The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Eskimos supposedly have a lot of words for snow, and Americans definitely have a lot of words that refer to penises and money, so of course those societies place a lot of importance on those concepts. However, there is a certain limitation to the idea that you can track the relative worth of a concept by the number of synonyms a culture creates for it. Case in point: as far as I know the only regularly used phrase for an actor who is giving a very exaggerated performance is that they are "chewing the scenery", which strikes me as sort of insane, because how many billions of dollars have the various Nicolas Cage action movies made?

Perhaps I shouldn't bring up Cage, who isn't the person who prompted me to think about this (although admittedly he is a great example.) Last night I was watching Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, which is about a rock star / brain surgeon / nuclear physicist / crime fighter named Buckaroo Banzai, played with a surprising amount of stoic reserve by Peter Weller. Banzai's opponent is Emilio Lizardo, a Russian mad scientist who was taken over by evil Lectroid aliens in 1938, played by John Lithgow with all the extra gusto that Weller abdicated. Lithgow goes as broad as he can, leaning into every part of the character's story - the Russian accent, the insanity of a mad scientist, the alienness of an alien - to create an animated and hilarious character.

As I was trying to come up with ways to describe Lithgow's performance I kept trying to think of ways around saying that he was "chewing the scenery". He doesn't go "over the top" because that would imply that he was overdoing it, when I think he accurately calibrated his delivery to the tone of the movie, which is intentionally excessive. He isn't going "broad", either, because he keeps the character specific, with all the quirks (including the tricky accent) staying consistent throughout the performance. But nonetheless, this is a bombastic performance, one that's equal parts bugging out the eyes and screaming at the lackeys. It's just that a bombastic performance is what you need from a character named "Lizardo" who has been possessed by aliens from the 10th planet in the 8th Dimension.

I know that I'm a fan of this sort of cartoony performance because it tends to elevate the material into the realm of the ridiculous (which is my favorite place to be), but I think America in general also has a fondness for these sorts of big performances. They pop up in blockbusters all the time, whether that was Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker in the first Tim Burton Batman from twenty years ago or the sneering annihilation minded villain from Guardians of the Galaxy from this year. If you're going to make a movie where the villain is actually ambitious enough to deserve to be called a supervillain then that character is probably going to be performed with a certain amount of emphasis. So if we like those movies so much why is our vocabulary for describing them so limited?

Of course, there is an answer to this rhetorical question, and it is because the target audience for those movies is teenage boys (who are not always dazzlingly articulate), and because critics, who are the people that we expect to be articulate about movies, are often a bit too dismissive about movies with alien / mad scientist hybrid villains to want to create a lingo for dissecting them. But it is a shame that we don't have those phrases because I can see how they would be useful. I don't want to say that he was "chewing the scenery" when what he was doing was "demanding that a lackey get out his probes". Those are completely different things. If we can have dozens of words for dicks, I would hope that we could have at least two for being an entertaining madman on screen.


Winner: Me

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension on IMDB