Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Used Cars" (1980) Dir- Robert Zemeckis

What I remember:

This was definitely a Skyy tour bus special. We probably watched this one almost as many times as "The Thing".  What I can't recall is whether Kurt Russell had already shed his Disney image or if this was the first film of his very successful reinvention. Regardless, Russell certainly went in a different direction with "Used Cars". His morally bankrupt, smooth talking character was refreshingly nasty; a true '80's anti-hero. What followed for Russell was a series of these types, usually with John Carpenter behind the lens. All of these characters had a touch of comic brilliance, even the most action-hero of them. In this film, however, Russell was pure comedy. 

"Used Cars" had a great supporting cast culled from TV comedy of the '60's and '70's, like David Landers and Michael McKean ( Lenny and Squiggy from "Laverne and Shirley"), Al Lewis (Grandpa fom "The Munsters) and Joe Flaherty (Count Floyd/ Guy Caballero from SCTV).

The best moments from this film are indelible: Jack Warden playing good/evil twins, Russell's ripoff sales pitches and, of course, Gerrit Graham's uproarious commercialus interruptus.  Thanks to that scene, whenever any of us in the band got a price from someone on ANYTHING, our immediate response was "That's too FUCKin' high!!!!"

My memory is that this was a top-notch comedy from the same people who a year later brought us the immensely popular "Back to the Future". I liked this movie far more than that universally loved icon of the '80's. Am I wrong? Should "Used Cars" be as forgotten as a rusted out Dodge Aries?

After rewatching:

"Marshall Lucky here for New Deal Used Cars, where we're lowering inflation not only by fighting high prices, not only by murdering high prices, but by blowing the living shit out of high prices!” - Jeff


The Fuchs brothers (Jack Warden) own competing used car lots across a highway in Arizona. Luke Fuchs’ New Deal Used Cars is a scrupulously run lot with some unscrupulous salesmen, headed by Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell). Roy L. Fuchs has a more mainstream lot but is far more scurrilous. He has been informed that a new highway bypass will land right in his lot, making it useless, while making New Deal very visible and without competition. Luke, who has heart trouble, won’t sell his lot, so  Roy L. decides to cause Luke to have a heart attack by hiring a stunt driver to take him out on a wild test drive. Rudy wants to fund his Senate campaign, and will be out of work and unable to raise that money unless he convinces everyone that Luke is still alive. Things get even more problematic when Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Fuchs arrives, unaware that her father is dead.


Well that does’t sound like much of a comedy, does it? I guess therein lies the rub….there is much in this comedy that really isn’t suitable for comic exploitation. Actually, I know it doesn’t seem like it should be this way, but Luke Fuch’s death scene is one of the funniest moments in the film. After his wild ride with the demolition derby stunt driver, Luke stumbles out of the car clutching his chest. In the office, Rudy and a prospective car buyer (Al Duncan- that guy who was the play-by play guy in “Slap Shot”) are arguing over a price, and the client keeps repeating “50 bucks never killed anybody.” Rudy goes out to the lot and says “My boss will have a stroke when he sees this deal”, and seconds later Luke barrels in, clutching his chest and gasping. The scene is well cut, and while it was common to have a laugh at the death of a bad guy or buffoon, it was and is still rare to chuckle at the demise of a nice guy. You feel a little soiled after the scene is over when you realize Luke is really dead.

Why am I going into such detail about this scene? I think it gets to the heart of the problem with “Used Cars”. In trying to capitalize on the ’70’s raunchy/iconoclastic comedy of films like “Animal House”, “Caddyshack” and “Stripes”, it misses the mark by being just a bit too mean-spirited. The truly funny moments are there, all right, and they are hilarious. There are also a lot of scenes that don’t work, and some other pretty unnecessarily politically incorrect moments. Manuel (Alfonso Arrau), the Mexican car supplier is particularly tasteless, grabbing his crotch and even our heroine’s breast at one point. Later there are some young black kids who argue with each other because they need to drive the only Cadillac on the lot. Frank MacRae plays Jim, the Mechanic, a black man who is constantly sleeping on the job with his blowtorch lit. 

That being said, let’s talk about the comedy that does work. The Marshall Lucky scene is, in my opinion, maybe the single funniest scene in this genre. The combination of Gerrit Graham’s delivery, the cross cutting to people watching the ad, and Rudy trying to prevent Barbara from seeing it is pure editing glory. Graham, as Jeff doing the Marshall Lucky bit, is marvelous in the scene, playing with a combination of bravado and shock that I’ve never seen duplicated. I’ve probably watched this scene 20 times, and to quote Beetlejuice, “It keeps getting’ funnier EVERY. SINGLE. TIME!” 

Of course, he was talking about “The Exorcist”, so maybe that’s not an appropriate quote.
Other than that scene, Luke’s death scene, and the first New Deal TV spot (with gratuitous nudity and some great Landers/McKean interplay), most of the humor is slapstick, with some big time car stunts and a wild brawl between Roy L. and Jeff. All the Used Car spiels by Russell are clever and well-delivered, but just not on the comic level of, say, Belushi’s moments in “Animal House” or Bill Murray’s off hand panache in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”. I did catch some nice tidbits thrown out there for us close watchers. There’s a statue of Elvis on Rudy’s dresser, which is absolutely a nod to Russell’s having just played The King in a movie the year prior. Also the first stripper one sees in the battle of the Car Lots is played by none other than Betty Thomas, a familiar face to all ’80’s pop culture as Lucy Bates from "Hill St. Blues”. Mark McLure, who played Jimmy Olsen in the ’80’s version of “Superman”, and the ubiquitous Miss Wendy Jo Sperber also show up in the Driver’s Ed car chase climax. 


Zemeckis and editor Michael Kahn deserve a ton of credit for the pacing of “Used Cars”, which is just about perfect. There are no lagging, slow bits, and just a slew of great cross-cutting and scene juxtaposition. Like “The Blues Brothers”, however, the film gets a little too bogged down in car stunts and sloppy fights. Don’t get me wrong, the action is well handled, so maybe I shouldn’t say “bogged down”. It might be better to say “carried away with”, or “obsessed”. I mean, after a while the movie starts to resemble an actual Demolition Derby. What I mean is, if you are over 6 years old it just stops being funny when cars keep smashing into each other and everything else over and over again. In "Animal House”, when the Delta float rams the grandstands, it’s something that they have been building up to resulting in a huge payoff.  For “Used Cars”, a little restraint might have made a difference in garnering bigger laughs along the way. 

As for the cinematography, it's shot fairly well by veteran Donald Morgan, in that ’80’s soft focus style I have discussed when referring to other films of the era like “Long Gone” and “The Stunt Man”. The location shots were on a real car lot on a real highway, which I am sure made many of the scenes problematic to pull off. The stunts are pretty spectacular, particularly the car jumping scene during the climactic chase, and the jumping freight train stunt. 


What works: Russell's sleazy but good-hearted salesman. Graham’s womanizing, superstitious nut job. Anything Jack Warden does in any movie, but he is truly fantastic in this one. MacRae’s big foul-mouthed mechanic. Landers and McKean as the tech-happy geeks. 

What is a standout performance: Toby the dog. Yes, he steals this picture almost as much as Uggie the dog from “The Artist”. Toby comes across as smarter than anyone else in the film, and the dog is so well trained that it’s almost like having another actor.

What doesn’t work: Deborah Harmon as Barbara Fuchs. She is attractive, but pretty bland, and her reaction to finding out that she has been lied to about her father’s death is well under the radar. She plays it straight, but this film calls for a bit more. Her being prompted to perjure herself by Rudy doesn’t really work, she can’t pull off the subtlety of the humor. 
Also, Al Lewis as “Hangin’ Judge Harrison” is way too deliberate and over the top. His Texas accent is awful and his delivery reminded me of Crispin Glover in “River’s Edge”. Alfonso Arrau’s performance is just plain offensive, and Joe Flaherty is nearly invisible as the lawyer. 


I’m going to say that “Back to The Future” is the superior film of the two Zemeckis/Gale comedies. I don’t know about you, but I am no longer 8 years old. I have seen enough damage and lives ruined by car accidents that I just don’t find it fun to watch them careening all over the place and smashing into each other every 2 seconds. If you take the great performances by Russell, Warden and Graham and the 3 or 4 uproarious scenes out of here, “Used Cars” is a mess. Fortunately, you can watch those scenes on youtube and get exactly what you need. Will those scenes work out of context? Probably not as well, so I say, watch “Used Cars” the 1st time, then when you need a fix, “Marshall Lucky” will give you a needed belly laugh, but there’s no need to watch the whole damn thing again.

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭ 1/2