1992 • 95 minutes • Paramount Pictures
Shrek is widely credited—or, more precisely, blamed—for the proliferation of pop culture references in kids’ movies these days. But it’s really Shrek 2 that should be blamed. After all, it opens with Shrek and Fiona on their honeymoon, parodying everything that was white hot at the time. That was the first time I saw a Lord of the Rings reference in pop culture, which blew my mind wide open. (This was largely because I didn’t know how television worked and therefore missed out on any other references to the films.) While DreamWorks has course-corrected into the Oscar-nominated heights of How to Train Your Dragon, there were some dark days in the mid-aughts. Robots, anyone?
Pop culture references on their own are fine, of course; it’s when they’re used as a crutch or, worse, as a replacement for an emotionally engaging story that they become frustrating. It’s perfectly possible to make timeless entertainment that’s also fascinated with its own pop cultural milieu. Cases in point: Aladdin and Wayne’s World.
To be fair, Aladdin’s pop culture references all stem from the implication that Genie is unstuck in time, although I will defend to the death that Aladdin’s breathless “Call me Al” to Jasmine is a “You Can Call Me Al” reference. Wayne’s World, at least, has its story to blame—a pair of metal fans from Aurora, Illinois, get their dinky public access cable show picked up by an executive and struggle with the demands of fame. You’ve gotta reference Led Zeppelin and Queen, Alice Cooper and Aerosmith. But that’s only partially. Having been constantly assured by the Internet and conventional wisdom (well, that’s redundant, I’m from the Internet!) that Wayne’s World is the best Saturday Night Live film, I was expecting something completely exemplary. (I apparently forgot that the playing field is is a little lean.) But Wayne’s World has just as many slightly too on the nose pop culture references as, say, Shrek. A random visit from Robert Patrick’s T-1000? Check. An extended Mission: Impossible riff featuring a dog in a mullet? Check. An actually amazing recreation of the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley? Check.
But the reason it all works is because the comedy is not based solely on those pop culture references. Rather, it’s about Two Idiots Enjoying Their Lives, which is one of my favorite microgenres. (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes falls into this category, to the point that I often call it “Idiot and Bad Idea Friend Go on a Cruise.” It’s such a good movie.) Sure, Wayne lives with his parents, which he’s not too thrilled about, but he’s perfectly happy where he is. Garth is almost cripplingly awkward and clearly operating on a different plane than us mere mortals—witness the bizarro scene where he builds a robot hand, mildly threatens Rob Lowe, and then smashes it to pieces—but he’s also enjoying his life as Wayne’s sidekick. They goes out partying with their friends, enjoy pulling childish but good-hearted pranks, and host their own public access show. They’re beloved in their home town, to the point that the local police occasionally do them a solid. Hell, they even have control over the fourth wall.
So the main conflict is not whether or not they’ll ever make it, but the dissonance between them and the slick Hollywood—okay, Chicago—stylings of Rob Lowe’s television executive. The more traditional fame storyline actually belongs to Cassandra, the lead guitarist of metal band Crucial Taunt and Wayne’s new girlfriend. Cassandra is a delight. She’s introduced as desirable due to her musicianship as well as her looks, is just as much of a goof as Wayne and Garth, and the film is largely unconcerned by her being Chinese but still cognizant of the fact. (Largely—Wayne learns Cantonese to impress her, which leads into into a joke about subtitles. Cassandra is in on it as much as Wayne, but it’s still iffy.) Plus, Cassandra and Wayne are a couple who actually have fun together—like actual fun, not romantic comedy poses. Wayne tries to distract her while she’s on the phone; they go guitar shopping together; Cassandra always makes sure to watch her boyfriend’s show. Tia Carrere is a ray of sunshine, and she performed everything you hear in the movie.
Dana Carvey is similarly a ray of sunshine. Watching Wayne’s World makes me appreciate him about a thousand times more than I already did. Wayne’s got confidence and sarcasm, Garth has enthusiasm and awkwardness. It’s to Carvey’s credit that this all comes off as endearing instead of creepy, allowing him to both advise Garth and occasionally wildly go off the rails. You know, like real people!
My roommate rented this DVD from the public library.