When One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became a massive hit, a lot of people claimed that one of their favourite sections of the film was when Jack Nicholson helped break his fellow patients out of the mental institution for a day of fun in the real world. It seemed inevitable that someone would eventually make an entire movie based around that premise, and such was the case with a highly underrated 1989 comedy called The Dream Team. It even made the inspired choice of casting Christopher Lloyd, who had made his film debut as one of the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A lot of horror films and thrillers have been made about escaped mental patients, but few movies have ever used a storyline like that for comic purposes. The Dream Team is a unique and often hilarious look at how four mentally unstable (but non-dangerous) people would function if they were unwillingly stranded on their own in the middle of New York City and had to deal with the issues of the real world again. I’d be lying if I said this storyline didn’t rely heavily on contrivances and coincidences, but thankfully, the ensemble cast here are so terrific and the characters are so endearing that the movie still works and manages to generate a lot of genuine laughs.
The Dream Team takes place in a psychiatric hospital in Trenton, New Jersey and opens with four of its most colourful patients being assembled for group therapy. Billy (Michael Keaton) is a pathological liar who often lives in a fantasy world and has serious anger management issues. Jack (Peter Boyle) is a former advertising executive who had a severe mental breakdown and now believes he is the second coming of Jesus Christ. Albert (Stephen Furst) is a former catatonic who only communicates with sound bites he’s heard on television. In an inspired touch, a supposed doctor named Henry (Christopher Lloyd) is shown assembling the group until it’s revealed that he’s actually one of the patients, who suffers from parnaoid delusions and has a huge obsessive/compulsive need to clean up every mess he encounters. The therapist for these four men, Dr. Weitzman (Dennis Boutsikaris) organizes a field trip to take them to New York City for a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. Through circumstances too contrived to discuss here, Dr. Weitzman winds up witnessing a murder being committed by two corrupt cops (Philip Bosco, James Remar) and is knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital. Albert witnesses this, but since he cannot communicate properly, he is unable to tell the other patients what happened, so the four men wind up stranded in New York without their doctor or any means of getting back to the hospital.
Now, I will concede to their point that the hackneyed subplot involving the crooked cops is pretty unnecessary. When the patients are framed for the attempted murder of their doctor and they try to save him before he is eliminated by the cops, the plotting relies heavily on a lot of unbelievable coincidences, and I’m sure the writers probably could have come up with a far plausible way for the four patients to become stranded in New York. But in regards to Siskel & Ebert’s complaints that The Dream Team isn’t funny and that the characters aren’t very interesting, I couldn’t disagree more. The formula of these four men making some self-discoveries in the real world that could help them restore their sanity is pretty predictable, but it still works. The film is filled with a lot of funny moments, witty dialogue and genuine chemistry between the lead actors, who convincingly convey four men who may have trouble functioning on their own, but actually function quite well when they’re banded together as a unit. Stephen Furst is a little hampered by the limitations of his role, but the other three leads are nothing short of wonderful. This is a pure tailor-made role for Christopher Lloyd, as he delivers one of his funniest, most underrated performances as a perfectionist who’s so O.C.D. that he’ll harrass random pedestrians on the streets of New York for littering. Peter Boyle takes a potentially silly role as a man who thinks he’s Jesus and makes him hysterically funny through his brilliant deadpan delivery of his dialogue (“I fear my doctor may have been seized by the Romans!”). However, it’s Michael Keaton who is assigned the most difficult task of carrying the film along as the most “sane” member of the bunch, and very few actors could balance the line between insanity and hilarity better than he does. Here is a selection of some of his greatest highlights from The Dream Team.
Many viewers who’ve encountered people in their own lives with anger management issues (and really, who hasn’t?) will argue that even though the character of Billy has a violent temper, he’s nowhere near crazy enough to have been incarcerated in an institution. Well, a lot of people tend to forget that the character of R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest didn’t seem particularly crazy either and only wound up in a mental hospital because he found it to be a better alternative than jail. The Dream Team needs a relatively normal (but still somewhat wacky) character for the audience to identify with, which is the function that Billy serves, and Keaton channels the rebellious chaotic spirit of Jack Nicholson quite well. Ironically, Keaton and Nicholson would wind up teaming together in Batman only a few months after the release of The Dream Team. You may have noticed in the preceding clip that one of the yuppies in the restaurant that Billy confronts is played by Ted Simonett, who would go on to great infamy as the annoying guy in the Canadian Tire commercials. Any film that features Michael Keaton taking out his rage on the “Canadian Tire Guy” is okay in my book. The Dream Team does also feature a few surprisingly touching moments, such as when Henry goes home to visit his family and takes a big step by actually handing the clipboard he uses for taking non-stop notes over to his young daughter to use for her drawings. Overall, The Dream Team is not a perfect film, but it is a very entertaining, well-acted and sharply written comedy that’s far preferrable to a large number of the so-called comedies that get released these days, and it doesn’t deserve to be so overlooked and underrated.