Tag Archives: Ruth Gordon

CAPSULE: WHERE’S POPPA? (1970)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Reiner

FEATURING: George Segal, , Trish Van Devere, Ron Liebman

PLOT: An attorney’s life is upended by his abusive, senile old mother, and he casts about in vain for a path that will allow him to find romance without resorting to matricide.

Still from Where's Poppa? (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Where’s Poppa? is outrageous, running head-first into boundaries with glee and a subversive sensibility. But it’s a very calculated enterprise, with rules broken mostly for the satisfaction of breaking them, rather than for any larger artistic vision.

COMMENTS: The prospects for weirdness in Where’s Poppa? are pretty high at the outset. After a lengthy take of George Segal waking up to the mindless drone of a tedious morning radio show, he cleans himself up and calmly dresses in a gorilla suit for the purpose of scaring his mother to death. It doesn’t work, and he leaves her propped up in front of Sesame Street with a breakfast of orange slices and Lucky Charms topped with Dr. Pepper.

George Segal’s hangdog expression and exhausted rage (at one point, he manages to combine a desperate plea with a profane threat in a uniformly pitiful tone) go a long way to selling the misery of his character’s hopeless situation. After all, Ruth Gordon may be her usual rough-hewn, taboo-ignorant self, and her character may be frustratingly senile and casually cruel (even through her forgetfulness, she remembers that Segal isn’t her favorite child). But in the annals of awful parents in film, she’s pretty tame. What she is, is Jewish. She is the ultimate iteration of the henpecking, disapproving Jewish mom. Not for nothing does critic Dennis Schwartz call Where’s Poppa?the mother of all Jewish-mother joke films.” (An alternate ending carries this joke to its ultimate, taboo-pulverizing conclusion.)

So there’s your conflict: Segal is either going to get rid of his mom or he’s not. And the filmmakers know that once we have seen the answer, the movie is over. So we get a lot of playing for time, with Segal by turns smitten and pleading with would-be love interest Van Devere (they make a cute couple), and enduring endless humiliations at the hands of his mother. (The advertising team was particularly delighted with a scene where Gordon yanks down Segal’s pants and kisses him on the posterior; a witless suggestion that the scene had been commemorated on a postage stamp is repeated in numerous trailers for the film.) But after that, there’s not really anywhere else to go.

So director Reiner and screenwriter Ron Klane (whose credits include the more charmingly black Weekend at Bernie’s) go outward. It turns out that everyone we encounter is some level of insane. A football coach is a child kidnapper. An Army general proudly recalls his cold-blooded murder of surrendering enemies, while a peace activist advocates for his cause through maiming. A bridegroom indulges himself in a scatological fashion on his wedding night. The insanity of these characters and more appear to be infectious, as Segal’s grip on reality only becomes more tenuous and lapses into Walter Mitty-style fantasies, such as his mother’s demise at the hands of a dog, or Van Devere beckoning to him in a wedding gown while he himself sits astride a horse in full knight regalia.

Of course, the most insane of all may be Segal’s schlemiel brother, the subject of an agonizing subplot that exists primarily to deliver “hilarious” jokes about African-American thuggery, gay panic, and rape. It’s tempting to suggest that these are jokes which have aged poorly, but there’s so little joke to be had in the first place (for example, the rape joke seems to revolve primarily around the repetition of the word “rape”) that it seems hard to believe the sell-by date was anytime in the 20th century. This is not to say Where’s Poppa? is without laughs, mind you. For example, a scene where a man in a gorilla costume gets the cab that would not stop for an African-American woman has real bite. But the movie’s throw-it-against-the-wall approach to humor allows for no polish or refinement, so the jokes that bomb do so catastrophically.

Where’s Poppa? has the courage of its convictions, but in the end has no real convictions, other than an overwhelming desire to be shocking. That goal is met fairly often, but like a feast of cotton candy, it’s not very filling when the meal is over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a terrifically acted, unevenly directed, wild, absurd comedy-fantasy that is hilarious one moment, amusing the next, and foolish the moment after that.”–Danny Peary, “Cult Movies”

READER RECOMMENDATION: HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)

The second submission in the June review writing contest: by “SG Eric”.

DIRECTOR: Hal Ashby

FEATURING: Bud Cort,

PLOT: Twenty-something rich kid unfulfilled with his life stages fake suicides to peeve his uppity mother and ultimately finds meaning in life when he meets carefree 89-year-old Maude.

Still from Harold and Maude (1971)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST: The May-December romance theme is taken to the extreme by romantically entangling (yes, I mean sexually) a very young man with a very old lady.  Considered taboo by most people, the film makes a plea that the perversion is justified because these two odd souls truly do make a bona fide connection with each other, regardless of age or what society deems as acceptable.

COMMENTS:  First off, I’ll admit that I’m biased when it comes to this film. It has been my all-time favorite for about as long as I can remember. Excepting The Dark Crystal (which just frightened me) it was the first truly “weird” film I encountered as a child.  Like any other kid of my generation, I was enamored by the spectacle that was Star Wars.  Fantasy consumes a child’s existence, and there was no greater escape than those first three films.  I’m guessing around ’84 I first came upon Harold and Maude on HBO.  I was engrossed immediately.  Here was a movie that did not rely on fantasy to hold your attention.  Sure, there is some reality-based whimsy involved.  The humor is dark for sure, some may say morbid, but to a 10-year-old kid watching someone feigning multiple suicides comes off as hilarious.  At least it did for me at the time, and yes it still does.

I know this movie has a huge and dedicated cult following.  Without trying to sound completely snobbish, I hope it stays within that circle.  It deserves to be seen by those who like their cinema offbeat.  I find this movie to be so perfect that I cannot fathom anyone not enjoying it.

Now let’s talk about what makes this movie weird.  The May-December theme is basically a couple who is one-half old and one-half young.  It has been explored many times over in movies, usually in dreadful Hollywood romantic comedies.  Usually, it is the older man falling for the younger girl… yes, tracing a semi-origin to “Lolita,” one of the most popular novels written about the subject, which was made into a couple of “controversial” films.  There are exceptions of good films exploring this theme.  Ghost World (I agree a bit creepy for a couple) or Lost in Translation are good examples, but they never really surpassed plain ol’ sweetness.  What sets Harold and Maude apart, other than the gender-role age discrepancy being reversed, is that they give each other hope and a true purpose for life.

Harold’s mother ceaselessly tries to find a respectable mate through dating services.  Harold wants no part in this shallowness, and bizarre fake suicides are performed to ward each one off.  Upon meeting Maude at funeral services, for which neither one knows the deceased, they hit it off.  Maude takes part in several shenanigans that involuntarily involve Harold.  He starts to see this chaos/anarchy as a means for living and loving.  He tells his mother early on that he has found a companion in Maude and provides evidence with a picture of her.  I believe initially the affair was meant to once again irk his mother, but eventually unfolds to true and devout love.  Of course his mother is aghast and she stops at nothing to prevent the relationship.  Again, the results are nothing short of hilarious.

I have always been fascinated by two people who are linked together and it seems to be a complete mismatch.  The beauty of Harold and Maude is that they are not mismatched at all.  Only the age factor makes it seem that way.  I compare it to seeing a strange couple walking down the aisle of a store.  One is obese and the other is pencil-thin.  It makes you raise and eyebrow and think, “that’s weird.”  Is it?  If they are happy I salute them. Love truly knows no boundaries and it makes this life what it is.  Films like Harold and Maude can show you that love exists, in spades.  It may also tell you to take that spade and dig up that city tree and transplant it in the forest where it belongs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a doggedly eccentric film which some will reject out of hand. Others will find it profoundly moving and life affirming.”–TV Guide