REVIEW: The Dream Team (1989)

dreamteam_posterNothing dates a film comedy like its representations of mental health. The Dream Team, a 1989 comedy directed by Howard Zieff, offers the 21st century viewer a choice: you can criticise it for its crass use of mental illness to generate a cast of colourful eccentrics, or you can try to ignore that aspect and simply try to watch it as the upbeat comedy it was intended to be. Either approach is valid in my opinion, but either approach will require an acknowledgement of the elephant in this particular room. This is very much a product of the 1980s.

Four men share a support group in a New York hospital. Billy (Michael Keaton) is a pathological liar with a penchant for violence and chaos. Jack (Peter Boyle) is a former advertising executive with a Christ complex. Henry (Christopher Lloyd) has OCD and masquerades as a doctor as a coping mechanism. Albert (Stephen Furst) is a quiet and timid man who only communicates to the world in baseball metaphors. When their doctor (Dennis Boutsikaris) takes them on a trip to see a baseball game, misfortune leads them to not only get separated for his care but framed for murder.

So it cannot be denied that The Dream Team undergoes a torturous set-up to generate its plot. It also reduces each character’s illness to a series of quirky tics and habits intended to make them amusing to the audience. Anyone with a sensitivity to poor representations of mental health is going to be triggered all to hell by the film; there simply is not any point denying it. Even if it was not relatively offensive, it is corny as all hell to boot. The characters are two-dimensional. The storyline is cheesy and not particularly believable. Hell, even a large number of the jokes struggle to land.

So why even consider watching it? It is simply one hell of an ensemble that has been put together to headline the film. It captures Michael Keaton right on the cusp of super-stardom (his next film would be Tim Burton’s Batman), and he plays Billy with a huge burst of energy and a world of charisma. Peter Boyle and Christopher Lloyd are both fine comedic performers, and wring jokes out of the film’s screenplay that one would not have otherwise realised were there. For my money, however, it is Stephen Furst who is the real gem here. A tremendously underrated actor, viewers tended to know him from either Animal House (1979) or Babylon 5 (1994-98). He gives Albert a great dignity and gentleness that well surpass the screenplay.

So yes, The Dream Team is a relatively terrible film, and it seems unlikely that anyone new to the movie in 2021 is going find a new favourite. It is a strong example, however, of a good cast salvaging a watchable film out of suspect origins, and for those who were watching at the time it could easily stand as a nostalgic pleasure. You just need to settle on how you respond to its dodgier elements; loving it uncritically is probably not the best look.

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