½*/**** Image B Sound B Extras B
starring Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Bill Murray
screenplay by Brian Doyle-Murray & Harold Ramis & Doug Kenney
directed by Harold Ramis
SPIES LIKE US
*/**** Image D+ Sound C+
starring Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Forrest, Donna Dixon
screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel
directed by John Landis
**½/**** Image C+ Sound C+
starring Chevy Chase, Madolyn Smith, Joseph Maher, Jack Gilpin
screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, based on the book by Jay Cronley
directed by George Roy Hill
by Walter Chaw Mean-spirited and essentially ugly, the inexplicably revered Caddyshack can be handily summarized by two moments with Chevy Chase's Ty Webb--the first when he waggles his tongue lasciviously at a random woman walking by, the next when he says to town pump Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan), "I've got an idea, let's pretend we're real human beings." One identifies the general tenor of the piece as angry and cynical, the other as comedy dependant almost entirely--when it's not angry and cynical--on arrogance and smugness. (The epitome of the latter might be Bill Murray's mush-mouthed Carl the groundskeeper staring right at Harold Ramis's bland camera in the midst of a torrential rainstorm.) Largely, proudly improvised by a gang of hedonistic assholes at the peak of their insufferability, it's the fallout of "Saturday Night Live"'s drug-fuelled, experimental-verging-on-hallucinogenic early years, which had felt like the last bastion of the counterculture.
There's little excitement left by the time of Caddyshack as the first group goes out in a blaze of high-concept, solipsistic glory--indeed, their shtick already looks stagnant and self-congratulatory, moving in two short years from the glorious anarchy of Animal House to this placeholder until a renaissance of sorts with such thorny, barbed comedies as National Lampoon's Vacation, This is Spinal Tap, and Revenge of the Nerds. Shit like Caddyshack and contemporaries The Blues Brothers and Stripes have attained a cult following without the commensurate entertainment value to justify it. They're prefab reactions to the success of Animal House and an instant ticket to borrowed relevance for the rest of the SNL irregulars. They're nostalgia pieces and were back then, too. In thirty years, doubtless we'll be staring down the barrel at identically tone-deaf canonizations of Happy Madison's catalogue.
The story, if you give a shit, has wrong-side-of-the-tracks caddy Danny (Michael O'Keefe) trying to better his lot in life by kissing up to unctuous Judge Smails (Ted Knight) but discovering his true calling at the feet of Zen guru Webb. In a related subplot, Danny fucks Smails's niece Lacey but discovers his true love in mousy Irish girlfriend Maggie (Sarah Holcomb, memorable as the victim of exuberant statutory rape in Animal House, saddled here with a disastrous, literally career-ending accent). In an unrelated subplot, Carl tries to blow up a poorly-articulated gopher puppet that likes to soil the grounds of country club "Bushwood" (hilarious, am I right?) and occasionally dance to Kenny Loggins's always-was-terrible music. Caddyshack is a piecework thing, jerking along from one sketch to the next without much wisdom and only really coming alive when Morgan shows her tits or Rodney Dangerfield, as an unwelcome guest of the club, does practically his entire nightclub act. Defenders of the film will say that coherence is beside the point; defenders of the film are by and large idiots. Without a story arc, what's left is a collection of hastily-drawn characters we're expected to cheer engaged in repugnant acts that have nothing to do with any other repugnant act in the film. Perhaps understanding that there's no reason to watch without characters or tension, Caddyshack dutifully provides two separate, poorly-edited golf tournaments in which our hero Danny comes through in his catatonic, high-asshole way. The only thing O'Keefe's glib sleepwalk does, in fact, is identify the archetype for John Krasinski on "The Office". An attempt to catch the jetstream coming off Animal House, Caddyshack underscores by its enervation Animal House's overall excellence.
Even Animal House director John Landis, to be fair, found Animal House a tough act to follow, only ever coming close with his brilliant An American Werewolf in London and certainly not getting into the same ballpark with his inert, flaccid, bloated Spies Like Us. Proposing to take the piss out of Reagan vs. the Evil Empire, the picture finds incompetent CIA spooks Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chevy Chase) and Austin Millbarge (Dan Aykroyd) bringing down the Star Wars defense initiative while inadvertently making enemies of all of Pakistan in the process. In hindsight, it's not bad as far as prophecy goes, but it's dry as a soda cracker in terms of execution. Aykroyd, fresh off his identical performance in Ghostbusters (and on the way to his identical performance in Dragnet), and Chase, in one of his three identical performances from 1985 alone, prove no Hope & Crosby, even by that legendary duo's low standards. Between explicitly referencing the Road flicks (Hope has a cameo, God help us) and manufacturing ridiculous pseudonyms for Chase and Aykroyd, the general feeling of the piece is one of, again, extreme arrogance and solipsism. The view from the top of the mountain is nice--too bad it lasts so briefly. I think the reason their breakout films Foul Play and Beverly Hills Cop worked is that Chase and Eddie Murphy, respectively, having left SNL at the peak of their popularity, had yet to figure out that less effort made absolutely no immediate impact on their financial viability--and yet to decide that if legacy was the only thing at stake in their career choices, well, who cares what happens in twenty-some years when, if you haven't died, you're doing Christmas with the Kranks and Hot Tub Time Machine and may as well have?
Emmett and Austin masquerade as preeminent surgeons, to the consternation of an international aid group led by comely Karen (Donna Dixon, later Mrs. Aykroyd) and featuring, in a bit of Landis's trademark inside-baseball humour, Terry Gilliam. (Constantin Costa-Gavras, Sam Raimi, Ray Harryhausen, Martin Brest, Joel Coen, Landis regular Frank Oz, and still others also pop up to the delight of film-geek trainspotters.) Turns out Karen is herself a spy--like us, get it?--and becomes the Dorothy Lamour our raffish pair chases around the armpit of the world. Once in the Soviet Union proper, the picture predicts the opening sequence of The Living Daylights, complete with a jumpsuit-over-bra peek-a-boo session and a ton of explosions that don't add up to a whole lot except that for as stupid as the Russians appear to be, the Americans are that much stupider. Corrupt, too. The Americans, that is, save our irascible core of irrepressible assholes, who, using their pluck and curious lack of comic timing, manage to first launch, then "recall," an intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at the United States. Dark comedy? Not really dark, not really funny. Satire? Of what, the madness of mutually assured destruction? I'd rather just watch WarGames again. Spies Like Us turns out to be nothing more than a nostalgia trip for people my age who remember seeing it in theatres and, because we were twelve, thinking it was hilarious. The Eighties were full of great movies. This ain't one of them.
Neither is George Roy Hill's swan song Funny Farm, but, as written by oddly affecting screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, the scribe behind one of my faves (The Dead Zone) and the better-than-they-should-be Innerspace and The Lost Boys, it comes off as one home-run short of a cycle. Chase in this one is Andy, a retiring sportswriter who, with wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith) in tow, buys a house in rural New England in order to chase his dream of becoming a novelist. Seduced by their seclusion and the lie of a bucolic, Norman Rockwellian existence, they're soon confronted with hostile and insane townsfolk and the realities of being far removed from modern conveniences and services. Of the throwback films of the decade, pair this with Peggy Sue Got Married as movies that use Thomas Wolfe's lament of not being able to go home again correctly in a sentence--as in, from the book, "you can't go back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." What Andy and Elizabeth learn is that the America of their dreams is corrupt with provincialism inbred with scary ignorance and anti-intellectualism, making Funny Farm a fairly withering satire of not merely flyover America but, in the character of a stiff-upper-lip book publisher, the Georgetown elite as well. It makes the resolution, wherein Andy and Elizabeth discover that the only succour available in the midst of the disappointed expectations of every other aspect of their existence is the consistency of their disappointment in each other, very bleak indeed.
Surprisingly funny, too, as buried in here among duck reaction shots and blatant hicksploitation is a scene where an old dog digs up a skeletal arm and receives a frying pan to the head as a reward; or another in which Elizabeth delivers her honest opinion of Andy's life's work; or another when the townspeople of this nightmare burg are bribed into acting like SATURDAY EVENING POST covers in a startling recognition, among other things, that Rockwell's paintings were more than a little fucked up to begin with. The good old days weren't always good--and by this point in the '80s, the cracks were beginning to show in Reagan's Morning in America. Chase's angry/ugly persona is punished soundly in the picture (which is satisfying), as are his character's prejudices and foibles, leading to a nice moment at a town hall where everyone's revealed at base to be driven by self-interest. It's that core of ugliness that colours a good many films from this later part of the Me Generation (like Wall Street, for instance, or Blood Simple, or Aliens, or Bull Durham, or...), and its recognition and harsh refutation in Funny Farm suggests a complicated relationship between the film, its genre, its star, and its zeitgeist. It's the closest Chase comes to what Bill Murray began to strive towards with The Razor's Edge: this handshake agreement with their respective personas that says the only reward for that kind of aggressive unpleasantness is failure, forced isolation, and loneliness until death. Fifteen years later, while Murray was starring in a mumblecore classic about a guy going to Japan to film a commercial, Chase was actually shilling Turkish soda.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Caddyshack arrives on Blu-ray in a sharp 1.78:1, 1080p transfer that suffers mainly from "The Love Boat"-style cinematography by Stevan Larner, who, having worked for Terrence Malick, really has no excuse. A film with virtually no depth of field, it's been converted to HiDef with flat detail and nonexistent dynamic range intact (shots seem to have either high-key lighting or none at all), although the colours are so pumped-up that the image is as garish and cheap as a five-dollar whore. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD audio is overkill by definition and only the lamentable Loggins tunes benefit from the remix and lossless codec. Dialogue is tinny as ever--credit is due the techs, I suppose, for never allowing Johnny Mandel's ridiculous score to overwhelm it. Special features begin with "The 19th Hole" (31 mins., SD), a retrospective making-of ported over from the most recent DVD release of the flick. Ramis is front-and-centre therein, recalling how he didn't know what he was doing and how every member of the production was drunk and fucking all the time.
The Biography Channel's "The Inside Story" (81 mins., HD) is a more current and comprehensive look back in which O'Keefe comes on, acts like a grade-A asshole ("If you run into me, don't call me Noonan"--he's right, "paunchy, balding, middle-aged douchebag" has a better ring of truth to it), and sulks off again, but not before telling of a time when he was approached, pissed about being recognized, and then mollified by a story of bringing happiness to a dying stupid guy. Guess I'm an asshole, too. A quick bit on the (maybe) suicide of producer/NATIONAL LAMPOON editor Douglas Kenney a few weeks after Caddyshack opened begs a ton of questions, particularly as Kenney is said to have faced both personal disappointment in seeing his would-be sensitive coming-of-age flick morph into a showcase for a gopher puppet and Bill Murray's rambling improvs and professional disappointment in seeing the finished product almost uniformly greeted with accurate but allegedly blinkered pans. Fatalistically-speaking, I'm thinking Kenney had reason to off himself either way. A vintage trailer, proffered in HD but in not-good shape, rounds out the platter.
Spies Like Us and Funny Farm dock on the same side of a dual-layered Blu-ray in 1.78:1, 1080p presentations that are, shall we say, less than wonderful. Spies Like Us, especially, sucks, with our heroes completely indistinguishable from the giant dark-blue blur of the background as they do a night drop in an early scene. Black levels are way off, colours are drab, detail is soft, and the grain structure is often mushy; I never owned this little gem on VHS, but now I have the experience simulated for me in next-gen fashion! (My supposition is that the transfer was sourced from a print rather than something closer to the negative.) Funny Farm fares marginally better in that while everything still looks like it was shot through a nylon stretched over the camera lens, it doesn't also look like it was left in a barrel for twenty years. While the accompanying DTS-HD 2.0 tracks--mistakenly tagged Dolby TrueHD on the packaging--aren't any more poised to impress (obvious hiss is the primary hallmark of both), there's something to be said for preserving the original mixes sans restoration in lossless audio instead of remixing them for same. There are no extras, period. Originally published: July 19, 2010.
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