Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Knee-jerk Response to It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

It has been a while since I last foamed at the mouth as the result of a terrible movie, but “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” (1963), the subject of this knee-jerk reaction, has me absolutely rabid with anger, frustration and condemnation. The film had a lot going for it, and I knew that it was held in very high regard by some. It ranks as the 75th highest grossing film (adjusting for inflation) and sports what is arguably the greatest comedic all-star cast ever assembled: Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jimmy Durante, Peter Falk, Buddy Hackett, Buster Keaton (though he doesn’t appear in the surviving cut), Jerry Lewis, Ethel Merman, Carl Reiner, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, The Three Stooges and many, many more. Spencer Tracy plays the “straight” counterbalance as a police chief.

At the beginning of the film, a speeding driver flies off a cliff and is fatally injured. Before he dies he tells a crowd of disparate onlookers about $350,000 buried under a “big W” in Santa Rosita Park. They initially pretend not to believe the “ravings” of the dying man, but after some arguing, the inevitable free-for-all race begins. Meanwhile, an underappreciated police chief tracks their movements and prepares to arrest them all after they’ve led him to the money.

It isn’t a lot of plot, so one would figure that the screenwriters were leaving plenty of room for non-stop hilarity, especially considering that they had 161 minutes (192 in the original cut), Cinerama’s massive 1:2.35 aspect ratio, almost $10 million dollars to budget and the combined talents of American’s then-best-known comedians to work with. However, after ill-advisedly sticking it out to the end of this hulking, limping trainwreck of flat, uninspired gags and pointless face-dropping I had nary a single laugh to show for it. If failed potential was the sole standard of judging films, this would be the worst comedy I’ve ever seen. Objectively, it is not quite the worst, but it certainly stands as a testament to unfunniness throughout the ages, effectively exposing how dull and dated mid-20th century mainstream comedians now appear.

Can we expect the same thing in another couple of decades when we look back at the closing of the century? Probably. Am I making irresponsible blanket statements in a fit of temporary, bad-movie-inspired wrath? Sure. However, the fact that not a single actor of the dozens present in Mad+++ rises above the film’s mirthless, vacuous trajectory and stale, embarrassing script gives me reason to brood. Ron Liddle’s recent op-ed in the Times Online reflects exactly how I feel, lamenting the deaths (metaphorically speaking) of comedian Mel Brooks (who secretly died at birth but walked around as a zombie, strangling jokes for most of his career) and Woody Allen (who continues to thrash around on the floor, but considering that all his recent films stink like rotting corpses I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s just autonomic twitches). At least we laughed at the time, right? Oh, wait… I wasn’t alive then…

In fairness, leaving each comedian to explore their own individual style and perfect their own routines seems to resist the erosion of time far better than cramming famous names and faces (not so famous anymore) into an attempt at the ultimate comedy. Many comedians who crafted highly personal and idiosyncratic styles are, paradoxically, the ones that transcend time and audiences. Conversely, director Stanley Kramer’s attempt to broaden the humorscape enough that every American could understand the blunt, cartoon antics and unadorned stereotypes simply bulldozer’s every potential high point.

He had the hubris to declare his film “a comedy to end all comedies,” which, if it had been true, surely would have succeeded only in the apocalyptic sense. Perhaps his travesty was the culmination of some dark art meant to tear an entrance into a dimension of pure unfunny that would suck the laughter from the throats of every man, woman and child. Kramer should have known better (and Spencer Tracy, too, for that matter) having worked on far superior efforts. The director worked best wielding another type of hammer and hitting viewers over the head with preachy, but decent, liberal odes like “The Defiant Ones,” “Inherit the Wind,” “Judgment at Nuremburg,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

I’ve let myself digress far from the actual movie and descended into the type of name-calling and hyperbole that isn’t particularly informative to those who haven’t yet seen the film (but it sure is fun and possibly therapeutic). However, if you’re with me so far and not yet convinced, then there’s still a chance I could save you from seeing “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” should it try to mug you in a video store or break-and-enter through your TV screen. Here is a mere handful of specific reasons to charter a course around Kramer’s lifeless World:

First of all, it is probably a safe bet that no comedy should break the 2.5 hour barrier. Even if our gut is being exercised with healthy bouts of chuckling, our butts complain after sitting through too much slapstick. Mad+++ makes no attempt to justify its running time except its vainglorious desire to be crowned epic-emperor of the genre. The untrimmed fat hangs languidly from this bulging mass, with repetition used to fill the time the screenwriter’s have neglected. You’ll be subjected to looking at endless “wacky” car chases and listening to redundant reiterations of each character’s over-established one-trait personalities.

Ethel Merman is particularly bad as a shrieking, bossy mother-in-law (a cliché Hollywood can’t seem to get over) who leads a backwards march into the sexist depths of the distant past. Jonathon Winters gets to wave his arms around and turn his face red about a dozen times, which is probably supposed to tie into physical humor somehow. Sid Caesar plays every alpha-male husband gag as if he’d already resigned himself to being replaced by a robot. Most of the characters get trapped in subplots that don’t progress even though the inter-cutting revisits them multiple times. One gets an impression that we are watching has-been jokesters mired in quicksand. Spencer Tracy’s plot thread seems to move in particular slow-motion with all his words and deeds predestined within the first few minutes and telegraphed so loudly to the audience that no surprise or satisfaction is possible.

The movie attempts to dash forwards head-long, but ends up moving in fits and starts. The auto stunts and “quick-witted” dialogue (also not funny and lacking in chemistry, dynamism and cleverness) can’t pull the pacing out of the narrative quagmires. In the film, there is a scene where a car breaks down in a tunnel and we see a single tire come rolling out of the darkness. That last tire, unable to come to rest after the crash, captures the unmerited tenacity with which the film continues through the final 45 minutes. Except that in the case of the film, there isn’t even momentum to carry it onward.

The single, interminably repeated theme is that people are greedy and selfish. Perhaps that would explain why all these comedians took the sizable paychecks they were offered for this film. Perhaps the producers flattered and told them they were “comedy greats” that needed to be immortalized in this ultimate “masterpiece.” I wonder if any of them had any precognition of how poorly it would hold up.


Joe D said...

I haven't seen this film for a long time but I remember seeing Buster Keaton in a captain's hat traffic directing a cab that destroys a small shack or destroys something. But I never liked this movie either.

magusart said...

I had the misfortune of sitting uncomfortably through this movie twice in my lifetime. The single funniest thing may have been the one glance at the aged, almost-dead Three Stooges. Wait, funniest? I meant sad as fuck.

Definitely one of cinema's biggest mistakes.