The comic genius and timing of stars Sinbad and Phil Hartman take what could have been a run-of-the-mill dumb comedy film and turn it into a wonderfully likeable tour-de-force. The premise has been done time and time again, it's basically a "fish out of water" story. Yes, the gangsters are dumb almost to the point where they're annoying. Sure, we see the message coming from a mile away.
But there are a few things that separate this film from other comedies, and elevate to the status of excellence. First of all, it's hilarious. There are few jokes that don't work and they are immediately forgotten as this fast-paced romp wastes no time. The speed-up of scenes and the quick editing (several shots seem to last for no longer than a few seconds) do get a slight bit irritating, but it serves its purpose by catering to the fast-paced story and Sinbad's style of comedy. Take for instance, the party scene in which Sinbad is explaining what the "GFH" on his suit jacket stands for. Slow down the scene, and it loses the humor.
Since the McDonald's issue has been cited again and again in reviews with varying degrees of criticism, let me address it briefly. First of all, there are a lot of people who love to eat McDonald's food. It's not healthy for you, but you'd be lying if you say that it tastes awful. Now, Sinbad's character is established as the lazy, unhealthy, always-eating slacker from the very beginning as he comes home to his apartment and enjoys his McDonald's and 2 liter bottle of soda. The real Derek Bond is completely contrasted with the impostor Derek Bond's lifestyle. Hence the fish out of water comedy. Sinbad's character is put in a desperate situation where he assumes this other man's life and the man he is pretending to be is the complete opposite of him. He's got a successful career as a dentist and he maintains a strict diet of vegetables and muescli cereal. So, when Sinbad's Kevin Franklin character, in this awkward and unfamiliar situation of staying with a suburban family's house and pretending to be someone who everyone expects to be a health-conscious stuffy professional, manages to escape for a moment and sees the familiar golden arches, he's so happy that he feels like he's in a commercial. He knows McDonald's and in many places, McDonald's seems to be an unchanging, constant source of familiar greasy food. McDonald's works in the context of the film because it's a real fast-food place that we can relate to, because we've all eaten there at one time or another. To me, if there was some fictional place like "Lou's Hamburgers", it wouldn't work. The character design might come through, but there could be no jingle resounding in our heads, and it'd take you out of the reality of the story (which I discuss in next paragraph). Yes, McDonald's is a real fast-food joint, and Kevin Franklin loves to eat there. Does that make "Houseguest" a McDonald's commercial? I don't think that it does, I think it maintains an element of reality that we as viewers can relate to. Perhaps we needn't always be so cynical as some professional film critics are.
Now, I mention the 'reality' of "Houseguest" and you must think I'm absolutely crazy. Houseguest is an unrealistic film that requires you to throw logic out the door entirely if you wish to enjoy it, right? Well, not necessarily. I think looking back at this film, eight years after it was made, we can look at the family suburban life depicted, and notice the real-ness of the characters. Phil Hartman's character Gary Young is a hard-working businessman at a law firm. He sucks up to his boss and the boss's wife and spends more time with his job than his family. Gary's wife tries to be there for her family, but she's taken on a career with frozen yogurt stores and it's turning out to be far more time-consuming than she imagined.
Then, there are the three children. The oldest girl is distancing herself from her family, trying to find comfort in a "Goth" phase, taking pleasure from sad poetry and a boyfriend who seems to think that he's a tough kid from the hood. The middle child is the only son, Jason. He tries to win his father's approval by playing basketball and hoping to be good. The youngest daughter seems not to be getting any attention, either. Her busy parents don't have time for her, and she's been getting lessons from television programs instead.
The dysfunctional middle-class family serves as a foil for Kevin Franklin, pretending to be someone he is not, who will ultimately find the desire to help these people, who have unknowingly opened up their home to him, a complete stranger. Kevin Franklin doesn't have a job, a family, or kids, and yet it his interactions with the Young family that allow both them and he to better themselves.
Now, if you've seen the movie, you're probably reading this and thinking, "This guy's nuts. He's completely overanalyzing some stupid comedy." Well, perhaps I am. "Houseguest" is indeed a silly, hectic fish-out-of-water comedy; somewhat formulaic, but very much successful. However, to dismiss the film as 'bad' or a 'stupid comedy' is a superficial assessment of a film that really has a lot going for it.
Sure, the film is glossy and not without faults, but then, so is life and the people that we interact with. "Houseguest" is a winning comedy, and one of my favorite films of the 1990s. It presents laughs but also provides a realistic look at individual and family life in the '90s, even if this comes out of an unrealistic set-up of a man assuming another identity to avoid the mob.
Much-maligned and underappreciated, "Houseguest" is a gem of a family comedy that I certainly hope you will give a chance. Or if you initially didn't like it, some more thought on these matters and maybe a second chance.