Sunday, June 6, 2010

New on Blu: "Caddyshack"

There’s an interesting moment on the retrospective documentary that accompanies the new Blu-ray release of the classic comedy Caddyshack, in which director Harold Ramis notes that, whether on purpose or not, they made their version of a Marx Brothers comedy—with Rodney Dangerfield playing Groucho, Bill Murray as their Harpo, and Chevy Chase filling Chico’s shoes. While one might argue with the cleanness of that particular assignment of roles (the Murray/Harpo comparison is apt, but Dangerfield’s Al Czervik is closer to W.C. Fields—who knew a thing or two about golf comedy—while Chase’s Ty Webb is more the eyebrow-wiggling Groucho role), it does bring into sharp focus the specific reason why Caddyshack works as well as it does, and remains such a beloved comedy to so many different people: there’s something in it for everyone. Much of the key to the Marx magic was that the three brothers each represented a unique style of comedy—Groucho the fast-talking intellectual wiseguy, Chico the punning dialect comic, and Harpo the Chaplinesque silent movie pantomime. The three comedic superstars of Caddyshack offer similar diversity; the picture alternates between Dangerfield’s Catskill-style one-liners, Murray’s low comedy slapstick, and Chase’s slick, edgy, all-smiles attitude, tossed into a snobs-versus-slobs narrative that dates back past Animal House to the comedies of Fields and the Marxes (with Ted Knight a blowhard combination of Sig Ruman and Margaret Dumont).

The film was co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, of whom The New Yorker wrote, “What Elvis did for rock and Eminem did for rap, Harold Ramis did for attitude: he mass-marketed the sixties to the seventies and eighties. He took his generation’s anger and curiosity and laziness and woolly idealism and gave it a hyper-articulate voice.” There was something in the comedic air in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an anarchic spirit, a laid-back smarm, floating through the pages of National Lampoon and the airwaves of Saturday Night Live, and in his screenplays and directorial efforts, Ramis distilled it into a distinctive comic voice. Caddyshack marked his directorial debut, an opportunity he was given following the phenomenal success of his screenplay for Animal House, which he wrote with Chris Miller and Caddyshack’s co-writer and producer, Douglas Kenney. Joining Ramis and Kenney for this script was writer/actor Brian Doyle Murray, who drew inspiration from his years working as a caddy (often with his brothers, including co-star Bill) at an upscale Illinois country club.

Doyle-Murray’s surrogate in the film is Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), an easygoing kid whose only real motivation is going to college so he doesn’t have to work at his dad’s lumberyard. He works as a caddy at snooty Bushwood Country Club, which is ruled with an iron fist by Judge Smails (Knight); Danny most frequently caddies for Ty Webb (Chase), a Zen millionaire who doesn’t keep score. Danny tries to get on the Judge’s good side so that he can land the “caddy scholarship,” though even he can’t help but succumb to the temptations of the Judge’s sexy niece, Lacey Underall (Cindy Mortan), or enjoy the antics of Al Czervik (Dangerfield), the vulgarian condo millionaire who quickly becomes Smails’s nemesis.

And then there’s Carl Spackler (Murray), the foul, mumble-mouthed assistant greenskeeper, whose battle with a resilient gopher gives the picture the closest thing it can muster to a “structure.” The story goes that the gopher stuff was imposed late in the process, when the improvisational additions of the star comics in the cast cut the original through-line (Danny’s coming of age) down to the bone. That’s clearly the right call—O’Keefe is likable enough, but his subplot with Sarah Holcomb (and her inexplicable accent) is a real clanger, and most of the caddy characters who surround them (particularly Scott Colomby’s chain-smoking, silk-shirt wearing Italian stereotype) are either forgettable or intolerable. (Those scenes are ultimately about as memorable as the Zeppo/Allan Jones interludes in the Marx comedies—and do about as little damage to the picture overall.)

Some of Ramis’s staging has a novice clunkiness to it, like the all-lined-up-in-a-row blocking of the Knight/Dangerfield/Chase clubhouse scene, though he does occasionally liven up the frame with a clever background gag (like Spaulding hacking away and cursing behind Danny and the Judge). And there is a bit of desperation to the big game/big explosions climax, where we basically see a film that’s spit in the face of structure thrashing about for an ending (when your story’s not going anywhere in particular, it feels awfully silly when you get there).

But let’s be honest, it’s not like any of that matters. A thirty-year-old comedy doesn’t survive this long and become this beloved because it’s so structurally sound; it perseveres because it is funny, wicked funny, laugh-out-loud funny, quote-it-with-your-friends funny. “Oh, this is the worst-looking hat I ever saw. When you buy a hat like this I bet you get a free bowl of soup!... Oh, it looks good on you though.” “Cinderella story, outta nowhere...” “Don't sell yourself short Judge, you're a tremendous slouch.” “I hear this place is restricted, Wang, so don't tell 'em you're Jewish, okay?” “So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.” “I've sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn't want to do it. I felt I owed it to them.” “Your uncle molests collies.” “Oh, this your wife, huh? A lovely lady. Hey baby, you must've been something before electricity.” And so on. The throwaway gags and goofy one-liners have aged better than the big comic set pieces (like the barf in the car or the candy bar in the pool), but that’s part of the blackout-revue quality of the picture—if this bit doesn’t work for you, another one will come along directly. That’s the beauty of Caddyshack; the jokes come too fast for you to spend much time lamenting the ones that don’t land.

The music and fashions may be a little dated (okay, a lot dated), but thirty years after its initial release, Caddyshack remains fresh, funky, and deliriously funny, thanks to the inventiveness of the free-for-all screenplay and the comic energy and ingenuity of its stars, each of them playing as though they’re successfully stealing the picture. It’s a bit of a mess, sure, but its looseness contributes to its considerable, spunky charm; there may be more disciplined comedies out there, but there aren’t many that are funnier than this one.

"Caddyshack" debuts on Blu-ray this Tuesday, June 8th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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