Mesmerist (NR) ★★★

Review Date: September 26th, 2002

Who knew Edgar Allen Poe could be funny?


Any movie that includes L. Ron Hubbard in a roster of deities one might run into in the afterlife is my kind of flick--and such is The Mesmerist, based on the Edgar Allen Poe short story ''The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar.'' In it, a young engaged couple in the '50s, Benjamin (Neil Patrick Harris) and Daisy (Jessica Capshaw), visit her childhood home to pay their last respects to her evil and now dying father, Mr. Valdemar (Howard Hesseman). Valdemar spent years first controlling his late wife (who resides in an urn on the mantel that Valdemar uses as an ashtray--he's a baaaad man), then his daughter, and he's not about to give her up even in his last breaths. When Benjamin and Daisy show up, they discover that Dr. Pretory (Jason Carter), a professor who calls himself a ''mesmerist'' and claims to have fantastic powers, has convinced Valdemar's oversexed Italian housekeeper Consuela (Jo Champa) and his doctor Hoffler (George Wyner) to let him put Valdemar in a trance

just before he dies so he can communicate from the hereafter at the very moment he passes on. It takes the guy a while to kick, and when he finally does, trances and mesmerism be damned--he's the one who has the last laugh.


All players are fun to watch, even Hesseman, who doesn't have much to do as he's either slurring his last words or lying in state for much of the movie. Harris really has come into his own as an actor, here playing the long-suffering straight man exasperated with the group of lunatics around him who think there's something to this mesmerism stuff. Capshaw (who brings to mind Reese Witherspoon in Pleasantville) nicely plays the ditzy and devoted daddy's girl who has been keeping a secret from Benjamin about her mother's death. Champa (who brings to mind Teri Hatcher) is appropriately over-the-top as the dramatic, hair-tossing, sex-loving Italian housekeeper who is the only person who can translate Valdemar's slurred speech and plays the bongos like nobody's business. Wyner (who brings to mind Ben Stein) is a kindly but somewhat befuddled doctor who is intrigued by the possibilities the mesmerist suggests. But the real star of this show is the wild-eyed, eccentric mesmerist. Carter hits just the right note as he takes himself far too seriously, tossing off lines like, ''calling me good is like calling Einstein the guy with the frizzy hair.''


Director Gil Cates, Jr. must have grown up with old 1930s-'40s movies like Topper and Arsenic and Old Lace, as The Mesmerist plays like an updated version of the old comedies that came complete with quippy one-liners and broad, slapstick humor. (In fact, it would have been cool if he'd filmed it in black and white.) Benjamin: Graveyard dirt? Where'd you get that? Dr. Pretory, annoyed: The graveyard store. Ba-da-da-ching! When Pretory insists Valdemar can't feel pain while in a trance, Benjamin starts punching the old man--who has as much as threatened to kill him from beyond if he stays with his daughter--then stops, but only to put his metal watchband around his knuckles. It's that kind of movie. And it's pretty funny to boot.

Bottom Line

Though only Los Angeles residents will be able to see this one in the theater--literally, one theater--look for this fun little gem when and if it's released on video.