The Basics: 'Used Cars' may be the most American comedy of the '80s
TODAY'S EDITION OF "THE BASICS" is dedicated to Edgar Wright on the eve of "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" Vs. The World, one film nerd's way of raising a toast to another film nerd who just made something that other film nerds are going to spend years being all film nerdy about. Edgar is a man of taste and distinction. I know this because I know he is a fan of the film we're going to discuss today.
And if there's one thing I've learned in my 40 years of being a big ol' film nerd.... when you meet a fan of "Used Cars," that is someone you should befriend immediately.
First, though, we're going to shake up "The Basics" a bit because Will Goss has good ideas, and because you the readership have good ideas as well, and if you've got ways to improve something here, then I'm absolutely going to listen.
The entire point is for you guys to play along. Look at how great a community Alan Sepinwall has built on the television side of HitFix. I love that during the summer, they rewatch shows together, and Alan's just going to get to keep basking in all the great television shows that he loves.
The point of this series should be to all share a vocabulary. We want you to watch the movies on this list, and the movies on the Motion/Captured Must-See List (which will be getting an overhaul and which will sort of be part of this same series), and more than that, we want you to weigh in.
The more movies we watch together, the more experiences we'll have in common as we discuss future films. What we share is the starting point for every other conversation about movies. When I go to a festival, the point is to bring back a report for you, the people who read the blog regularly, and tell you what I think is going to be part of our conversation as it gets released in the weeks and months following.
I think our history of comments here at HitFix so far has been pretty great, even on controversial articles like my Donald Glover "Spider-Man" piece or my most recent "Twilight" review. I know you're out there reading because I see the traffic numbers and I get the e-mail from you. Those of you who message me privately are almost to a fault really polite and engaging and kind and enthusiastic, and I wish every single one of you would use the comments and get to know each other as well.
Because it's not just me engaging you guys individually. I think the film fans I know in real life in Los Angeles and Austin and in other cities around the world and the film fans I've met virtually over the last 13 years... the real fans, the ones who mainline movies, who are always up for a film or a chat about a film or a chat and then a film and then a chat, ideally... I love the idea that first turned me on to logging online in the first place, the idea that all of this, all of these sites, all of this energy, aside from being a profession that is increasingly hard to make a living at, is a conversation, one big-ass movie-lovin' conversation that is essentially a long-winded game of "uh-huh, but have you seen this?"
We're going to run a list. The list won't be in order. Each week, before the next installment of the column, we'll let you know what the next film will be. We're going to run the list, and on the dates we've got planned, we'll run our articles. And you guys can do it at the same time that I rewatch and Goss watches and we post our back-and-forth. When I do a series like this, the point is more to give you a heads-up, a list, a what's next. Homework for those who want to play. If you haven't seen something, watch it the same week we watch it, so you can discuss it when we do. If it's a movie you've already seen, you can give a heads-up the week prior, get into the conversation early if you want.
This time out, though, I gave Goss a title that he wasn't sure about.
"'Used Cars'?" he asked me. "Really? That's a Basic?"
After that, when I was talking to Scott Weinberg, editor and honcho and bulldog for Cinematical, I mentioned the Basics and the next title we were doing. "'Used Cars'?" he asked me. "Really? That's a Basic?"
To which I reply yes and yes again.
Robert Zemeckis is one of the biggest names in the film industry of the last 30 years. Certainly he's one of the biggest if you just use box-office gross to keep score, and for well over a decade, he kept trading the title of "biggest box-office director of all time" back and forth with Steven Spielberg. I honestly don't know who's in the lead at this point.
One thing is certain, though. The Robert Zemeckis who makes those creepy dead-eyed motion-capture animation movies these days is not the guy who directed movies like "Back To The Future" and "Romancing The Stone" and, yes, "Used Cars." That Robert Zemeckis was much, much cooler.
And that's the guy who belongs on this list. Whose work is worth knowing for any serious film student.
It was only five years after Kurt Russell's last film for Walt Disney, "The Strongest Man In The World," that he starred in a blisteringly dirty film that I would argue says more about America at the dawn of a decade than anything else made that year. It is an enduring snapshot of who we were at that moment, and it is a meticulously scripted, expertly edited piece of work, as good as anything else Robert Zemeckis has ever touched. It's fall-down funny, it's almost blissfully amoral, and it is a reminder, looking at it now, that there was a time when Robert Zemeckis was struggling just to have a career, much less be considered a success.
His first film as a director, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," is a sweet look back at the way Beatlemania hit American kids like a freight train, but it was pretty much a failure at the box-office. That might not have mattered since Zemeckis and his co-writer Bob Gale were in-demand and beloved at the time. Their original screenplay for "1941" was a favorite of executives and filmmakers, and when Steven Spielberg signed on to make it, it looked like one of the hottest projects in town. Thrown in a post-"Animal House" John Belushi (who we'll be discussing in this weekend's "Saturday Night At The Movies" column) and it looked like it couldn't fail.
And then it did. Spectacularly.
When "Used Cars" was released, it was botched completely by Columbia, and that's a shame. The film was a monster hit in test screenings, and they had John Milius and Steven Spielberg onboard as producers, so it seemed like they had plenty of motivation to treat the film better, but none of that helped. It just got dumped into the summer marketplace and promptly died. As a result, Zemeckis found himself sidetracked, and the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood was that Zemeckis was riding Spielberg's coattails, unable to get a film made on his own. It took him four years after "Used Cars" before he was able to prove everyone wrong with "Romancing The Stone," and when he finally reunited with Spielberg and with his co-writer Bob Gale, it was for "Back To The Future".
I've heard more than one person mention "Back To The Future" as an example of a perfect commercial screenplay, and I'd agree. There is a wonderful clockwork quality to the scripts that Zemeckis and Gale wrote together, and I'd honestly say that without "Used Cars," there would be no "Back To The Future." They had a couple of test runs to perfect the way they structured their scripts with set-ups and pay-offs. Telling the story of Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), a used car salesman with a dream of becoming a corrupt politician, Zemeckis and Gale do a great job of building jokes that keep paying off bigger and bigger over the course of the picture, eventually reaching a fever pitch with a delirious 50-car car chase across the Arizona desert. How they get there is absolutely ridiculous, but it all unfolds with an enticingly seedy logic that seems unafraid of any joke, no matter how crass. This remains the only R-rated film in the entire Zemeckis filmography, and it's not just a little bit R-rated, either. It's so filthy, so pleased with itself, that it's hard to take offense, no matter how black the humor gets.
Rudy works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), a good-natured but worn-out car dealer whose brother, Roy L. Fuchs (also played by Warden), owns the much-more successful lot across the street. Roy knows there's a major freeway off-ramp coming to their area, and he wants his brother's lot so he can have a huge dealership, knowing his own lot is going to get used by the city for construction. The way he goes about trying to get his hands on that lot is downright criminal, and when Rudy and his co-workers find themselves struggling to hold off Roy without Luke's help, they decide to fight fire with even more corrupt fire.
Gerritt Graham should have been one of the biggest comedy stars on the planet. Between "Phantom Of The Paradise" and this film, I'm not sure why directors weren't beating his door down. He plays Jeff, a hyper-superstitious salesman who works with Rudy, and Frank McCrae plays the lot's mechanic as a force of profane nature. The last part of the team arrives in the form of Luke's long-estranged daughter Barbara (the lovely Second City alum Deborah Harmon, who never had a role this good again), and once they're all together, they engage Roy in a battle of the bad, with the audience ending up the real winner in that scenario.
Jack Warden was an amazing comic performer, and he lends a real weight to the proceedings, while Russell seems to be absolutely delighted to be unleashed on a character as rotten as Rudy. This was just one year after he played Elvis Presley for John Carpenter, and he was just starting to reinvent himself. Growing up as a kid actor on TV and in the movies, practically living on the Disney lot for years, Russell had established a very particular persona for himself, and this was part of him establishing himself as an adult. There's something great about a movie that celebrates a character's ambition to become a politician just so he can get his hands on the snowdrifts of graft that he imagines all politicians are offered. Rudy doesn't apologize for his ambition at all, and instead of finding himself redeemed and reformed by the love of a good woman in a typical Hollywood arc, this film's happy ending is a lot more realistic and even pessimistic. It's also flat-out funny.
There are amazing stunts in the film, crazy gags, wild parodies of low-budget local car commercials, the strangest guest appearance by "Laverne & Shirley" stars David Landers and Michael McKean, and an incredibly talented beagle named Toby. And if you pick the film up on DVD, you can even enjoy one of the funniest commentary tracks on record, with Kurt Russell mercilessly busting balls while Zemeckis and Gale belly-laugh at everything they got away with. "Used Cars" must have felt like pure excess when it was released the same summer as the Z-A-Z classic "Airplane!," but viewed today, it just looks like a great, carefully-constructed modern comedy. The fact that it happened to capture America in that moment between Carter and Reagan, between the '70s and the '80s, between the recession and the self-congratulatory victory lap that followed, only makes it more valuable today.
We'll run that list for you next week, and then we'll get this series kicked off the right way, with all of you participating. In the meantime, Goss should have his half of the column up soon.
Not familiar with "The Basics"? Start here.
You'll find new installments of "The Basics" here on HitFix and on "Cinematical".
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