Sunday, July 11, 2010


“Fifty bucks never killed anybody.”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
I can’t always rely on what is admittedly a somewhat imperfect memory, but the way I remember it was that a group of my high school friends were gathered around and talking animatedly about a film they had just seen that, in the vernacular they used at the time, was “fucking hilarious.” One of my pals went into particular detail about a scene in which a woman’s dress got caught on a car hood that was being opened up, and in the process her breasts were exposed on live television…to the approval of a large audience who had tuned in to watch the weekly gridiron exploits on Monday Night Football.

I asked Mike, the friend who took pleasure in describing this gag what movie he was talking about. “Used Cars,” he replied. “Goddamn, it’s a funny movie.”

“Who’s in it?” I asked him further. “Kurt Russell,” he returned. Then he sounded sort of surprised. “You mean you haven’t went and seen it yet?”

I was a little too embarrassed to tell my pal that the likelihood of me seeing a movie with both Kurt Russell and naked breasts were pretty slim, given as how my family was used to watching the actor cavort in Disney films where he played a hapless college student that had weird things happen to him…like invisibility and super-strength. No, I’d have to wait until Used Cars (1980) turned up on pay cable to watch what is one of the funniest comedies in the history of cinema…because 30 years ago on this date, the film was released to theaters…and I was several months shy of my 17th birthday.

Upon its release, Used Cars received an “R” rating — and in fact, would be the only film directed by Robert Zemeckis to do so as of this post. Zemeckis, who had only two years earlier had his first feature film effort, the alternately silly and sublime I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), released to critical acclaim, was rapidly becoming the flavor-of-the-month in Hollywood by that time along with his longtime collaborator Bob Gale. Though the two men had experienced a temporary setback scripting Steven Spielberg’s failed bigger-isn’t-necessarily-better 1941 (1979), they would soldier on to greater triumphs, culminating with Zemeckis’ directing Romancing the Stone (1984)…and the 1985 mega-hit Back to the Future. Zemeckis would receive the respect of his peers by winning multiple Oscars for Forrest Gump (1994), a film that filled me with so much revulsion at the time that I seriously contemplated giving up movies. (Fortunately, saner heads prevailed.) He has since entertained audiences with ponderous special effects outings such as Contact (1997) and The Polar Express (2004), movies that have since made me nostalgic for those earlier vehicles that relied on nothing more complex than how the lives of several individuals were changed by the appearance of John, Paul, George and Ringo on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Theatres may not have enforced the “No one under 17 admitted” guideline with R-rated films back in my day, but Mama and Papa Shreve certainly did. In fact, I ended up taking my father with me to see Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) because I was only 16 at the time…and truth be told, I was a little bit embarrassed to be sitting next to him in the theater as the film unfurled. To my surprise, he genuinely liked the film…but admonished me: “I wouldn’t discuss the content of this movie with your younger sisters.”

Dad wasn’t around the first time I watched Used Cars, which I finally caught on HBO months after its abortive run in theaters. I’ve seen it several more times since then (a couple with my father), and I fervently believe that the film transcends its “loud, vulgar and unrepentantly raunchy” reputation (according to The Onion’s Scott Tobias) to be a first-rate, relentlessly cynical satire on “the American Dream.” Former Disney stalwart Russell plays Rudy Russo, a con man/used car salesman (I know, it’s pretty much redundant) without a whiff of scruples who’s employed by Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), a slightly more straight-arrow car dealer with serious health issues (he has a bad ticker). Rudy has aspirations to advance to a position where the real graft is there for the taking — he has an opportunity to buy his way into a party nomination as state senator…and though Luke thinks he’s crazy, he agrees to help Rudy begin his journey into politics.

Luke has a twin brother, unrepentant douchebag Roy L. (also played by Warden), who’s learned through his attorney (Joe Flaherty) that his (Roy’s) car lot is going to be razed (via eminent domain) to make room for a new highway overpass. This will make his brother’s lot the most valuable piece of property in the area, and since efforts to buy out Luke in the past have failed, Roy L. has to resort to strong-arm tactics (a demolition derby expert (Michael Talbott) takes Luke for a wild spin test-driving a car, and Luke’s heart can’t take the excitement) to “inherit” the lot. Returning from his adventure, Luke expires on the floor of the New Deal Used Cars’ sales office…but Rudy, who’s counting on the money Luke promised him for the state senatorship, talks fellow salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and mechanic Jim (Frank McRae) into concealing Luke’s untimely demise by placing him in his antique ’59 Edsel and burying him in a pit in the back of the lot.

Unbeknownst to Rudy, Luke received a phone call from his daughter Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon) earlier that evening — she’s anxious to reconcile with her father after being estranged from him for a goodly number of years. She arrives at the lot for their reunion; putting Rudy in the uncomfortable position of having to continue the deception that her father is still hale and hearty (he’s told both her and Roy L. that Luke went south to Miami Beach for a little R&R). Because the deadline to submit the paperwork for the state senate office has been moved up, Rudy also has to get his hands on some fast cash — so he resorts to enlisting the help of a pair of electronic whiz kids (Michael “Lenny” McKean and David L. “Squiggy” Lander) to interrupt a televised football game to do a commercial for the used car business…which results in a financial windfall as several hundred customers arrive at the lot that next day. The “interrupting-your-regularly-scheduled-programming” shenanigans continue when our heroes are daring enough to preempt a presidential address being given by then -Commander-in-Chief Jimmy Carter.

Rudy and company make a valiant effort to keep the news of Luke’s demise secret from Barbara Jane and Roy, but eventually the cat is out of the bag — and furious at Rudy’s dishonesty, she fires him along with Jeff and Jim. But the three men have to pitch in to save Barbara Jane’s business when she’s hauled into court due to a false advertising lawsuit (Roy has used a little technical chicanery of his own to overdub a dubious claim into one of her commercials), and accomplish with a balls-out slapstick chase involving a “mile” of automobile clunkers driven by a pack of high school driver’s ed students.

The concept of Used Cars originated with writer-director-producer John Milius, who pitched the idea to scribes Zemeckis and Gale while they were still hard at work on what would become 1941. When the original deal to produce Cars fell through at Universal, Steven Spielberg (working on 1941 for Columbia Pictures) was able to secure financing through Columbia by signing on with Milius as an executive producer. Zemeckis shot Cars in a breakneck 28 days at a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Mesa, Ariz. — and the finished product scored extremely high with audiences at its preview. But Columbia foolishly chose to release the film in July 1980 (it was originally slated for August) at a time when Airplane! (1980) was just beginning to convulse audiences in theaters…and to add insult to injury, bungled the film’s marketing campaign to the point where anyone who did manage to see it in a theater was very, very lucky. Despite its low profile, the film received a great deal of critical acclaim, including the notoriously finicky Pauline Kael…who described Cars as “a classic screwball fantasy — a neglected modern comedy that’s like a more restless and visually high-spirited version of the W.C. Fields pictures.”

At the time of Used Cars’ release, the vogue in cinematic mirth-making was what was known as “slob comedy”—a trend that kicked off with National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978, and later introduced hit films such as Meatballs, Caddyshack and Stripes. Cars is cut from the same bolt of cloth — it revels in its cheerfully bad taste — but it transcends its raunchy brethren in other ways by satirizing taboo, sacred cow subjects as politics, the legal system, television and consumerism. To borrow the words of critic Tobias, Cars “starts with the premise that all politicians are salesmen, all salesmen are liars and the best believe their own lies with stirring conviction.” “You know, it used to be when you bought a politician, that son of a bitch stayed bought,” snarls Roy L. Fuchs in a line that I’ll bet not a day goes by when either my father or I aren’t using it in some sort of context. There’s nothing particularly socially redeeming about any of the characters in the film — Zemeckis once described Cars as “a Frank Capra movie where everybody lies” — but it’s hard not to be in the corner of someone like Rudy, who despite his con man demeanor also is the classic American underdog, just doing what he can to hustle a buck and keep groceries on the table.

No other film comedy used profanity in such a gleeful manner as Used Cars, which surely must have held the record until Quentin Tarantino decided to get into the movie business. The line that still makes me laugh until there are tears in my eyes occurs when Jeff is in the middle of his FCC-violating car commercial during the president’s speech: “Now wait just a goddamn minute…what the hell is this? Is this a 1974 Mercedes 450SL for $24,000? That's too fucking high!!!” He then proceeds to destroy the car with a charge of dynamite. My other favorite is a line of Roy L.’s, said in response to Jeff’s annoying habit of repeating everything he’s just said: “What are you, a fuckin’ parrot?” (I later learned that Warden ad-libbed this, and it is a thing of beauty.)

The comedy centerpiece that everyone who’s seen Used Cars remembers to this day occurs shortly after Luke’s hair-raising mishap as the unfortunate passenger in the car piloted by the wild-and-crazy driver in Roy L.’s employ. At the same time this is occurring, Rudy is negotiating with a stubborn customer (Andrew Duncan) who’s determined to keep haggling about the price. “Fifty bucks never killed anybody,” the man keeps repeating over and over again like a mantra…until Rudy throws up his hands in frustration. “But I'm telling ya…my boss sees these figures — he's going to have a stroke.” Cue Luke’s entrance — red-faced and clutching his chest and in desperate need of the nitroglycerin he takes for his bad heart, he goes through a series of spastic motions before expiring on the floor. “OK, it's a deal, it's a deal! I'll sign! I'll sign!” the customer says, panicking as he grabs a pen and the agreement. (I defy anyone not to wet-their-pants in laughter at this truly classic moment.)

But there are other unforgettable comic encounters in Used Cars that do not necessarily rely on questionably bad-taste humor — my favorite is a hysterically funny scene where superstitious Jeff goes nuts in a bar, spilling salt and crawling under ladders (and finally throwing a chair through a mirror in the establishment) in an effort to bring on bad luck so that Rudy can beat the point spread on a football game he’s bet his entire savings on in an attempt to raise the kitty he needs for his state senator nomination. And then there’s the climactic car chase, as a multitude of high-school kids (which include Wendie Jo Sperber and Marc McClure, both of whom have memorable roles in Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Back to the Future) drive 250 cars back to the used car lot in order that Barbara Jane’s claim of New Deal’s “mile of cars” can be proved legit. Sequences like this would become a trademark in the comedies written by Zemeckis and Gale —such as Hand’s climactic events surrounding the Fab Four’s appearance on Sullivan, or Back to the Future’s breathless series of obstacles leading up to Marty McFly’s race-against-time maneuver to return to his own time period.

Actor Russell had been trying to make a concerted effort to shake the Walt Disney stigma at the time of Used Cars’ release, and though he had made inroads in that area with his critically lauded turn as the titular rock ‘n’ roller in the TV-movie Elvis (1979) it’s not entirely incorrect to say that Cars was the film in which he was finally allowed to “grow up.” Veteran character actor Warden wasn’t interested in Cars in the beginning but acquiesced after talking Zemeckis and Gale into letting him play both Luke and Roy L. Fuchs. These two incredible thesps head up an amazing cast of superb comic actors which also include, in addition to those already named, Dub Taylor (as the crooked party chief), Alfonso Arau, Woodrow Parfey…and the incomparable Al “Grandpa” Lewis as Judge “Hanging” H.H. Harrison. (Sharp-eyed viewers will also spot Roger Corman regular Dick Miller making love and a pre-Hill Street Blues Betty Thomas shaking her moneymaker on top of a used car.)

Normally, I would encourage anyone who hasn’t experienced the tasteless pleasures of Used Cars to see it in a theater the way most movies should be viewed (since it’s a comedy, it should always be seen with an audience) but unless you spot it at your local repertory the next-best solution is to buy or rent the DVD. That way, you’ll be able to enjoy writers Zemeckis and Gale and actor Russell spouting their memories and anecdotes into one of the best DVD commentaries ever recorded. Seriously — this is one of the most audience-pleasing comedies ever produced. Trust me.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and it took him months to get him to stop saying “Jesus Palomino!” after first seeing Used Cars.

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This is easily one of my favorite comedies, Kurt Russell performance, and must listen to commentary tracks. Russell's really excels at doing conversational film accounts, I'd wish he'd done more (I blame the studios for not letting him). His comment stints with John Carpenter on their films together are legendary in how much fun and remembrances they hold. Great review of a highly underrated 80's comedy. Thanks, Ivan.
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