TAKING OFF (1971, Milos Forman) I hope someone contributing to this blog has some great non-English language titles to turn up, because I couldn’t think of many that I would consider underrated. I’m a big fan of Tati and Juzo Itami and I’m looking forward to discovering Pierre Etaix later this year. I also love the deadpan, anti-bureaucratic satire of Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball, his last Czech production before coming to the States, but that’s certainly a film that’s received its due, what with the Criterion release and all. That said, I think Forman’s best film is his first U.S. production, a very funny and observant generation-gap comedy about what happens to a pair of suburban New York middle-class parents (Buck Henry and Faces’ Lynn Carlin) while searching for their runaway hippie teenaged daughter. Their odyssey takes them to several locales in 1970 Manhattan, then upstate to a Catskills resort where they take in a thrilling performance by the Ike and Tina Turner revue and Carlin has an unforgettable encounter with Allen Garfield. When the parents return to their own turf, the film climaxes with two hilarious sequences: a society dinner turned pot party for rich parents of runaways, and a strip poker sequence with a swinging couple. A lot of the humor comes from the great cast of New York character actors, including sitcom-stars-to-be Georgia Engel, Paul Benedict and Audra Lindley. Many of the absurd situations and slightly surreal bursts of humor are quite possibly the contributions of one of Forman’s co-scenarists, the legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who, of course, also penned several of Buñuel’s scenarios during the same era. Shockingly, this masterpiece of 70s cinema has never been released on home video in the United States, but there’s a great blu-ray available from Carlotta in France. Buy it!
HOLLYWOOD OR BUST (Frank Tashlin, 1956). Of the two Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis films that Tashlin directed, it’s Artists and Models (1955), that tends to get more attention. That film is terrific and I suppose is the more visually interesting of the two (and it has the added bonus of Shirley MacLaine!), but I still prefer Hollywood or Bust. Dino plays a shady gambler who, because of his own con job gone bad, finds himself driving from New York to Los Angeles in a new car with cinephile Jerry and Jerry’s dog Mr. Bascomb (one of my favorite movie mutts). Along the way, the duo pick up the appealing Pat Crowley, who becomes Dean’s love interest while Jerry pines for Anita Ekberg (who plays herself ). Though Dean initially keeps trying to ditch Jerry, the two eventually become pals and they sing a lot of songs, most of which are more memorable than the ones in Artists and Models, especially the title tune and “The Wild and Wooly West”. What’s most surprising about this one is how well Martin and Lewis work as a team and how relaxed they appear to be, because apparently they weren’t even talking to each other during production! This would be their last big-screen pairing. Another underrated Tashlin-Lewis collaboration: Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958). Underrated Lewis movies: The Patsy and Cracking Up.
THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (Clyde Bruckman, 1935). I really love It’s a Gift (1934) and I suppose it’s my favorite W.C. Fields feature, but given the amount of revival screenings of that one, you’d think he never made another movie! For my money, The Man on the Flying Trapeze is almost as perfect. Fields is Ambrose Wallfinger, who is unappreciated by everyone at work and in his family, except his daughter from his first marriage. His job is a “memory expert” and the loosely structured plot revolves around his telling a lie in order to get to the wrestling matches, but it’s really just an excuse to hang a bunch of weird and funny Fields bits on. My favorite part is when he takes forever to go see about some burglars in the basement (one of whom is Walter Brennan!). When he finally gets there, he gets drunk with the thieves on homemade liquor and they have a sing-along! Fields takes abuse from almost everyone, but it never fazes him, and unlike the rather virtue-less family of It’s a Gift, Fields’ wife (played by Kathleen Howard) actually loves him for his oddness. The unconditionally loving daughter was a sweet recurring motif in Fields’ mostly unsentimental body of work, especially in The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), You’re Telling Me (1934), and Poppy (1936), all of which are underrated.
MOTHER (1996, Albert Brooks). Compared to the attention bestowed upon Woody Allen’s movies, all of Albert Brooks’ movies are underrated. I suppose I like Mother slightly less than his previous four features (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America & Defending Your Life), but only because of a penultimate scene that shows Brooks finding “true love” at a gas station, a happy ending sequence that reeks of studio interference. This misguided moment is balanced by the fact that Brooks saves the final scene of the movie for Debbie Reynolds. It’s also easy to forgive because, before the ending, the movie has some of the funniest scenes in any movie ever made, especially the epic “food museum” sequence (“This cheese is very hard to find.” “How can it be hard to find, it’s all here!”). Other favorite bits: the trip to the supermarket (“What, did they run out of ‘Nu Nuts’?”) and the picture phone bit with Rob Morrow (“Get some help, buddy!”). Another underrated (and completely dark) movie about oedipal relationships: Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? (1971).
QUICK CHANGE (1990, Howard Franklin & Bill Murray). In reviewing Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (another underrated comedy) in the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr writes that Scorsese has transformed “a debilitating convention of 80s comedy—absurd underreaction to increasingly bizarre and threatening situations—into a rich, wincingly funny metaphysical farce.” I don’t know if Kehr had Bill Murray’s movies in mind when he wrote that, but it seems to me that Murray’s underreaction to the increasingly absurd situations in Stripes and Ghostbusters is precisely what makes those movies so hilarious. Kehr was a fan of Quick Change, which, in many ways, is a slightly more lighthearted version of After Hours: in both movies, the heroes mount an existential battle to get away from whacked-out New Yorkers. But it’s Murray’s presence in Quick Change, as a frustrated urban planner who plans an elaborate heist with two accomplices (Geena Davis and Randy Quaid), that makes it the funnier film. The opening 20-minute bank robbery sequence has more big laughs than most comedies have in their entire running time. Also, there’s not a single role of any size that isn’t perfectly cast and special mention must go to security guard Bob Elliott, cab driver from Mars Tony Shalhoub, and the late, great Jason Robards, who delivers perhaps my all-time favorite line (“They’re ON a blaftoni!”). More underrated Murray – and a real departure for him: Frank Oz’ What About Bob?
A few more for ya:
BREAKING IN (1989, Bill Forsyth)
SMILE (1975, Michael Ritchie)
ISHTAR (1987, Elaine May)
THE PARTY (1968, Blake Edwards)
SO FINE (1981, Andrew Bergman)
THE ‘BURBS (1989, Joe Dante)
HARD TO HANDLE (1933, Mervyn LeRoy)
KISS ME STUPID (1964, Billy Wilder)
THREE AMIGOS (1986, John Landis)
BIG TOP PEE-WEE (1988, Randall Kleiser)