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The Manhattan Project

An underrated movie that tends to challenge audience expectations, The Manhattan Project (1986) is an anti-nuclear parable, a government-conspiracy thriller, and something of a light comedy as well. Credit writer/producer/director Marshall Brickman — a former collaborator with Woody Allen and co-scenarist on Annie Hall — for this delicious melange of dry wit and swift plotting, which lends an air of sophistication to its matinee-flick sheen. Christopher Collet stars as teen-genius Paul Stephens, who lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his single mom Elizabeth (Jill Eikenberry). Chris is obsessed with the world of science and accepts a tour of the local Medatomics pharmaceutical company with researcher Dr. John Mathewson (John Lithgow). But the invite is a bit of a ruse: Dr. Mathewson is smitten with Paul's mom, and he figures young Paul will never be able to comprehend the true nature of the Medatomics facility, which is a Department of Energy front for Mathewson's crowning achievement — a super-hot plutonium 239 that packs megatons of explosive power into a very small sample. Paul knows right away that he's visiting a nuclear facility, and with the help of his activist girlfriend Jenny (Cynthia Nixon), he meticulously compromises the lax security at Medatomics and steals some plutonium to build his own A-bomb, which he plans to reveal at a regional science fair. But it doesn't take long for the military and government spooks to finger Paul for the theft, putting both him and Jenny on the run from the authorities — and with a nuclear device in an oversized toolbox. With a plot that pits overactive kids against stuffy, intransigent adults, The Manhattan Project might be seen as the best live-action Disney film that Disney never made, particularly with its rather lighthearted tone throughout. And Brickman does a good job of writing a story that effectively suspends disbelief, taking a clearly impossible premise and making it seem plausible by keeping the focus on his characters and minute details rather than the larger plot arc. Perhaps one fair criticism of the film is that the two teenage leads don't seem to be teens at all — their facetious repartee sounds like that of adults, and urbane adults at that. But what's to complain with such bedroom banter as "I never thought I would say this to anybody before but... I have to go get the atomic bomb out of the car." Collet delivers a strong central performance from a young actor, clearly aware that he is smarter than most everybody around him and a bit drunk with smug arrogance because of it. Lithgow as Dr. Mathewson is his spiritual twin — a mature scientist, but one who also has failed to examine the practical effects of his scientific research. Cynthia Nixon as Jenny plays against Collet, challenging his theoretical obsessions with humanist concepts (and eliciting that her "smart" boyfriend has never heard of Anne Frank or Woodward & Bernstein), while small-screen stars John Mahoney and Jill Eikenberry turn in solid supporting roles. For light entertainment, The Manhattan Project is worth repeat viewing every now and then, and Brickman's script often yields new surprises — including a haywire timer towards the end that freezes on 7.16.45 (an atomic in-joke for serious science buffs). MGM's DVD release features a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a clean source-print with audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Trailer, keep-case.

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