The Incredible Time Travels of Henry Osgood (1986)

(aka, Dave Thomas: The Incredible Time Travels of Henry Osgood)


It’s amazing how we cling to it at times.  Consider The Incredible Time Travels of Henry Osgood just for an example.

Now I’d read a few rather indifferent reviews, but they weren’t quite enough to deter me from watching — and not, I’ll point out, merely because some of my favorite films have received some absolutely miserable reviews.

After all, I have long had a great deal of affection for Dave Thomas, one of the funniest but most underrated comics to come out of the Eighties.  I first saw him on The New Show, a comedy he and Buck Henry did together, and later on his own The Dave Thomas Comedy Show, both of which were frequently brilliant, with his “Overbooked Priest” routine one of my family’s all-time favorites.

Not to mention his starring role in Strange Brew, which we saw around the same time.

Mind you, his big break was actually a bit earlier, as one of the major players on SCTV, a series which, like Dave, is seriously underrated and far better than their biggest rival, Saturday Night Live.

The problem is that Dave is a chameleon: he can be almost anyone and play almost anything, with the help of his makeup man who could turn him into a double for, say, Edward Woodward’s The Equalizer, or New York Mayor Ed Koch, or Michael Caine.  Sadly, though, that doesn’t make you big comedy star material.  Those comics who go on to the top are usually the ones with some strong and set persona, like fellow SCTV member John Candy who was always the ebullient but uncertain nice guy.

So when I heard that Dave had done a time travel movie special for Showtime (which he directed, co-wrote and starred in) with much of the SCTV cast onboard (and three of the original writers as well), I’ll admit it, I was hopeful.  It should have been clever and funny, like an extended skit on SCTV, with Dave doing the Peter Sellers thing and showing up in half a dozen roles as various historical figures.

Oh, well.

Perhaps our first intimation that things aren’t going well comes with our very first glimpse of the film, when we see that we are supposedly exploring a book by Charles Dickens (entitled, naturally, The Incredible Time Travels of Henry Osgood).

I suppose the problem is that Dave is playing a very mild, put-upon nice guy, a college professor who longs for the past in Victorian England and has a hard time living in the real world.

It’s the sort of role that John Candy would have been far better at.  Instead, John gets a minor part as Henry’s brother and only gets a couple of appearances.

One day, which is already starting out as yet another typically miserable day for Henry Osgood, he sees a man in Victorian clothes running away from a car which is trying to hit him, then gets harassed by the Police when he stops to stare at the horse drawn carriage which went through the intersection he was about to cross.

And things only get worse: his students challenge his romantic beliefs about the Victorian past, his car gets stolen by the same thugs he’d seen earlier, and a mysterious cabdriver offers him a lift in the carriage he’d seen earlier.

Which carries him right back to the Victorian Age.

This leads him on a series of adventures, where he encounters Merlin, changes places with the Marquis de Sade, ends up in a weird, alternate 1942, where The Great War of Abuse has been dragging on for decades (with unarmed soldiers insulting each other), before ending up in the distant future, where he gets about as much of an explanation of what’s going on as anyone was ever going to get.

It is seriously disappointing that the rest of the SCTV gang doesn’t get much screentime, with Joe Flaherty playing a brutal criminal who departs our story rather hurriedly, Eugene Levy as an Army officer giving Henry a pep talk, Martin Short giving a typically manic performance as King Louis XVI of France and Catherine O’Hara as Marie Antoinette.

A very young Bronson Pinchot plays Charles Dickens, but it also proves a rather minor part and they probably just hired him because he has a faint resemblance to the great writer.

And I suspect that one of the characters in the future — whose face is obviously heavily made up, and the role has no listed actor credits either onscreen or on IMDB — may be Dave in disguise.

Although I would never have guessed it.  It sure as heck doesn’t sound like him — even if you can tell he’s putting on a phony voice.

Frankly, I think things start going wrong early on, with a long, exaggerated, and rather unfunny sequence where Henry learns that Victorian England was not the idyllic fantasy land of his dreams.  It comes across as cruel and rather unnecessary, with hardly a laugh anywhere in sight.  Even once we are past that moment and into the more absurd later sketches, it never reaches the heights of manic silliness it really needed, with only a few bits here and there that really work.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that they seemed far more interested in telling a story about Henry Osgood.  Like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, he’s supposed to come out of his adventures a better man, and far too much is sacrificed to that goal.  The movie would have worked far better as a scattershot trip through time, with lots of goofy bits of real and imaginary history, and ultimately coming to an ironic end.  I can even picture the Great War of Abuse turning into a pretty good SCTV skit, although it probably would only have given us glimpses of the war.

Which is another way of saying it goes on too long for such a minor joke.

Oh, well.  It isn’t exactly terrible, but it is flat and not particularly memorable.  There are just enough hints of what it might have been to make it frustrating, and it all just seems a terrible waste of a lot of exceptional talent.

It happens.



Check out our new Feature (Updated February 16, 2022):

The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!



Which this time focuses on Douglas Trumbull’s Other Career

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