The Experts (1989)
If The Experts is known for anything at all (and it’s really not, I’m being generous), it’s known as the origin of the John Travolta and Kelly Preston love affair. On a related note, if it’s known for anything else, it’s known as the movie in which Kelly Preston dirty dances the hell out of mullet-clad John Travolta.
The Experts Story
In a town inside the Soviet Union, the KGB trains future spies in a fake American town called “Indian Springs, Nebraska.” All of the Soviet residents of the town speak perfect English and adhere to American customs — except that the town’s stuck in the era of its establishment and more resembles 1950’s Mayberry than Reagan-era America.
Agent Smith (regular character actor and poor-man’s Rick Moranis — Charles Martin Smith), one of the progressive KGB trainers believes that the town needs to get hip in order to compete in this brave new world. His bright idea? Hiring aspiring club owners and mid-30’s losers Travis and Wendell (Travolta and Arye Gross) to teach the town how to be cool cats. He hires them to run his club in “Nebraska,” sedates them, and ships them off to the good old U.S.S.R. Here they will run their own nightclub and certainly never discover that they’re behind the Iron Curtain.
The Experts Bombs, But Nobody Notices
After Urban Cowboy and De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta released Staying Alive — a box office success but practical disaster. He followed this up with the one-two punch of Two of a Kind (1983) with Olivia Newton-John and Perfect (1985) with Jamie Lee Curtis. Other than a TV movie and an appearance in Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” video, Travolta wouldn’t make another movie until 1989’s The Experts. He’s still trading on his 1970’s It-Boy status. In the late 1980’s. At the age of 35.
Made for $3million and dumped onto screens during mid-January of 1989 opposite DeepStar Six, The January Man and Gleaming the Cube, The Experts failed to reach the Top 20 ($169,000 at the domestic box office). It would have been called a bomb if anyone had noticed the explosion.
I assume the film was panned upon its “release” by critics, but good luck finding a contemporaneous review to blurb. I’m sure Vincent Canby of the New York Times would have said something like “The comedy, less amusing than the perestroika it’s attacking with a Louisville slugger, required similar ‘cool’ coaching to become anything more diverting than a half-page advertisement for Happy Days reruns in Tiger Beat.”
And yet. If you’re going to phone in a comedic premise rooted in culture clash and political aphorisms, The Experts made a fundamentally wise decision in creating a U.S.S.R. stuck in old-fashioned Main Street U.S.A. Accents? (Who needs them?) Exotic Soviet locales? (Why bother? Actors cost money.) A Tiki-inspired night club? (Absolutely!) Fun character actors that all just act like stiff white dudes no matter the color of their skin? (Done!)
This allows the film to indulge in comedic freedoms that might not have otherwise been available. The downside? The freedom they chose? Mostly laziness.
The Experts, Accidental Genius
Having just directed Strange Brew (1983) based on his and Rick Moranis’ SCTV characters Bob and Doug McKenzie, Dave Thomas manages to imbue The Experts with little of his wit and timing. What’s present feels like a first draft, but an amiable and often entertaining piece of low-aspiration entertainment. Not quite kitsch, exactly, but time has actually improved The Experts.
Thomas’ film gives his agency-free characters just enough to do so that the audience sees their attempts to succeed in this wonky endeavor as futile. Sporting rat-tail mullets and dangly earrings Travis and Wendell come off as pathetic, fad-chasing pop-culture sheeples. Success eludes them at every turn. As a result the audience’s perspective offers a very interesting relationship between them and the film they inhabit.
The Soviets see them as cool Americans. The movie itself portrays them as if they’re part of some insular “scene.” As the audience, however, we know the premise and we recognize that Travis and Wendell represent studio-manufactured “cool.” Some old studio suit wanted to grasp one last slice of Cold War hilarity. The Wikipedia page even mentions that Paramount chief Ned Tannen requested several uncredited rewrites of the script.
Practically, this means that the movie stumbled into something interesting and wholly unintentional. There’s something perfect about the parallels between the pathetically out-of-touch Soviet KGB agents in The Experts and the studio execs pushing this movie through the birth canal that think this is 1989 hip. Do not discount the utility of unintentional entertainment.
The Experts Verdict
The Experts wants to cobble together a movie based on other more successful 1980’s films and fails, at least at face value. It wants to be a fish-out-of-water comedy like a Soviet Gung Ho, a spy comedy like Spies Like Us, and trade on the 1950’s nostalgia in the same way as Back to the Future.
It’s pleasantly xenophobic and wallows in the narcissism of its main characters to such a degree that it’s impossible to see them as pro-active humans. When the movie forces Travis and Wendell into action upon discovering their actual location in the Soviet Union, they rely upon the townspeople who’ve tasted U.S. freedom in the form of microwaves and massaging showerheads to lead them to freedom.
But because of all this — and not in spite of — The Experts becomes surprisingly likable. The Experts gives Travolta time to ooze charisma and dance sexy sexy with Kelly Preston and lip-sync a cover of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Travis and Wendell don’t mature. They stumble through life and fail to achieve any kind of self-recognition. We don’t need moralizing here. We just need a decent way to spend 90 minutes. The Experts inadvertently complies with that dictum despite all evidence to the contrary.
The Experts can be rented or purchased on Amazon Streaming. It was released on VHS and Laserdisc, but has to date not made an appearance on DVD.
James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.