I suppose we should forgive Dan Aykroyd for the well-intentioned misfire that is Doctor Detroit. It was his first effort after the death of his partner/blood brother John Belushi, and Aykroyd had yet to carry a film on his own. You can sense him going for broke with the project in an effort to single-handedly fill the now unoccupied space beside him. It saves the film from absolute disaster, but it’s a near thing sometimes.
Aykroyd plays Clifford Skridlow, an absurdly nerdy literature professor who ends up in the wrong Indian restaurant at the wrong time. Fast-talking pimp Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman; yes, really) spies him from across the room and hits upon the notion to get clear of a sizeable debt. He plies Clifford with his four girls (including Fran Drescher and Aykroyd’s future wife Donna Dixon), then blows town… leaving the mild-mannered nebbish to face fiendish loan shark Mom (Kate Murtagh) alone. In order to triumph, Cliff must transform himself into the visage of Walker’s imaginary partner: a steel-clawed lunatic by the name of Doctor Detroit.
We’re supposed to find the transformation amusing in a Nutty Professor kind of way, as the straitlaced academic suddenly becomes the crazed king of the Chicago underworld. Skridlow’s WASP-y uptightness mutates into Detroit’s anarchic persona: taking uncool so far down the road of coke-fueled mania that it swings around and becomes cool again. There’s a charge in the concept, but it can’t last; the screenplay mines about one funny line in ten, leaving Aykroyd alone with a wig and a silly voice to carry the show.
Doctor Detroit suffers further under its mess of a plot, in which several routine sitcom formulas get plugged into each other in the hopes that the ensuing chaos will produce some laughs. In addition to saving Walker’s stable of gold-hearted hookers, Skridlow needs to rescue his university by securing a large grant, while maintaining both sides of his increasingly schizophrenic identity for no apparent reason. It comes to a head as a fancy hotel, with Doctor Detroit’s collection of colorful underworld figures partying down in one ballroom and Skridlow’s blue-blooded ivory tower types awaiting the endowment announcement in another. What better way to show our hero running madly through hallways changing costumes? That’s funny, right?!
The desperation lurks under the surface at all times, turning one potentially knee-slapping scene after another into so much dead air. The grab-bag of near-skits feel like rejected Saturday Night Live offerings, strung together with the hardscrabble fundaments of cohesion and unleashed on an unsuspecting audience. You can sense the filmmakers trying so hard to get us to laugh without noticing the growing pool of flop sweat beneath them. Against it, Aykroyd rails like Lear in the storm, using sheer force of will to induce a chuckle out of us whether we want to or not.
He’s battling serious gaps in logic than no amount of humor can save. Why does Skridlow agree to do this? Why would the hookers turn to him for help? What do we know about this man that could possibly create this kind of change in him? The script wallpapers it over with some surprisingly high-flown notions of chivalry that don’t hold water in any kind of plausible universe. This is a comedy, so that’s not supposed to matter, but without the laughs to distract us, the movie’s terminal laziness practically head butts us into the ground.
I’ll be honest: it plays a lot better when you’re twelve. Some of us found Doctor Detroit on video after its release, when loose rental stores cheerfully placed its R-rated thrills in our under-aged hands. That makes it sound far more dangerous than it is, though it also demonstrates the dangers of rose-colored glasses. For youngsters in search of slightly naughty thrills, it feels like a comedic roller coaster. Watching it again thirty years later only sucks those happy memories away. Audiences stayed away in droves, and today the film exists as little more than a footnote in its star’s checkered career. Aykroyd didn’t have to suffer the indignity long; Trading Places came out one short month later, washing away his sins until the next misfire. He did his best here; without more support from the material, it wasn’t nearly good enough.