Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Comedies - James David Patrick ""

Friday, April 19, 2013

Favorite Underrated Comedies - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer of underappreciated fiction and non - with a distracting, lifelong habit of movie-watching. He is currently orchestrating #Bond_age_, the James Bond social media project (housed at and bl-gs about various other nonsense at (Please) stalk him on twitter: @007hertzrumble and @30hertzrumble.

The nature of the “underrated movie” invokes a graph with unseen on the x-axis and underappreciated on the y-axis. An underrated movie could merely be a good movie that nobody’s seen. The reward for discovering nearly anonymous celluloid compounds the fewer people who’ve seen it. On the other hand, a movie could be widely seen but little appreciated (this is the perhaps the most distressing situation for a cinephile). The film enthusiast takes it upon himself to spread the word, fight the good fight, educate the uneducated, etc. In this light we are much like missionaries for the church of cinema. So in coming up with my list of five underrated comedies I weighed both the x- and the y-axis. And after a long internal struggle, I decided on the following five six.

1. Let It Ride (1989)
Addiction comedies, be they drugs, alcohol or gambling rarely equal pure joy. At a certain point, the hero of the story eventually falls victim to his vice. The lighter the comedy, the better off the protagonist is by the end of the film, but they’ve still generally learned a lesson. It’s the rare comedy that propels the sinner forward as he fails to, well, fail. To me, this is the quintessential Richard Dreyfus comedy. Jay Trotter runs the gamut of human emotion even as he continues to bet and win on the ponies. The excellent supporting cast of characters (David Johansen, Teri Garr, Jennifer Tilly, Robbie Coltrane and Cynthia Nixon) all end up choosing sides: they either enable Trotter’s disease or seek to tear him down from his victory high. Even when that one final bet is placed you’re convinced the movie can’t let him walk away unscathed. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Let It Ride but I still get butterflies during the final race. I’m confounded that this movie gets widely dismissed by, well, everyone I know – except by my wife – who witnesses that pure joy on my face. Whenever it’s on the TV, “I’m having a very good day.”

2. Joe vs. the Volcano (1990)
When I mention that Joe vs. the Volcano is in my top 20 movies of all time, I get one of two reactions. Reaction #1 (disbelief): “Wait. You’re not joking?” Reaction #2 (sincerity): “I haven’t seen that since I was a kid. It was okay.” I take a deep breath and suggest that they merely give it another chance. When I had the opportunity to interview Tom Hanks at the Road to Perdition junket, I merely suggested, casually, that it might be time to start doing some comedy again because Joe was my favorite movie of his. Even he seemed confused by this. Joe is a thinly-veiled allegory with brilliant, vivid imagery with a philosophy on life that’s more rewarding than most religions. Thinking he’s dying of a terminal illness, Joe travels to the island of Waponi Woo to jump into the volcano to appease the volcano god and save the island people because, well, why not? This isn’t the silly comedy you remember. Okay, so it’s silly, but there’s a lot going on behind the superficial humor. So just give it another chance, okay?

Joe Banks: What's that? A teddy bear?
Waponi Chief: It's my soul.
Joe Banks: Oh, I hope you don't lose it.
Waponi Chief: Me too.

3. The Ritz (1976)
Despite having three Golden Globe nominations to its name, The Ritz makes this list because it appears to have been largely forgotten. I picked this up because of the cast list, not because I knew anything about it other than it was originally a stage play. Movies like this would never get made anymore. This is both a curse and a blessing. Modern sensitivities would abort the best jokes anyway, leaving us with something like Boat Trip (2002). With “a hit” put on him, Proclo (Jack Weston) hides out in a gay bathhouse. Here he becomes the target of a “chubby chaser” (Paul B. Price), befriends a flamboyant homosexual (F. Murray Abraham) and avoids the Broadway wannabe Googy Googoo (Rita Moreno) who thinks he’s a talent agent. Abraham and Moreno steal every scene in which they appear. Meanwhile, Jerry Stiller gets to run around raging for thirty minutes – exactly what you’d want him to do. The gay jokes somehow remain mostly fresh for 91 minutes, in no small part because they often breach a somewhat malleable boundary of good taste. The enthusiastic cast makes this work even when the slapstick lunacy should ride it right off the rails.

4. Champagne for Caesar (1950)
Another inexplicably misplaced gem. Beauregard Bottomley (Ronald Colman) believes that a soap company owned by Burnbridge Waters (Vincent Price) is destroying American intelligence through an inane radio quiz show and seeks to bankrupt the company by going on the show and winning big. Not only is it full of memorable wit, but Champagne also still remains relevant and fresh. Just exchange the inane radio quiz show for modern reality television. Because Price is known for his roles in horror and thrillers, his comedic roles get unfairly overlooked. As Bottomley’s winnings climb, Vincent Price’s character vacillates wildly between put-on corporate composure and maniacal lunacy. In one brief but exceptional scene Price rallies his workers, drenched from rain, like a wartime general emboldening troops pre-battle, preaching how best to destroy Bottomley by breaking his heart. And so begins the counter-offensive: sending Bottomley a Trojan horse in the form of the flirtatious and apparently equally erudite nurse Flame O’Neill (Celeste Holm). The end, like many of those 50’s comedies wraps up too neatly, but a little twist makes the softening of Colman’s character more than tolerable.

5. The Hot Rock (1972)
The 70’s and 80’s were great for character-driven action-comedies about affable criminals. Having just gone back through Burt Reynolds’ output of the 1970’s for an article related to his having been considered for the role of James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever, this style of filmmaking was fresh on my mind when considering entries for my underrated comedies. To tell the truth, I hadn’t even considered The Hot Rock underrated, per say, because it’s long been a favorite. Directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt, Friends of Eddie Coyle), screenplay by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, The Marathon Man, among dozens of other classics), starring Robert Redford, George Segal (as well as a small role for Zero Mostel). How could this movie even be overlooked with a crew like that? But the more I mention it, the more I realize how few have actually seen it. Moses Gunn hires Redford’s crew to steal a much-contested diamond from a museum. A botched escape foils their well-laid plan, and the diamond winds up in a New York City prison… and then a police station… and then a maximum security bank. Redford’s The Candidate is the Redford comedy everyone heralds. But love for The Hot Rock seems scarce. The laughter’s not uproarious, but each time I watch it I’m cursed with a silly little grin. Redford has become an institution of stoic sincerity, so much so, that it’s often easy to forget how varied and eclectic his films were during that period immediately following Butch Cassidy. He and Segal have terrific mismatched chemistry and the supporting cast of Ron Liebman and Paul Sand provide more than their share of good laughs.


6. Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)
It’s hard to call a movie underrated when nobody has been given a chance to see it. So we’ll just call this tragically anonymous. Written and directed by Tom Schiller (an original SNL cast member and director of shorts) and produced by Lorne Michaels, Nothing Lasts Forever is a surreal fable about a wide-eyed youngster (Zach Galligan) going to New York City to become an artist but winding up directing traffic in the Holland Tunnel. He falls in love with a woman who takes him to the moon, quite literally. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Fisher all make appearances of varying durations. Nothing Lasts Forever blends sci-fi, noir, comedy while paying homage to moviemaking of yesteryear. An imperfect comparison is Terry Gilliam, because, really, nobody else makes mainstream films like this. Schiller’s film was invited to Cannes two years in a row but MGM refused to send it. Prints occasionally show up for one-off 35mm screenings, and a DVD release is said to be an eventual possibility. In the meantime, you can watch it on Youtube here. It can become the cult favorite you never knew you loved.

1 comment:

Robert M. Lindsey said...

What a dang interesting list! With 5 movies I've never heard of no less.

Champagne for Caesar looks perfect.

The Hot Rock written by William Goldman and I've missed it? How is that possible?