Americathon (1979) Review

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Americathon (1979)

~Review by Grawlix (December 2017)

    It’s the future, and the United States is in trouble. Fossil fuels have run out and poverty is rampant. Most of the population lives in immobile cars and gets around via bicycle (if they’re lucky), skateboard, or simply on foot. The president is a narcissistic simpleton, elected because he was a political outsider (his slogan: “I am not a schmuck”), who governs from a leased California condo with his vapid, air-headed first lady. With the economy in the tank, the entire nation was effectively mortgaged to the tune of $400 billion, loaned from a Native American tycoon who got rich in the footwear industry. With the bill rapidly coming due, it is decided that the only way to prevent a federal default and foreclosure is with a thirty-day telethon.

    There really isn’t a single main character or arc in Americathon. Rather, the movie bounces between a few point-of-view characters such as the president (played by John Ritter), a hapless junior consultant (Peter Riegert) who comes up with the telethon and is forced to manage it, and a washed up TV star (Harvey Korman) prone to fits of ego when he isn’t blasted out of his mind on a suitcase full of drugs, who hosts. A decent amount of the run time is taken by the telethon acts themselves. The comedy here is a mixed bag. Many of the skits, usually parodying a then-current cultural phenomenon, feature cameo appearances, such as Meat Loaf as an Evel Knievel style stuntman who fights a car, or Jay Leno as a whiny guy in a Rocky-style boxing match against his nagging mother. Unsurprisingly, these are a bit dated. Other, more throwaway gags such as an all lesbian marching band or the booking of 25 consecutive ventriloquist acts have aged a bit better, mostly due to their sheer absurdity. Ultimately, amid hidden conspiracies and general skullduggery, the telethon ends with a bang and everyone lives happily ever after – more or less.

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    It’s always interesting when a movie builds in its own obsolescence. Americathon’s alternate title is Americathon 1998, showing a certain awareness of the limited shelf life of such topical material as the Vietnam war (Vietnam has become a tropical paradise and prime vacation destination) and the 1979 oil crisis (President Carter and his cabinet are lynched in the film’s prologue) although certain comedic avenues, such as unrest in the Middle East, and general political asshattery, have proven depressingly timeless. Given their similarities, I was hoping to draw more comparisons to Idiocracy, but unfortunately there weren’t many apart from the ubiquity of track suits (since everyone jogs everywhere) and an offhand reference to “The Schlong show” as a top-rated TV program. Amusingly, the most anachronistic element of Americathon may well be telethon concept itself given how much both TV and telephones have changed since 1979. But then again, they are revived from time to time, usually during a crisis, so who knows? Americathon may yet prove to be prescient at some unspecified time in the future, but for now it probably works better as a time capsule of the late 70s rather than work unto itself.

Final Score: B-

Americathon joins the vast pantheon of old science fiction flicks that envisioned a future that has since passed. Its lack of narrative and uneven comedy mean it probably won’t stand up to repeated viewings, but as a glimpse of an alternate yesterday, it’s at least worth watching once.