Some movies just make you feel dirty. It usually comes from watching gritty, unpleasant characters do unappealing things. You might even feel like you need to take a shower afterwards. Be aware, after watching THE DARK BACKWARD, there is not enough soap in the world to make you feel clean again. If you can stomach it, there’s actually a lot of fun to be had.
Perpetually sweaty sad sack Marty Malt (Judd Nelson) is a garbage man by day, standup comic by night, and terrible at both. His jokes fail to generate anything but apathy. He is encouraged to continue by his best friend and human cockroach, Gus (Bill Paxton). Marty’s depressing life takes an unexpected turn when he grows a third arm out of his back. He looses his nightclub standup gig, his horrified girlfriend, Rosarita (Lara Flynn Boyle) leaves him, and his mother won’t look at him. But Gus and sleazebag agent Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton) immediately scheme to exploit Marty’s freakish condition to push him, and them, into fame and fortune. But even with three arms, happiness is always just out of Marty’s reach.
To call THE DARK BACKWARD a black comedy is a severe understatement. It’s more of a grime fairytale. Everything in the film, people included, seems to be coated in a layer of oily filth. It almost permeates the screen. Even the opening credits seem to be written in grease. It’s based in a nameless city during an undefined time period. Going by the clothes, it seems to be the 1950’s or early ‘60’s, but it has more of a stagnant, timeless feel to it. It certainly isn’t anywhere in reality. The city is dank, dirty, and covered in trash (the garbage men don’t so much as pick up the trash as spread it around). There is no sunshine, no one is happy (except Gus), and there doesn’t seem to be any hope of it getting better. It’s like the Anti-Disneyland. If this movie had a Tinker Bell, she would have syphilis.
The movie has a number of interesting parallels to the Disney adjacent WALL*E. Both are set in a world composed of garbage. Both are worlds people seem to have given up on. The big difference is that instead of leaving little robots to clean things up, the departing humans left behind a bunch of losers and creeps to make things worse. And like WALL*E’s Buy N Large, the world of THE DARK BACKWARD has its own ubiquitous commercial monopoly, Blump’s. It seems to have a hand in everything from sanitation to musical instruments, but it specializes in food products. Terrifying food products. Billboards advertise Blump’s Squeezable Bacon, commercials hawk Blump’s Cheddar Scented Cheese, refrigerators are filled with Blump’s Pork Juice. Blump’s is the detail that completes the twisted fairytale world, making it feel real and (thankfully) unreal at the same time. Of course Blump’s is the corporation that would cater to and rule this world. Like the Radiation-Free Reindeer Steaks from HARDWARE, it’s perfect product placement.
The movie doesn’t really have a hero, it has a schlub. Judd Nelson is almost unrecognizable as Marty Malt. He somehow transformed himself from the angry tough guy in THE BREAKFAST CLUB to a human version of Golum. He’s pale and skinny and always hunched over. The only difference is Golum told better jokes. He’s so timid, hiding behind his coke bottle glasses, greasy hair, and oceans of flop sweat, it seems more like he’s on a firing squad line instead of behind a microphone. His jokes are so bad that the depressed patrons of Syd’s Nightclub don’t even bother to heckle him. They just stare blankly, or quietly sob, and continue to slowly drink themselves to death. Tough room.
Despite being a schlub, Marty isn’t completely alone. His accordion slinging friend Gus is the best thing about the movie, and all because of Bill Paxton’s manic performance. The character is possibly the most vile, disgusting person ever created, but Paxton plays him with such relish he is almost lovable. Okay, lovable is the wrong term. Horrible fascination is more accurate. It’s like seeing footage of someone popping a particularly ripe pimple. You don’t want to watch, but you can’t turn away. Gus is the only person who seems to legitimately enjoy living in this world of filth. He’s a figurative pig in literal shit. His greatest talent is not his accordion playing, it’s his ability to eat things that would kill any normal person. Or animal. He digs into putrid chicken like it was fresh out of the fryer. He’s actually delighted to find a half-eaten sandwich discarded in the landfill.
He also has the least erotic sex scene ever committed to film, and this is after he licks a corpse.
Continuing the Disney analogy, Gus is the Jiminy Cricket to Marty’s Pinocchio. He relentlessly encourages Marty in his quest to become a real comic. Most of his encouragement, though, is blatantly dishonest and self-serving. It might make Marty momentarily feel better, but it usually just makes things worse. When Marty sprouts the extra arm, Gus actively exploits the situation to tag along into the limelight (or at least that world’s grim, sad version of the limelight). He emotionally bullies Marty into doing things he doesn’t want to, and guilts him into being grateful. Just when you think he might have the slightest genuine regard for his friend, Gus (somehow) seduces Marty’s ex-girlfriend to insure no positive influences can get close to him.
Almost as bad is Wayne Newton’s sleazy agent Jackie Chrome, who is so insincere he might as well have dollar signs instead of pupils. With his shiny, colorful suits and drawn-on mustache (sometimes crookedly), he’s actually the movie’s classiest character. That’s saying something. What’s great about Jackie Chrome is that he is only marginally more successful at promoting Marty than Gus. He changes Marty’s name to Desi the Three Armed Wonder Comic, gives him a full makeover that doesn’t change his appearance in any way, and books him on a horrifying kids TV show, The Twinky Doodle Amateur Showcase. Marty’s brand new act consists of him doing a slow twirl to show off his third arm after telling the same terrible jokes.
There is no explanation for why Marty grows a third arm. It starts off as a lump on his back. When he goes to see Dr. Scurvy, played brilliantly by James Caan, the doctor just berates him and slaps a band-aid on it. He does the same thing when Marty returns with a baby hand sticking out of his back. The joke of the movie is that Marty never does anything with the arm. It’s merely a freakish accessory, highlighting what a weirdo he is. No one can look further than the obvious gimmick. It’s sort of implied that Marty doesn’t even have full control of the arm, it seems to have a mind of its own. It might be the most sympathetic character in the movie. When Marty is looking longingly through a window at his ex-girlfriend, the arm pats him on the shoulder. It provides more comfort than any whole person in Marty’s life.
[SPOILER for the end] Keeping with the theme, shit just gets worse for Marty. Just when he finally gets the attention of a reputable talent scout, Dirk Delta (played by Rob Lowe), and is bound for Hollywood, his third arm disappears. Both Gus and Jackie are furious with him, as if he somehow did it on purpose. Marty convinces Jackie to call Dirk, be honest, and see what happens. Jacky nervously spills the beans and waits for the rejection, but his face lights up at the response. Beaming, he relays the message to an eager Marty and Gus. “They said…send the accordion player.” Gus and Jackie do not give Marty a second thought before hopping into a limo and leaving him in the dust. Marty tries to reconnect with Rosarita, but she’s gone, too. He slinks back to the only thing he has left, the open mic at Syd’s Nightclub. But in the movie’s singular ray of hope, Marty finds that as he relates the pain of his last few days, he starts getting laughs. Creating a routine on the fly, you can see Marty start to break out of his sad, suffocating shell. He’s finally able to do what he’s always wanted, to give people a short reprieve from their shity, shity lives.
It’s one of those movies that make me feel a little bad about finding it so funny. Oddly, it never feels mean spirited. The misery is evenly spread around. Even though the undeserving seem to succeed in the end, I doubt they are going to be any happier than when they started. Their success is built on a sham of happiness. Marty is the only person to have achieved something genuine, meager though it is. That seems to be enough for him.
Writer/director Adam Rifkin is pitch perfect with the dark, cynical tone of this movie. His post BACKWARD work has been all over the place, including a number of family films. The only one I’ve seen is MOUSEHUNT, which I was pleased to see retained a bit of the Rifkin darkness. No corpse licking, though. Probably for the best.