Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Film Review: USED CARS (1980, Robert Zemeckis)

Stars: 3.2 of 5.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Kurt Russell, Jack Warden (12 ANGRY MEN, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN), Gerrit Graham (TERRORVISION, RATBOY), Michael McKean (THIS IS SPINAL TAP, CLUE), David L. Lander (TWIN PEAKS SEASON 2), Dub Taylor (THE WILD BUNCH, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON), Deborah Harmon (JUST THE TEN OF US), Woodrow Parfrey (CHARLEY VARRICK, DIRTY HARRY), Frank McRae (48 HRS., ROCKY II), Rita Taggart (HOUSE III: THE HORROR SHOW, MULHOLLAND DR.). Executive produced by John Milius and Steven Spielberg.
Tag-line: "Estimated Laugh Count: 287 City, 410 Highway. Use these numbers only for comparison. Your actual laughs may vary depending on how you feel about used car salesmen, nude women, spectacular car stunts, and the President of the United States."
Home Video Re-release Tag-line: "From the Director of FORREST GUMP."
Best one-liner: "Well, that's more like a down payment. After I'm elected its 50-50 on all the graft I take."
Number of laffs involving dogs pissing on dude's faces: 1

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (and produced by Steven Spielberg and John Milius!), USED CARS is the zany story of a zany used car dealership and its zany battle with a zany rival, which leads to a zany denouement. In short, it's frequently a little too zany for its own good.


Thankfully, the infectious, chortling charisma of one smarmy, plaid-clad Mr. Kurt Russell keeps you watching even when the proceedings get a little too generic or groan-inducing.

Definitely in the same vein as something like D.C. CAB or 1941, predictable madcap insanity and endless hijinks ensue when two brothers' (both played by a convincing Jack Warden) rival car lots face off in the midst of Kurt's (who works for the nicer Warden) burgeoning state senate run. A gleeful, matter-of-fact depiction of graft and corruption (on the personal, state, and national levels) is one of the film's stronger suits- it doesn't poke fun at the fact that you can basically buy a state senate seat: that's just a casual fact of life in the film's (and our!) universe. And why not? In a world where dishonesty is rewarded and culpability shied away from, people'll grab a piece of the pie any way they can. The supporting cast is serviceable: LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY's Lenny and Squiggy (Michael McKean and David L. Lander) play mischievous A/V guys:

David L. Lander shows off the pacemaker he installed on Michael McKean.

Gerrit Graham plays Russell's superstitious right-hand man, and Dick Miller's even around for an obligatory cameo. Race, disco, Jimmy Carter, Iran, and the FCC are tackled, and one sequence seems to prophesy a certain impromptu half-time nudity that would occur some 20 years later. But it all comes back to Russell: cackling away, he's the epitome of lovable sleaze. From unsavory winks to glad-handing to hearty slaps on the back to various slapsticky antics, Russell shows himself to be a master of physical comedy.

And in a world of charlatans, Russell's one who you almost wouldn't mind being swindled by. Three stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

I always wondered if the tacky attire Russell sports when he goes "undercover" in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a nod to his character in this film. Same atrocious fashion sense.

Sean Gill said...

Now that you mention it, I feel like it HAS to be an in-joke. I also think that that sequence in BTILC and Harrison Ford as the Scottish lord in LAST CRUSADE are probably my two favorite 'ridiculous acts of 80's subterfuge.' [My favorite Bronson ones kind of don't count since they don't involve costumes and usually consist of something like "I was MAKIN' A SANDWICH!"]