Thursday, February 25, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part III: The road warrior


Used Cars might be but a curio, bound body and soul to the era that produced it, but it surely has its charms, and they're not insubstantial.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis
With Kurt Russell (Rudy Russo), Jack Warden (Luke Fuchs), Gerritt Graham (Jeff), Frank McRae (Jim), Deborah Harmon (Barbara Fuchs), Al Lewis (Judge Harrison), and Jack Warden (Roy Fuchs)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I wonder sometimes if I look back on the 1980s with a little too much nostalgia.  After all, I spent the first eight years of my life in that decade, and its superhits—Empire and Jedi and the Indy movies, not to mention another little trilogy we'll be getting to soon enough—were my formative cinematic experiences.  Even 80s movies that are kind of objectively awful, or at least have objectively awful elements—Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles come to mind—I can't help but find enchanting on some basic, indefinable level.  And, heck, often enough, I'll even see some piece of 80s ephemera for the first time as a grown-ass adult, and still fall in love with it, because (as near as I can tell) it's legitimately fantastic: look no further than Monster Squad or Halloween II.  But then I'll catch a film from far below the pop cultural waterline—just to name a completely random example, Robert Zemeckis' sophomoric sophomore effort, Used Cars—and I suspect I really might be totally and irredeemably biased, because while there's very little that's especially great about it (and much that is not good at all), I still liked it, without entirely understanding why.  Biased or not, you have to question the character of a man who loves the 80s this much, don't you?

Well, either way, Cars is certainly of its decade: take, for example, its lazy dips into "isn't it funny how black people allegedly jive?"-style racism, with the obnoxious fig leaf of inclusivity, but without ever taking it to any place of Airplane!-esque absurdity; consider likewise its blithe confusion of scatology and sexism with actual jokes, which are the opposite of funny in the former case, if perhaps acceptably titillating in the latter; and if that's not enough, ponder its incredibly dumb and hyper-topical jabs at social commentary, notably a moment that takes a swipe at Jimmy fucking Carter for being dishonest, although this somehow works, on the ironic level that only a movie made in Ronald Reagan's election year could ever attain.  But above all, there's Cars' complete commitment to wearing its acknowledged sleaze like a slimy second skin—or a plaid sportsjacket—right up until the very moment where it redeems its hero in the most half-assed way it possibly could.

Used Cars, then, is somewhat incoherent as satire.  (Its half-baked criticisms of capitalism are, in fact, probably accidental.)  Yet it's nonetheless an exemplar for a whole genre: released in 1980, it's hard to think of a more appropriate sign of the things to come.  It is the kind of comedy endemic to the era, substituting anybody's idea of "refined humor" with a truly abiding zaniness, perpetrated by a band of colorful two-note characters who tend to bleed together into an indistinct blur of broad mugging.  Being a Robert Zemeckis comedy, of course, the zaniness is altogether off the damned charts.  Yet it has the courage of its cartoon convictions; and therefore there's something I can't help but find admirable about it.

If absolutely nothing else, it represents a simply enormous improvement over Zemeckis' previous directorial effort, his rather dire look back at Beatlemania, I Wanna Hold Your Hand.  (It represents something of an improvement over his and his writing partner Bob Gale's previous screenwriting effort, 1941, too.)  The bludgeoning approach he brought to Hand is replaced here with a far gentler touch; and whether or not Cars is routinely laugh-out-loud funny (it isn't), at the very least it gives its wacky collection of misfits more room to breathe than in either of those films, leavening its sometimes-galling personality with something like genuine character-building.  (Now, the downside to all this is that Cars is at least ten minutes too long—which in Early Zemeckis terms means that it feels more like thirty.)

But the real accomplishment of Cars—the reason that it feels like a crucial step in Zemeckis' evolution into the great storyteller he would become—isn't even the vastly superior control of tone he shows as a director: it's in Zemeckis and Gale's screenplay, which while still distinctly lo-fi in every other conceivable way (which, in itself, is almost charming), displays for the first time their talent at crafting a deceptively streamlined script.  Cars, at first glance, seems like a massive pile-up of incident: a heap of random asides mashed together and riddled with tangents and so many vast weirdnesses, to the extent that if it weren't such an anachronism, I'd have cause to call it "Coenesque."  But then the third act arrives, where everything that appeared to be arbitrary—and even stupid—all winds up paying off, each disparate element of script tied into the conclusion. Indeed, Cars is so surprisingly satisfying, in the end, that it honestly feels like Zemeckis and Gale are cheating, since even in retrospect, those first two acts just aren't that good.

Cars is the story of one week in the life of Rudy Russo, second-in-command at New Deal Autos, a low-rent used car lot, and lately Rudy has hatched a (zany!) scheme to run for the State Senate.  He's got the connections; now all he needs is the $60,000 to buy the nomination from the political machine that runs the state.  His boss, an old man by the unwieldy name of Luke Fuchs, would loan him the last ten grand he needs for his bribe; unfortunately, Luke is in the final stages of a decades-long feud with his twin brother Roy, who happens to run the much nicer used car lot across the street.  Roy, the servant of the same crooked politicians Rudy's trying to get in bed with, needs Luke's lot in order to take advantage of the highway that's about to be built in these parts—but Luke, despite his inventory consisting predominantly of car-shaped heaps of rust, refuses to sell.  And that's how Roy gets it into his head to assassinate his dear brother, by taking advantage of his heart condition and putting him in the passenger seat during a test drive with a paid killer who takes the car on a 100mph demolition derby through the town.  Well, Luke's ticker can't take it, and die he does, but not before he stumbles into Rudy—who, for his own selfish reasons but also because Rudy knows damned well that Luke would never want his lot to fall into Roy's hands, buries Luke in the back of the lot and covers up the death, continuing to run the lot himself with the assistance of his co-workers, the superstitious coward Jeff and the angry narcoleptic Jim.  But, despite the added complication of keeping Luke's death a secret, it's mostly business as usual at the New Deal: hacking into television broadcasts with the help of Lenny and Squiggy in order to run free advertisements; getting the people's attention with strippers; blowing up the cars on Roy's lot with dynamite and blaming it on the Libyans.  OK, not literally every part of Used Cars winds up being essential to where it ends up.  Then, to put a wrench into Rudy's plans, comes Barbara, Luke's daughter.

Ultimately—and this is skipping over a lot—everything comes down to a trumped-up charge of false advertising, leveled by Roy against the New Deal and its new owner Barbara, in a final bid to secure the vital piece of real estate.  "A mile of cars," she appears to say on TV—something that would be immediately pegged as the proverbial "mere puffery" by any normal human being with even the least adequate legal education.  Unfortunately, in this shitty town, the gears of justice grind rapidly and incoherently, and she is brought to trial the very next day.  Now it's up to Rudy and his friends to turn Barbara's fib into reality, by putting a solid linear mile of automobiles on the New Deal lot, saving the business—not to mention the woman that Rudy might just have fallen in love with.

And, once past the immense longeurs of Cars' somewhat interminable middle act, we find Zemeckis and Gale the screenwriters plugging all their seemingly unrelated facts and figures into their screenplay matrix, delivering up that satisfying finale I was talking about.  And this is all while Zemeckis the director (and his second unit, presumably) show back up, bringing some surprisingly high production values into play along with them.  Well, whoever was directly responsible, for the first time we find Zemeckis turning his now-legendary high-energy aesthetic into an undeniable strength.  Indeed, Zemeckis hasn't even been too stingy with the ludicrous automotive action up till this point—we can guess what Cars' cinematographer Donald Morgan must've put on his resume when he was angling to shoot Christine—but in Cars' climax, Zemeckis takes it to an entirely new and entirely unexpected level.  Presently, Cars becomes an extended and legitimately thrilling chase scene across the highways and the fields of the town—perhaps not one involving two hundred and fifty cars, as the dialogue claims, but an awful lot of them anyway, and more than you'd think a comedy from a marginal director could ever manage.  (Cars, incidentally, may or may not have been produced by Zemeckis' friend Steven Spielberg.)  In any event, there's something honestly magnificent about a dumbassed shaggy comedy that concludes with a scene straight out of a Mad Max movie (or a well-heeled Mad Max ripoff), complete with startlingly well-done stunt sequences that required Kurt Russell and/or his stunt double to clamber across the convoy, from moving car to moving car.

And this is, in fact, kind of legitimately great, although a great twenty minute sequence at the end of a bad movie probably wouldn't save it: fortunately, we've already named the guy who keeps Cars afloat long enough to get to that point.  Kurt Russell—a year before he broke out into cult movie superstardom with Escape From New York, and currently in the final stages of freeing himself from his Disneyfied reputation, mostly by saying "fuck" a lot—is the anchor to Zemeckis' more bombastic movements.  Russell has always been at his best when his characters have a lot of sleaze to them, and Rudy Russo is maybe the sleaziest operator in his whole filmography short of Stuntman Mike himself (given that Rudy, so far as we know anyway, is not a murderer of young women).  It's enjoyable to watch this amoral striver strive—and to watch the blossoming of tiny, gross ambitions that only seem large in comparison to the utter, almost depressing smallness of his world.  But it's even more enjoyable to watch the good guy inside him try to come to some kind of rapprochement with the awful prick that he frankly is.

I think he said something about "dying historic on the Fury Road"?

Nobody else is remotely working on Russell's level, although admittedly it's not like they have that much of a choice.  Even good old Jack Warden has startlingly little to do besides throw spittle around the frame; and, despite the fact that Warden is playing two whole Goddamned characters, he's almost completely constrained by Zemeckis and Gale's incredibly lazy conception of both.  In fact, "lazy conception" is the defining trait of everyone in the whole picture who's not also named "Rudy"—although I will admit it's hard to dislike Jeff, whose obsession with bad omens (red cars, spilled salt, ladders, and so on) is at least amusingly harmless enough to actually be cute, rather than merely crass.  (Meanwhile, Zemeckis and Gale can barely be bothered to give the very first shit at all about poor Barbara.  This is in keeping with the 1980s' typical dismissal of female leads as anything more than a winnable vagina, and while it's impossible to argue that Zemeckis cared nothing about women—not with Hand in his rear view and Romancing the Stone right in front of him—it also wouldn't be the last time that the Two Bobs wrote one of their female characters into a corner, and subsequently left her there to starve.)

In the end, Used Cars might wind up a complete trifle, but it's never completely without its charms, even as it grinds through its abrasively cartoonish milieu.  Like Hand, it did fail at the box office, but in this case it's somewhat harder to see why: if nothing else, it captures the feeling of the decade that was just beginning as well as any comedy of its day.  Well—perhaps Zemeckis and Gale were simply ahead of their time.  But the world would soon catch up.

Score:  6/10

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