Friday, August 24, 2012

Used Cars (1980)

“Used Cars” has one of the best jokes ever put on film. In it, Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is a used car salesman trying to raise ten grand to run for senate. What’s great is that Robert Zemeckis doesn’t make this a one-off joke. It carries on throughout the film. This isn’t a quirk of Rudy’s; it’s his goal.

That goal gets altered slightly when his boss, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), dies due to a heart attack. Knowing that his car lot will go to his brother, Roy (Jack Warden again, chewing up scenery in this role) and he’ll run it into the ground and spit on his brother’s life, Rudy and his gang of misfits bury Luke’s body in the backyard and tell everyone he went to Miami on vacation. He needs to keep up the charade until he raises the ten grand and figures out a way to keep the company away from Roy.

Luck be a lady in the form of Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon), Luke’s estranged daughter who shows up conveniently a day later looking for her father. Knowing the company will go to her in light of her father’s passing, Rudy keeps up the act for a few days until he figures out a way for the owner to officially pass away. I won’t spoil how he does so, but it’s quite brilliant!

As to be expected, Rudy and Barbara fall for each other. I was groaning at first, as her character felt like a forced love interest. Zemeckis crushes this notion by making her a pivotal character. It also helps that she and Russell have good chemistry together. There’s a scene at a restaurant where Rudy’s trying to prevent Barbara from seeing the President’s address, as his boys are going to interrupt the feed and air a commercial for the car lot. First, he fakes having breathing problems, but he constantly runs into another television set. He gives this charade up once the two are standing outside of an electronics store showing the address and smooches her for at least three minutes.

The best aspect of this film are the gags such as that. There are two times that Rudy and his crew interrupt a live feed to air an illegal commercial. The first is during a football game that ends with a woman’s bare breast being shown on television (to the delight of horndogs everywhere) and the second includes them destroying a few of Roy’s cars. Both generate big business for them and huge laughs for the audience!

Rudy’s crew aren’t just a few nameless faces. They bounce off of Kurt well and deserve their own breakdown. Gerrit Graham is Jeff, Rudy’s right-hand man who has his own right-hand dog (who he makes fake his own death in order to sell a car, which got the biggest laugh from me). Frank McRae is Jim, a foul-mouthed mechanic who has little social skills (he forces a customer into a car and basically orders him to buy it). David L. Lander and Michael McKean (that’s right, Lenny and Squiggy) are Freddie Paris and Eddie Winslow, the two technical wizards who do the network hacking (as well as a great gag involving a pacemaker).

All of these men bounce off of each other wonderfully and work well with Jack Warden (in both his portrayals)! They can’t hold a candle to his manically hilarious performance as Roy Fuchs, though. Russell can, but that’s because he’s one of the greatest men to ever grace this Earth (no matter what my roommate says). Even he struggles in spots to challenge Warden’s pitch perfect act. There’s something about his delightful glee in destroying other people’s lives that makes me chuckle.

I was afraid going into the film that it wouldn’t be able to sustain itself for an hour and fifty minutes. That fear went away about an hour in, as it seemed Zemeckis had a lot in the tank. Once the film hit the hour and a half mark, my original theory was proven correct. The final twenty minutes seriously drag and almost crash the film’s goodwill that had been built up. The idea itself was good (get a mile of cars to the car lot before the judge arrives to shut them down for false advertising), but it’s played out too long. All of the jokes incorporated within are also very lousy (Jeff’s hatred of driving red cars was eye roll inducing). It’s a shame that the film had so much going for it in the first three quarters, but skidded by on empty for the finale.

It’s not enough to ruin the film by any means. There’s no denying that “Used Cars” is an extremely funny movie… during the first three quarters. During that period, the jokes come at a rapid pace and almost always connect. Once the film reaches it’s conclusion, Zemeckis loses sight of what made the film fun. I can’t complain too much, though. The hour and a half of the film that did work was amazing!

MVT: Kurt Russell. Do I even need to state why?

Make or Break: The first mention of Rudy’s dream of running for senate. It showed that this wasn’t just a dumb comedy (no offense meant). It was witty and quite brilliant.

Final Score: 7.75/10

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