There is a dividing line for those contemplating a viewing of FUTURE ’38. It has to do with wordplay. If you love puns you will be charmed by the whole-hearted impudence of this self-conscious parody. If not, best to move along, though you will miss a fine excursion into dead-pan drollery.
As premise, we have Neil DeGrasse Tyson introducing us, popcorn bucket in hand, to a newly rediscovered film from 1938, the science of which makes him swoon. Thought lost for eighty years, it is a tale of time-travel and the awe-inspiring miracle of Formica. Our square-jawed, yet baby-faced hero from the black-and-white world of 1938, Jack Essex (Nick Westrate), ex-military in peak physical condition and with no messy emotional ties, is living in a world threatened by Hitler’s plans for world domination. Our government taps him for an ultra-secret mission to save the world. Clad only in a chrono-tard, he will be projected into the saturated color of 2018, where he will retrieve an isotope of Formica that, for reasons explained by a wild-haired scientist (Ethan Phillips), must marinate for 80 years. He’ll have 12 hours to find the isotope, save the world, and return to the temporal displacement that sent him to 2018 to begin with. As an added imperative, he will have only one chance because, as the wild-haired scientist points out portentously, Mother Nature can only be fooled once.
The colloquial patter flies thick and fast. If you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of 1930s slang, don’t worry. Context is everything, which is good, because the invented slang of the ersatz 2018 doesn’t miss a beat with its own spin on the definition of “text message” and something called a “bojob”. Jack’s wise-cracking helpmeet in this brave new world is Banky (Betty Gilpin, channeling Rosalind Russell and Carole Lombard) a quondam actress now managing a flophouse in New York City where the streets have been renamed, making Jack’s mission to find the Formica isotope on Delancey Street problematical, and the importance of using the proper tense with the “electro-mesh” paramount.
Recreating the idiom of a 1930s screwball comedy has many pitfalls, but FUTURE ’38 avoids them. There may be no mistaking this for a lost film, but that’s part of the joke as Jack and Bansky verbally spar with fast-talking repartee while falling in love in spite of themselves. The meta-joke of a film made in the present that imagines a present that 1938 might have dreamed up with an uncertain grasp of the future. Hence Lamont Hitler (Tom Riis Farrell) pining for the lost glory that slipped from daddy Adolph’s grasp, and a Jewish mafia that relies on CNN (not what you think) to procure protection money.
Ditzy broads, tough-as-nails dames, Teutonic baddies, and preposterous schemes that somehow work out. Nothing’s, ahem, sacred, including the double-entendres that wouldn’t have stood a chance against 1930 censors. The real delight, though, is in watching stalwart Jack take in the wonders of the 21st century, the miracle of foons, and the unexpected dangers of plastic bags (it’s like glass crossed with cotton!).
FUTURE ’38 is as puckishly inventive as it is deliriously cheesy. A perfect puntastic piffle of an entertainment that refuses to take anything seriously, but that still comes through with an enigmatic twist for the ages.