“People try to make me sound a lot… weird… and just, strong, you know, I’m strong!”–Crispin Glover on “Late Night with David Letterman”
“Talk about el weirdo.”–Ed, on Rubin
DIRECTED BY: Trent Harris
FEATURING: Howard Hessman, Crispin Glover, Karen Black, Michael Greene
PLOT: Ed is a recently-separated loser who joins “the Organization,” a cult-like real estate pyramid scheme. Rubin is a shut-in nerd whose mother takes away his boom box and refuses to return it until he makes a single friend. When Ed tries to recruit Rubin to attend an Organization seminar, Rubin agrees to go, on the condition that Ed helps him find a place to bury his dead pet cat.
- Rubin & Ed was Utah-based director Trent Harris’ first feature film after making the three documentary/narrative hybrid shorts known as “The Beaver Trilogy” (the first installment is a documentary featuring an oddball kid who performs in drag as Olivia Newton-John, while the next two recreate the first using actors Sean Penn and Crispin Glover, respectively).
- Glover created Rubin Farr for another role that never materialized. He convinced Harris, who was looking for a project for his feature film debut, to write a script around the character.
- In 1987, three years before Rubin & Ed began filming, a stuttering, awkward Crispin Glover appeared in character as Rubin on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Letterman thought Glover was there to promote River’s Edge, and walked off his own set when Glover almost kicked him in the head while wearing Rubin’s giant platform shoes. The segment only lasted a little over four minutes. Many Americans who saw it live assumed Glover was wasted on psychedelic drugs.
- Although it had a reasonable degree of star power and was produced by major independent Working Title Films (who released the Palme d’Or winning Barton Fink the same year), Rubin & Ed initially received terrible reviews made a mere $15,000 in its original theatrical run. The film flopped so badly that the studio pulled funding for another Trent Harris project that had already been greenlit. Rubin & Ed later found a small cult following on VHS.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Rubin’s happy hallucination, which features his previously-dead cat alive and waterskiing while its owner relaxes in a floating inner-tube wearing shoes with two foot heels, on which the bikini babe motoring the speedboat compliments him.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Weaponized platform shoes; waterskiing cat; insole slurping
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though structured as a quirky comedy, not too different from the usual Coen Brothers outing of the period, Rubin and Ed has a gaggle of weird points in its favor, including a hallucination scene with a water skiing cat and a lunatic Crispin Glover playing something very near the Crispin Glover-iest character ever written. Its sense of humor is so eccentric that it’s been forced off-road to become strictly a cult curiosity.
Trailer for Rubin & Ed
COMMENTS: “It’s going to get weird now, isn’t it?,” frets Ed, after Rubin refuses to bury his rapidly decomposing cat in the desert because it’s “not the right spot”—despite the fact that, as Ed points out, “any cat in his right mind would be happy as a clam to be buried here!” Ed’s presentiment is justified. It does get weird—well, weirder—when dehydrated Rubin ties a hubcap to his head and hallucinates bikini poster models posing in the phallic rock formations and pulling his reanimated kitty along on water skis while he develops a psychic connection with the “echo people.”
While almost all of the film concerns Howard Hessman’s sad sack salesman Ed and Crispin Glover’s friendless weirdo Rubin, there are really three stars here: Hessman, Glover, and Trent Harris’ off-balance, oft-hilarious script. Glover is a no-brainer: dressed in skintight pinstripe bell bottoms and giant platform shoes (with magical martial powers), Rubin defines Glover’s odd persona: the mentally ill nerd whose clueless awkwardness seems like it might explode into a burst of senseless violence at any moment. Given how broadly the character is written, Glover actually reigns in his performance, playing the oddness as much with a verbal shrug as with an outburst. Going over-the-top with such an already over-the-top character would have been a mistake, and Glover lets Rubin’s eccentricity come through naturally, rather than by forcing it.
A less expected success is Hessman, whose contribution here as straight man is under-appreciated, but possibly even more important to the film’s success than Glover’s wildness. Hessman leaves “Johnny Fever” behind for this portrait of a postmodern Willy Loman with anger-management issues, a disrespectful spouse (Black, the external manifestation of Ed’s inner critic), and an infatuation with the New Age sales teachings of a cult-like “Organization.” Ed is a pure middle class loser, seeing himself as a trusted acolyte in the hierarchy of real estate guru Mr. Busta, while in actuality being closer in social standing to outcast Rubin. (Ed disappoints his mentor when suggests the best way to get rich is “work!” rather than the correct answer, “real estate!”)
Most of the laughs result from Ed’s unsuccessful attempts to convert Rubin to the cause. His initial interview question—“are you 100% satisfied with your earning potential, 100% of the time?” is met with an unexpected “yep!” from penniless Rubin. Ed is the saner of the duo, which is how the comedy dynamic works; his character arc comes from the humbling realization that his own failings leave him with no right to feel superior to outcast Rubin. The two are polar opposites: Ed is obsessed with status and with how others view him, while Rubin’s nerdy narcissism comes from an utter lack of interest in what other people think. Per formula, the extremes converge in a happy middle, with Ed loosening up and abandoning Mammon, while Rubin learns to engage with the world outside his own skull and interact with fellow creatures who can talk, not just purr. In the end, Rubin fulfills his mother’s mandate to find a friend, and the relationship feels unforced. After all, Rubin and Ed are both Republicans.
Rubin and Ed‘s satire is straightforward and familiar, as is its mismatched-buddy road-movie structure. But from the moment Glover appears onscreen in his mismatched plaids, staring at the swimsuit poster on his wall, with a picture of his beloved ex-pet with its huge green glass eyes locked into a cross-eyed stare tucked into the corner, while playing with a squeak toy and listening to Mahler, it’s clear that the Harris’s storytelling methods are anything but familiar and straightforward. The groundsman who inexplicably barks at Ed as he walks away from another humiliating phone call to his ex-wife is another clue that this is a manifesto made by genuine freaks, not quirkster poseurs. The committed portrayals of authentically weird characters in a dazzlingly oddball script power through the conventional setup, leaving it in almost unrecognizable tatters. The film flags a little at the coda, after Rubin’s storyline has been resolved, but in general Rubin and Ed is a sadly-forgotten, weird comedy gem that deserves rediscovery. It’s an ode to two peculiarly American losers, contending that meaning can only be found off the beaten path.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Crispin Glover is a strange fellow… in his latest film, Trent Harris’ low-budget, made-in-Utah ‘Rubin and Ed,’ Glover, as Rubin, would seem to have found the role that most fits him like a glove.”–Chris Hicks, Deseret News (contemporaneous)
“While not sacrificing an iota of Rubin’s weirdness, Glover plays him with a dead-shot comic sureness, demonstrating admirable restraint and discipline. Hesseman similarly scores comic points with Ed by keying in on the character’s humanity while letting his own buttoned-down weirdness speak for itself. “–TV Guide
“… a captivatingly hallucinatory and amusingly quirky journey… Alternately repulsive and surreal in it’s humor…”–Jason Buchanan, All Movie Guide
Trent Harris’ Rubin & Ed – The writer/director’s homepage has the trailer, three clips, and a instructions for buying the film directly from him
IMDB LINK: Rubin and Ed (1991)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
On Being a Cult Filmmaker: An Interview with Trent Harris – Harris makes some mention of Rubin & Ed in this 2013 interview with “Filmmaker” magazine that spans his entire career
Crispin Glover: Actor, Author, Recording Artist. A Renaissance Geek – Archived interview with Glover from a defunct Rubin & Ed fan site
Crispin Glover explains bizarre Letterman appearance…kind of – Glover slyly declines to confirm that he was in character on the Letterman show in a Sam Roberts radio interview
LIST CANDIDATE: RUBIN AND ED (1991) – This site’s original “list candidate” review of the film
DVD INFO: Rubin & Ed became a hit (such as it is) on VHS (buy used), but it has never received a proper release on DVD (much less Blu-ray). Writer/director Trent Harris sells DVDs of the film directly from his website, for quite a bit cheaper than the collectible tapes. It’s a full frame VHS transfer, as you can tell from the occasional tracking distortion at the bottom of the picture, but it is a good one, considering the source. The release includes the film’s trailer as the only bonus feature. Hopefully, the fact that Rubin & Ed continues to find new audiences more than twenty years later bodes well for a future release (at least something in widescreen so we can see the rest of those Utah landscapes, although we wouldn’t advise holding your breath for a deluxe Special Edition).
UPDATE 8/18/2020: Rubin and Ed arrives in 2020 on Blu-ray from Sony, with no advertised special features (buy).
(This movie was originally nominated for review by “Caty.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
3 thoughts on “255. RUBIN & ED (1991)”
So awesome that this made the list.
Howard Hesseman is the chocolate to Crispin Glover’s peanut butter.
R.I.P Howard Hesseman! Both stars did impressive work and I need to watch this again this week! As soon as I heard Hesseman had died my thought went to “Rubin + Ed.”
Agreed, Monk. Glover’s role was flashier, but Hessman was brilliant, underappreciated, and essential to this film’s success. R.I.P.