What I remember:
Talk about your raunchy comedies, this was the pinnacle of raunch in the ‘60’s/’70’s. There are tons of senility jokes, almost more than in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys”. This type of humor is probably considered in terrible taste now that we know about Alzheimer’s and other types of Dementia associated with old age.
Yet “Where’s Poppa”, has it’s comedy evenly distributed throughout. It attacks the elderly, the young and impetuous, the officious, the desperate. It’s another uproarious black comedy from the age of iconoclasm that brought us “Little Murders”, “Putney Swope”, “M*A*S*H”, “Harold and Maude” and “Brewster McCloud”.
As with many Mother-centric films, front and center is the put-upon son, usually Jewish, who must contend with the eccentricities and demands of his Mother to the detriment of his personal and professional life. George Segal, handsome but with a huge touch of nebbish, fits this bill to a tee. As the mother, our ultimate New York ptitsa is played by Ruth Gordon, who reprised this kind of character more than a few times. Ms. Gordon also played a demented mother in “Inside Daisy Clover”. As Mrs. Hocheiser in “Where’s Poppa”, she is both lovable and horrid.
What made “Where’s Poppa” special was the outrageous dialogue and premise that makes movies like “The Hangover” seem tame and mainstream. When I talk about how important it is for a comedy to actually make me laugh, then you know this one had to have that going for it. There were certainly no redeeming characteristics to be found.
“He made a CACA in the bed”- Louise.
“That son of a BITCH!”- Gordon
Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) is a trial lawyer who lives at home with his widowed mother (Ruth Gordon), who is suffering from dementia. She is extremely difficult to take care of, and Gordon has struggled to find a nurse that will stay with her. During interviews with prospective caretakers, he meets the beautiful Louise (Trish Van Devere) and both are immediately smitten. She agrees to meet his mother, and finds out that their relationship is a little stranger and deeper than she thought. Gordon’s brother, Sidney (Ron Liebman) tries to help, but has his own issues. He also reminds Gordon that they promised to never put their mother in a home.
Yes, it’s another black comedy from the ‘70’s. What is it about this genre that I find/found so appealing? Maybe it’s just that the kind of fare we’d been fed in the ‘60’s was so happy, so uplifting, so “YAY LIFE”! My built in BS detector just couldn’t deal with watching “Dr. Doolittle” and “Mary Poppins”. I needed to see what seemed real to me. Now this movie is about as far from real as you get, but it was honest in exposing the reality of our inner minds. This is the stuff you can’t, shouldn’t EVER talk about. But you know it crosses your mind. You can’t help it. You are a sick bastard at heart. Your Id is the sickest of sick bastards. Thank goodness you have a Super-Ego to tell it to go stand in the corner. Howard Stern has made a billion being your unchained Id. Your Id can be damned funny.
The question is, is your Id funny all the time? Absolutely not. Sometimes it is just sick and repellant. I hate to say it, but now that I am getting older, “Where’s Poppa” has lost it’s appeal for me. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff that is still funny, but there is a ton of stuff that is uncomfortable and just plain awful. 15 year old Wayne and 56 year old Wayne are not on the same page here. When I rewatch “Little Murders” or “The Producers”, films that have a lot in common with this one, there is never a moment where I want it to end. There were a whole bunch of those moments watching “Where’s Poppa”. Scenes I remembered fondly seemed poorly drawn and not at all as uproarious as I thought.
When Sidney has to run through the park to help Gordon, he keeps being confronted by a gang of African-American muggers. The torments they devise for Sidney are clever and different, but not close to as funny as I had it in my mind. Amongst the muggers is Garrett Morris, I was surprised to discover. Also making his film debut later in the movie is Paul Sorvino. The Director’s son, Rob Reiner, is in his second movie, his first being Carl’s “Enter Laughing”.
Both the famous “Tush” scene and the monologue by Louise about her first husband’s incontinence are less funny than I thought, they are just plain weird. Maybe the problem is that the shock value just isn’t there anymore. We can thank Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow for that.
Interestingly enough, the parts that were funniest I had no memory of! A scene wherein Gordon is defending a young radical played by Rob Reiner (predicting his Mike Stivik character from “All In The Family), is made side-splitting by veteran character actor Barnard Hughes’ depiction of a profane, racist Army Colonel. Another great moment is when a New York cabbie passes by a black woman to give a ride to Sidney, dressed in a full-out ape costume.
At the heart of this movie is subject matter that we once considered funny, but now that so many of our parents and grandparents are victims of senile dementia and Alzheimer’s, it has lost it’s comic charm. I assume that this would be the same for “The Sunshine Boys”, but I was never a big enough fan of that film to watch it again.
Carl Reiner was known both for his writing and as a producer of the groundbreaking “Dick Van Dyke Show”. He was also the straight man to Mel Brooks’ classic “2,000 Year Old Man”, one of the funniest comedy teams to ever be on record. His best work as a director was probably his run of films starring Steve Martin in the ‘70’s; “The Jerk”, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, “The Man With Two Brains” and “All of Me” are all very funny comedies. “Dead Men..” really was a stand out if you are an aficionado of B&W films, and in particular film noir. Reiner seamlessly integrates his film and star into clips from old movies, and it’s just a whole lot of fun watching Martin interact with Bogie, etc.
Carl’s work with Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar probably prepped him well for the helm of “Where’s Poppa”. Watching it now, however, really exposes what a beginner he was at directing. There are some very strange choices being made, a lot of chances at huge laughs that are undercut by bad timing and strange shot choices. For example, the climax of the movie is shot from a great distance, what seems like hundreds of yards. You hear the dialogue, but you can’t see what’s happening to be in on the film’s punch line the way you would like.
The shock value of the opening, where you watch Gordon wake up, perform his ablutions, get dressed in the ape suit and try to scare his mother to death, is also not played up as drastically for the surprise as it could be. It is shown with a sort of filmic diffidence that is hard to comprehend. Brooks would have played the scene for huge laughs.
Yes, it was low budget. Yes it was 1970, and film technology was not what it has become. But again, this movie loses out to both “The Producers” and “Little Murders” in every way.
One great bit is the song for the opening credits. If I tried to describe it I would be doing it a disservice. Suffice it to say that it is a stream of consciousness lyric that sounds like a bunch of non sequitors that could be said by an old senile person. The lyric is put to a Burt Bachrach type track.
One great filmmaking decision was going with the ending that we see. On the DVD you can watch an alternate ending which continues on from the last scene. It is disturbing, and not funny or even ironic. “Sick, sick, sick”, is all I could think of, in the parlance of the period.
The two leads, George Segal and Ruth Gordon are exceptional in their roles. Segal plays “harried” better than anyone except maybe Gene Wilder. Ruth Gordon has her character down, and she really gets going when Louise enters the story. When she realizes that Louise is not just a nurse, but a love interest for her son, she becomes sharp as a tack while still being addled. It’s amazing to watch her pull off this dichotomy. Trish VanDevere as Louise, is attractive, but not much of a comic source, even as a straight man/woman for the leads.
Ron Liebman provides a lot of the humor from his supporting roll. His funniest moment concerns his reaction to getting flowers from the undercover male cop in drag that he was forced to rape by the gang that keeps mugging him. Yeah…the comedy is THAT dark.
ON SECOND LOOK
With the passing of Amy Winehouse at age 27, there have been a lot of discussions about music stars that died at that age. A few of my 30-something friends all agree that Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain were all deserving of their stardom. However they single out Janis Joplin as someone who really wasn’t so good, and they can’t see why she was considered amazing by my generation. When I listen to her stuff now, I kind of see what they mean.
What they don’t understand is how different she was to all those who preceded her in pop music. For a white girl, hell -- for ANYONE to sing with that intensity and commitment, it was just unheard of. It wasn’t that her chops were so great, but that she was so raw and unfettered by artifice. They say that for success in the entertainment field, you have to be the best, the first or different. Janis was more than different….she was totally unique.
Well, at the time of its release, “Where’s Poppa” was different. Maybe that’s what I saw in it back then. It’s level of outrageousness was unprecedented. It was not the first sicko comedy, and certainly not the best. 40 years have reduced that edge to a dull razor, and now the film is simply abrasive.
1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★