Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writer: Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton
Cinematographer: Laszlo Kovacs
Producer: Peter Bogdanovich
by Jon Cvack
Peter Bogdanovich is one of the stranger figures in cinema history. The first image as Dr. Melfi’s dry and gawky therapist who drinks out of a netted water bottle, followed by remembering that he also directed one of the 70s best films, The Last Picture Show (1971) and then Paper Moon (1973) after this film. Further from that are the countless BTS and film history documentaries where he talks at length about the filmmakers, as much critic and historian as actor and director.
What’s Up, Doc? Is Bogdanovich’s experiment with the screwball comedy, with a synopsis immediately bringing to mind Bringing Up Baby (1938). It involves Dr. Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal), a musicologist from Iowa Conservatory of Music, carrying a suitcase full of rocks that he believes possess particular music properties. He’s joined by his grating wife Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn) who’s on the precipice of being unbearably annoying. Within seconds you struggle to buy that Ryan O’Neal is with this type of person, glasses or no glasses, and even though a joke, it’s just too much. I’m left wondering if instead of a nagging fiance, they went with someone completely self-involved or apathetic and oblivious. I struggle to recall a more annoying spouse in a film.
Howard and Eunice arrive at the hotel for the science conference where they bump into Judy (Barbra Streisand) who has an identical bag to Howard’s, full of clothes and a dictionary, in addition to another man named Mr. Smith whose same bag is full of secret government files. ater, a fourth bag is thrown into the mix, owned by Mrs. Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson) and filled with jewels.
Judy starts following Howard around, serving as the rebellious free spirit to tempt and win him away from his boring trajectory. They soon end up together, providing a weird scene where because Howard and Eunice are staying in separate bedrooms, she visits Howard, jealous after Howard comes home to find Judy in his tub. He sends Judy out onto the window sill, high above the streets while Eunice searches the place and later Mr. Smith arrives, hoping to get back his suitcase. He fires his gun and provides a moderately funny action-comedy scene resulting in the television exploding and the room catches on fire.
Howard is kicked out the next day, having lost Eunice and still missing his suitcase full of rocks. They end up at a ritzy party where another dopy sequence takes place as the mob arrives and people fight and throw pies and still grab the wrong bags.
The film has the cheesy feel of 70s popular cinema. Where although authentic to the era, the costumes and set pieces look like parodies. I was left wondering why none of it seemed to work. It seems some combination of having a very real and sexy chemistry between O’Neal and Streisand; the insufferable Eunice; too many characters with too many bags, leading to a plot confusing to the point of distraction. It made the common mistakes of throwbacks, in trying to be the best of what came before, failing to realize that the originals remain the best because in nearly 80 years few have been able to recreate the classic screwball comedy formula. Someone will one day find a new spin on the genre, but in terms of the original structure, there is little to improve upon.
Even still, the closing sequence which had to receive the majority of the budget is absolutely incredible to watch; up there with The Blues Brothers (1980) in making you wonder how they possibly did it before the age of computer effects. The scene starts with Howard and Judy stealing a three seated bike, cruising through a Chinatown parade, getting stuck in a dragon puppet, all while being chased by Mr. Smith, the mafia, and someone else I don’t remember. Taking place in San Francisco, the cars leap over the hills and through the iconic streets. In a tense and humorous set up, a man hangs a sign on a tall ladder while two men move a plate of glass; serving as a scene straight Chaplin and Keaton where no sound is even required. We know what will happen, it’s just a question of when.
In another insane moment, the cars race off a giant staircase, literally flying off and shattering massive chunks of concrete when they land. It’s the type of shot that couldn’t even be possible today. It shocks you with how real it is, making you long for the days when films had the willingness to go this far.
It keeps going as Howard and Judy hope to jump their car off a pier and onto a moving fairy; failing to even come close and they crash into the water. Serving far from the most original climax, that is until one of the mafia convertibles follows, speeding down the pier and a figure stands up, and in a single quick take, catches a bunch of umbrellas to the face before the car jumps off and he jumps with it and you wonder how close he was to being killed; like how many times could they keep trying that stunt until injury or death?
The film starts to nosedive as all of the characters are brought before a pill popping judge, attempting to tell their stories, enraging the justice until Judy raises her hand and addresses him as father. Getting to this point takes about ten minutes, though, and aside from not knowing what was discussed, it felt like an early version of a joke that they forgot to remove after realizing how much better the car chase was.
Eunice leaves Howard, the jewelry bagged woman pays off all of their damage and court fee expenses, and just as he thinks his life is over, he finds Judy in the seat behind him and they kiss.
It’s a movie I’ll probably never watch again, other to perhaps show the car chase. I struggle to define why it failed. There was something a bit too goofy about the characters; leaning just a tiny bit too far away from reality. Ryan O’Neal as a complete dork, especially after coming off Love Story (1970) just felt ridiculous, showing off with a grandiloquent irony. We get it. He’s not actually this type of person, versus Eunice in which Madeline Kahn felt very much honest to her character. Even Streisand seemed off, as never before had I seen her in such a sexy and alluring role, which for someone who always kept more moderate, made it feel wrong for to view. her as a sex object; as though it was taboo.
There were other characters, but it’s like they were all kept at a distance. Randy Quaid makes a small cameo, but few others stand out. The head of the music conference, Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton) was a great face to see; that weird type of actor that you know you’ve seen dozens of times before but couldn't get his name off a multiple choice test. Everyone else is just a distant blur. A body and a face to react to Eunice, Howard, and Judy.
Combined with a weak plot involving rocks and music, it didn’t feel like anything was at stake. Howard left Eunice by the first third and the remainder of the movie involved Judy and Howard running off. They don’t know they have the wrong bag. We’re not even sure they have the wrong bag. And if they knew they had the wrong bag it seems like a simple solution to exchange the bags for the right one, meaning that this whole movie was about four of the same styled bags being switched and if that didn’t happen Howard would present his music rocks. It forces the only tension to be sexual. With no other stakes beyond the bag, we were only left like dogs, wondering when Howard and Judy would finally get it on. Even that only ends with a kiss. It took inspiration from a fun place, but failed to establish the most important piece of a romance is to ensure that there is chemistry between the characters which can extend beyond sex; that we can picture them sticking around with each other when the lust wears out.
I Googled best screwball comedies and the latest film they offer in their list of nearly twenty is 1942. It’s a cinematic movement that seems confined to a particular era, making you wonder what it is that prevents the format from working any longer. Bogdanovich made a bold move to try, but he joined the massive graveyard of all those who came up too short.
BELOW: Worth checking out for the car chase alone
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