DIRECTED BY: Tom O’Horgan
FEATURING: Gene Wilder, Karen Black, Zero Mostel
PLOT: Stanley is an alcoholic accountant. Everyone else turns into a rhinoceros.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: O’Horgan’s adaptation of an absurdist play features too much stagey kookiness to work well as a film—which is a pity, because it has a weird premise that, when the tone is right, shows the potential it had as an unsettling commentary on the nature of man.
COMMENTS: Before ascending to the lofty heights of film criticism, I led a something of an artistically minimal life between college and my first reader-submitted review. So it is with a long-stretched arm that I reach back to my school days of Theater Drama, particularly when I was an assistant director my senior year of high school. Through early college I occasionally partook in what Tom O’Horgan described as “a ritualized version of a piece of art”, both offstage and on it. I bring you this somewhat long-winded reminiscence so that you may believe when I say: “theater” and “film” are two entirely different beasts.
As an adaptation of an absurdist bit of theater, the fine points of Hippopotamus‘ plot are inconsequential. Indeed, my summary above could probably be trimmed by a word or two. That said, I regret to inform you even the incredible talent of Gene Wilder on screen fails to compensate for the scattershot approach O’Horgan takes off of it. Half of it is too stagey—with an unfortunate tilt toward “zany”—which compromises Rhinoceros in two ways. First, the handful of scenes of rhino-related destruction and transformation come across as, “Look at how off-the-wall and Damn-the-conventions we are!” Second, Rhinoceros is only a comedy in the same way that Waiting for Godot is: the small snippets of absurd humor are only there to (thinly) paper over the underlying message about the dispiriting pointlessness of life.
On occasion, though, O’Horgan manages to hit the right tone. A scene with Stanley, Gene Wilder’s character, slinking—late—into the office after a discussion about Race, Religion, Capitalism, and Other Topics Found In Plays, crescendos into some buffoonery. It is immediately followed by a haunting interlude where Stanley leaves a subway car, elbowing past faceless masses, passed by faceless pedestrians and workers as he walks the streets. They aren’t actually faceless, they just have hats, buckets, anything covering them. Like the guilty revelers after a crazy party, they shun others’ gazes as they realize the epidemic’s magnitude: who will be next? This is echoed in an altogether strange hallway walk through fear, hitting an apex with a dream sequence/musical number that finds Stanley in a zoo cage as his work-crush cavorts with his friend.
Rhinoceros is almost saved by the presence of Gene Wilder. He seems to be the only one who got the memo that this project was being recorded on film as a movie. As the scene demands, he has a subtlety of expression, a softness of tenor, or a naturalistic reaction to the absurdness around him. If O’Horgan had grasped this need for understatement, the movie would have been a Certifiable genius piece of work. As it stands, the viewer can only hope for snippets of unnerving pathos littered sparsely through a big dish of hammy excess.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…not ideal film material, being an example of the kind of theater of the absurd that should be played like old-time farce within a stylized, three-sided set or, perhaps, within no set at all. Even though the film never shows us any real rhinoceroses, the realism of the movie camera is undeniable. It reduces things absurd to the status of the merely silly.” –Vincent Canby, New York Times (contemporaneous)