Back in 1987 I remember going to see Throw Momma From the Train, which was touted as the directing debut of one of its stars, Danny DeVito. Well, it was and it wasn’t. It was the first film DeVito directed to receive a theatrical release. However, a few years earlier DeVito directed another film which was the first original movie produced by the Showtime cable network…1984’s The Ratings Game.
DeVito stars as Vic DeSalvo, a guy from New Jersey who lives off the money from his brother’s trucking company while trying to sell ideas for TV shows to the networks in LA. He can hardly get past the front door, let alone sell any ideas. However, one day he walks into a network office right after an exec has been given the boot. To exact revenge on the network, this exec (who still has a few days of work left) buys one of Vic’s ideas and makes a commitment for a pilot. Vic even ends up starring in the pilot himself, which is about a guy sharing a dorm room with two sexy college coeds. To celebrate his success, Vic throws a party for himself, but the only person that shows up is an employee of the ratings company, Francine (Rhea Perlman). She also grew up in Jersey and the two quickly become romantic.
Vic is very excited about the premiere of his pilot episode, but the execs at the network set him up for failure by scheduling it to air against the World Series. However, Francine informs him that as long a the right households in a few target areas watch the show it will seem like a huge ratings success. But how to get them to watch? Vic ends up concocting an elaborate scheme, and uses a few mob buddies to pull it off. They send the key families on a cruise (on a ramshackle boat Vic’s pals fix up) while a bunch of Jersey boys (including Michael Richards) break in and watch the show. It turns out so successful that now Vic is allowed to fill the schedule with his shows…which means the families need to stay out at sea and the mobsters become permanent residents and full-time couch potatoes.
Though DeVito had appeared in a few films, he was most known as a television start at the time this film was released. He knew a thing or two about how the “numbers” can have an effect on a show. He had spent several years on a critically applauded series, Taxi, that was not a huge ratings champ. I think it’s fair to say that some of his frustrations may have come out in the form of this film. The script is actually quite clever and takes some sharp jabs at the type of programming that was filling the airwaves in the mid 80’s. The film’s funniest moments are the promos for TV series’ such as H.O.T.B.O.D.S and LeVar (a Charlie’s Angels riff), W.A.C.Ked Out (a Bosom Buddies style military comedy), and Dawn Patrol (Hill Street Blues, but about garbage men).
I also enjoyed the romantic side of the plot. Everyone knows that DeVito and Perlman have been a couple for over 40 years and the blossoming romance between their two characters in this film is believable and downright sweet. In general the film has a great cast. Among the familiar faces that show up are Kevin McCarthy (in a role almost identical to his role in UHF), Vincent Schiavelli, Daniel Stern, Jerry Seinfeld (in a very brief part), George Wendt, and, in his last role, former Bowery Boy Huntz Hall.
The film does get a bit too bogged down in the elaborate scheme involving the fake cruise ship as it moves into the final act. It’s a bit too goofy and convoluted for its own good. It was something that was funny at first but as it dragged on it just took me out of the film. It’s also clear that the film’s writers didn’t quite know how to resolve that aspect of the plot at the end of the film…which leads to a less than satisfying final gag.
The Ratings Game was a pleasant surprise, though. DeVito shows great wit both as the star and the director. Plus, anybody who was fed a steady diet of 80’s TV will get a kick out of the way this film pokes at the industry. It would make a fitting companion to Weird Al Yankovic’s film UHF on a double feature.
NOTE: The Ratings Game was just released on DVD for the first time by the good folks at Olive Films. Thanks to them for letting us check out the film!