Tuesday, October 22, 2013

FI: What's Up, Doc?

What's Up, Doc?
US, 1972
Co-written and directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Screwball comedies, as seen in yesterday's post, had their heyday in the 1930's. But director Peter Bogdanovich has always been a sort of classicist, revisiting the history and style of films from the past, and his What's Up, Doc? is a clear tribute to the height of screwball comedies, where the manic energy of the performers and the coincidences of the Rube Goldberg-esque plot machinations combine to propel the story forward. In this case, the plot hinges on a farcical mix-up involving four hotel guests on the same floor who each have the same plaid handbag, but with very different contents.

Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal) is a music professor whose bag contains musical rocks he needs to win an important grant from Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton). Bannister soon encounters agent of chaos Judy Maxwell (Barbara Streisand), who has an identical bag filled only with clothes. Like the screwball heroines of old, Judy makes it her mission to cause the nerdy, absent-minded Bannister nothing but trouble, to the consternation of his uptight fiancée, Eunice (Madeline Kahn). The other bags contain top-secret documents stolen by Mr. Smith (Michael Murphy), who is pursued by government agent Mr. Jones (Philip Roth), and a load of expensive jewelry owned by Mrs. Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson), pursued by crooked hotel employees. Naturally, all four bags get mixed up and hijinks ensue.

Streisand is a seemingly perfect fit for the cartoonish Maxwell, bringing the same sort of zany energy and determination found in characters played by Hepburn and Lombard before her. O'Neal similarly does well as the stuffy type opened up by Streisand's machinations, though I still think he's best suited to playing a cunning manipulator (as in Paper Moon or Barry Lyndon) rather than a hapless, helpless sort. Kahn, in her film debut, already shows how incredible and dominant her presence can be, while Kenneth Mars does another fun spin on his typical "daffy foreigner"–type as Bannister's pompous rival for Larrabee's grant. The whole affair is well-conceived by Bogdanovich and his co-writers (Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton), with no shortage of awkward scenarios, slapstick chases, and witty banter mixed in. Bogdanovich brings a light, sprightly touch to his direction and staging, and finds little moments that highlight each character's unique weirdness and make them standout. What's Up Doc? is a fitting tribute to a genre, one that nicely toes the line between old screwball, the classic cartoons its title recalls, and the more contemporary comic capers found in things like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

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