There are certain films that act as a snapshot for a certain moment in time. Just one look at Taxi Driver tells everything we want to know about 70s New York; Smithereens gives you a warts and all look at punk life in the 80s; the 40s noir is soaked in the LA of their era. In a similar vein, Idle Hands bleeds late nineties from every pore, whether it’s the stoner culture, the fashion, the music, or the sexual politics. For better or for worse, the film could not have been made during any other time.
The premise of Idle Hands is simple: Devon Sowa’s Anton discovers that the string of murders happening throughout this town can be linked to him, or, more accurately, his hand. He begins to lose control of his hand, leading to the deaths of not only his parents, but his two best friends (don’t know worry, the friends get better). What follows is a ludicrous journey, which includes zombies, a demon fighting Vivica A. Fox, an intense chase through a high school from a sentient hand, and a live performance by none other than 90s icons The Offspring.
It’s the kind ludicrous setup that can lead to hilarity, and indeed there’s plenty of fun to be had here. In particular, a scene in which Anton’s possessed hand keeps changing the television channel to ominous films about hands (who knew such films existed) brings the laughs with its offbeat sensibility, and Sowa shows some impressive comedic abilities as he controls the possessed hand. However, it’s also a film full of the dumb stoner humor the era is known for, and though Seth Green and Elden Hansen are talented actors in their own right, this script gives them very little to do (though the moments when Hansen is nothing but a sentient hand do have a certain charm). Add to this a rather flat performance from a young Jessica Alba, and it’s hard to give the film’s humor a passing grade in the end.
For most of the movie, the action takes place within a single block radius, and this gives the action a kind of chamber piece feel that is intriguing. It’s obvious that much of this was due to budget’s sake, but keeping the action tight helps us to emphasize with this small group of characters and the world they inhabit. In fact, it’s when the scope is widened that film begins to fall apart. When the action is confined to a single house, there’s more opportunities for clever set pieces, but when you have the entirety of a school at your disposal, it’s a little easier to be lazy and fall on cliches.
For a time with less-than-progressive sexual politics, Idle Hands is relatively low in regards to problematic material, especially considering its premise. The groping and fondling is kept to a minimum, though there is the token gratuitous nudity shot that seems to be in every horror movie of this time period. Most of the other sexual activity, as surprisingly little as there is, is consensual and welcomed. Considering the politics at play in other films from the era, like American Pie or Can’t Hardly Wait, it’s a surprise that this film rarely goes for the easy sex joke or playful groping gags (though they do get the one). Of course, we can’t let the film completely off the hook, since nearly every woman in the film is dressed in the most skimpy outfit or costume possible.
Idle Hands is not a perfect film. Far from it in fact, but as a snapshot of life in the nineties, it works, and its absurd premise leads to some great comedic bits, even if many of the performances are lacking. It’s fun to put on in between some heavier hitters to lighten the mood, or if you need something to have on while getting decorations ready for a party.