into its world and the appearance of a random tentacle or mention of “softening jelly” becomes expected, you realize that’s all it really has to offer. It’s a movie that tries its hardest to make you turn it off, but offers no prize for the viewers who meet the challenge.