Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Film Review: O.C. AND STIGGS (1985, Robert Altman)

Stars: 2.5 of 5.
Running Time: 109 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Daniel Jenkins (GLORY, CRADLE WILL ROCK), Neill Barry (AMITYVILLE 3-D, FATAL BEAUTY), Paul Dooley (DEATH WISH, TALES OF THE CITY), Jon Cryer (PRETTY IN PINK, GLAM), Ray Walston (THE APARTMENT, EERIE INDIANA), Cynthia Nixon (SEX AND THE CITY, TANNER '88), Victor Ho (Hill's CROSSROADS, Kitano's BROTHER), Melvin van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASSS SONG, WATERMELON MAN), King Sunny Ade and Bob Uecker as themselves, Nina Van Pallandt (AMERICAN GIGOLO, THE LONG GOODBYE), Martin Mull (CLUE, FM, 'Gene Parmesan' on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT), Jane Curtin (THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, CONEHEADS), and a very special appearance by Dennis Hopper.
Tag-lines: "A Robert Altman Film."
Best one-liner: "Loud, real loud. It has to generate a terrifyingly seismic field of noise. If we could combine really loud noise with the ugliness of poverty, we'd have the ideal car."

Disturbed by the popularity of hollow teen fare and Reagan consumerism, Robert Altman deigned to make his very own juvenile 80's romp- the idea being that it would be a scathing send-up of the films which were currently all the rage.

Unfortunately, the script and the execution, based on a NATIONAL LAMPOON article entitled "The Utterly Monstrous Mind-Roasting Summer of O.C. and Stiggs," are disastrous, and, based upon popular opinion, it's not the fault of the source material. Furthermore, our two leads, Neill Barry and Daniel Jenkins, though basically designed to be unlikable, are simply insufferable. I couldn't help but keep wishing that I were watching, say, James LeGros and Anthony Edwards, who actually would've been perfect in the roles:

Am I right or am I right?

In terms of actual content, the film is a series of malicious yet dopey pranks (beginning with the MGM lion whimpering "oooceee...stigggs" instead of its usual roar) perpetuated by O.C. and Stiggs, first upon a bourgeois family who have wronged them, and later upon Western civilization in general. The customary satirical barbs are flung primarily at targets such as menopause, insurance salesmen, and kitschy lawn decor. A typical groan-inducing joke within O.C. & STIGGS would be the following:
"It was the last case that gramps had before he retired... she got off with a hung jury."
–"They hung the whole jury?"

"It failed quite successfully," later mused Altman, and I must agree with the master that it is one of the weakest- if not the weakest film he ever made. (Feel free to debate the merits of QUINTET, BEYOND THERAPY, POPEYE, and DR. T & THE WOMEN in the comments section). Curiously, Altman admits in the DVD's special features that he would often have friends over who would want to watch 'an Altman film' while they were hanging out at his place– and often, according to the man himself, these (hopefully booze-soaked and wisecracking) guests would request to see O.C. AND STIGGS. Go figure.

Despite it all, great swathes of O.C. AND STIGGS remain fairly watchable. And most of the actors, from the effervescent young Cynthia Nixon to the crusty Paul Dooley to the dweeby Jon Cryer to the dipsomaniacal (she's got a flask in her oven mitt!) Jane Curtin, acquit themselves accordingly. So allow me to explain in detail a few of the elements which prevent this flick from becoming one of the absolute worst of the 1980's:

#1. "We need some brain-powered liquor!" Melvin Van Peebles is 'Wino Bob,' our dynamic duo's number one booze connection, who, coincidentally, lives in the oleander bushes behind the local 7-11.

One exchange where he describes the dangers of being snuck up upon by 'Sneaky Pete Wine,' is particularly illuminating. He explains that Abe Lincoln embarked upon a serious Sneaky Pete binge the evening before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, but when reality set in, there was the inevitable "Whutttt? I freed the who?!..." It's a true-to-form Peebles moment that, unlike most of the satire here, actually hits its mark.

#2. Dennis Hopper as 'Dennis Hopper in APOCALYPSE NOW.'

I guess 1985 was a big year for Hopper to repeat past performances (he also appeared in MY SCIENCE PROJECT as his character from EASY RIDER). While playing 'Ride of the Valkyries' over footage of helicopters is the laziest form of parody, Hopper himself never ceases to amuse. At one point, he hands a teen a grenade- "This is real!" exclaims the kiddie. "Everything gets to be, sooner or later," murmurs Hopper in that inimitable, whacked-out way which he is wont to do.

#3. Ray Walston enthusiastically muttering phrases like "God-damn huevos!"

This pretty much speaks for itself.


I really can never say anything bad about monster trucks. Or regular trucks made to resemble monster trucks. Monster trucks're good. I like monster trucks.

#5. Martin Mull, AKA... the show-stopper.

For about three glorious minutes, this becomes a five-star movie, and it's all thanks to the moneyed, tiki-swigging bastard played by Mull. O.C. and Stiggs wander into his nouveau riche, island-themed backyard and find themselves in a bizarre alternate universe run by the Captain Ron of sweatshop owners. "Have a double or a triple," Mull commands, whilst offering umbrella drinks- "There are no singles here." Rules to live by, Mr. Mull. He then reclines in his plush 80's basement furniture and pontificates, "I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight..." He allows the comment to settle into the tranquil night air. "I know where 634 of them are gonna be Monday morning... working in my sweatshop." Alright, Mr. Mull- you just earned this movie an extra star.

So, in the end, O.C. AND STIGGS cannot be labeled an utter failure. In fact, as per these highlights, it could be categorized as a 'fragmentary success.' And perhaps nowhere else does the film succeed more than in convincing the viewer it's in their best interests to avoid the 110-degree, sun-bleached, bilious, gelatinous ignominies of Phoenix, Arizona...

Two and a half stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Yeah, this film is a curious failure. It has some things going for it, as you point out, but the leads are pretty awful and I wonder how much drugs/booze Altman was doing at this point. O.C. and Stiggs aren’t particularly interesting. Their obsession with pulling endless practical jokes on the Schwabs seems mean-spirited at times. Another problem lies in what O.C. and Stiggs are rebelling against which isn’t as clearly defined as the war in M*A*S*H. I guess they are rebelling against the mind-numbing banality of suburbia and the “Greed is good” era of Reaganomics. There is an attempt to provide some kind of motivation for why these kids do what they do. Stiggs’ dad is cheating on his wife while O.C.’s dad (grandfather?) is unemployed and possibly senile. No wonder they spend all their time together devising elaborate schemes. It is a form of escape from their mundane surroundings.

That being said, my fave moment in the entire film is when O.C. dances with Cynthia Nixon's character at the Schwab wedding which I always thought was a nice a nod to classic Hollywood cinema by way of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But it is not enough to keep this uneven film together.

Sean Gill said...

"I wonder how much drugs/booze Altman was doing at this point."

Well, he HAD just done FOOL FOR LOVE with Golan and Globus...hmmmmm...

But seriously, though, you make some good points. And agreed on that Cynthia Nixon moment- it's a brief, sincere moment amidst the forced comedy. In the end, though, when I want some Reagan-era social commentary, I'll hit up THEY LIVE and BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY instead!

J.D. said...

Hah! Good examples. I dig both of those films so no arguments from me!