Monday, August 4, 2008

Film #73: Used Cars

Years before his Forrest Gump became the cultural touchstone that it is, director Robert Zemeckis was assaulting movie audiences with a recognizable, hard-edged yet invariably slapstick form of comedy. His first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (soon to be reviewed here on filmicability) frantically followed a bunch of New Jersey Beatles lovers and haters as they travel to New York to see the Fab Four on Ed Sullivan's stage. Zemeckis' second film, 1980's Used Cars upped the ante considerably but, like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, ended up hardly making a dent at the box office. Now it's a cult classic.

A plaid-jacketed Kurt Russell, in his first substantial adult role (after playing the lead in a few goofy Disney films like Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The World's Strongest Athlete), stars as Rudy Russo, the unctuous, unscrupulous salesmen with political ambitions who works at an L.A. used car lot owned by Roy Fuchs (Jack Warden). Roy's twin brother Luke (Warden again) owns the flashier lot across the street and, eager to expand, hungers for Roy's lot as well. When he tries to put Roy out of commission, Rudy and his crew use their most conniving moves to keep their lot from falling into Luke's greedy hands.

The rapid-fire laughs have a decidedly dark flavor to them in this, one of late New Yorker film writer Pauline Kael's favorite movies of 1980. Written with ongoing Zemeckis collaborator Bob Gale (both of whom would get Oscar nominations in 1985 for their Back to the Future script), Used Cars has some of the most cogent things to say about capitalism running rampant, but you hardly notice that subtext cuz yer laughin' so hard. Gerrit Graham is largely responsible for this. As Jeff, the superstitious salesman with a cool beagle dog named Toby (hilarious animal performance!!!) and a thing again red cars, Graham stands out as the film's MVP. His onscreen energy is tremendous, and should have netted him an Oscar nomination, if the Oscars weren't so inexplicably down on comedy. Frank McRae is also uncommonly funny as Jim, the lot's foul-mouthed mechanic (whose spirited reaction to being peed on by Toby is a highlight of Used Cars). Jack Warden is great in his demanding double role, and the film even has a smart female presence in Deborah Harmon.
Used Cars also has an amazing collection of familiar late 70s/early 80s faces in supporting roles. Look for: Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster, unmistakable as the judge in the picture), SCTV star Joe Flaherty (in an unfortunately humorless role as Luke's lawyer), Happy Days' Lenny and Squiggy themselves Michael McKean and David L. Lander as master technicians Freddie and Eddie, Mark McClure (from Superman and Back to the Future), the late Wendy Jo Sperber (from I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Back to the Future, and TV's Bosom Buddies), Scorsese and Corman regular Harry Northup, Like Water for Chocolate actor-turned-director Alphonso Arau, and character actors Woodrow Parfrey, Dub Taylor, and Dick Miller too!!!
It has some incredibly amazing spoof car commercials in it (including one I previewed on my post for Dad, Can I Borrow The Car, another Kurt Russell-related car movie that would go well as a short to see before Used Cars; see it here). That bit there is one of the greatest comedy sequences ever filmed. It not only has surprises for us, it has surprises that really register on the faces of its lead characters!! Explosive and incredible. But there are also great chase scenes (including a 200-car one), car jokes (and I hate cars), sex jokes, money jokes, bad luck jokes, and dog jokes. If "Wow, I might have to see this" is all you can say after hearing that, hear this: Used Cars is definitely one of the top 25 comedies ever made. Trust me: Dr. Dean says have a few beers, get the DVD spinning, and you'll be laughing your ass off posthaste. And you won't feel bad in the morning.

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