Drew McWeeny of HitFix contributed a series of columns about the essential titles that any film fan ought to be familiar with, and I used to respond with my own thoughts in a timely manner. However, I've been working on this entry of The Basics since August of 2010, so it's fair to say that it will be my last post as part of the series... in addition to serving as my last post as part of the Cinematical staff.
I imagine that you have some questions.
If you're wondering what "The Basics" is, I implore you to go back and read that preface again, if not the four posts preceding this one. If you're wondering where "The Basics" went, well, it went on my back burner for far too long. If you're wondering where "The Basics" is going, keep your eyes on Drew's own corner of the internet, as he intends to bring the series back, and soon.
In the meantime, I recommend checking out Jacob Hall's like-minded column here, "Where Everyone Has Gone Before." This whippersnapper's been writing circles around me for a while now, and I encourage you all to continue reading his work...
But not before you finish reading mine, damn it.
For whatever reason -- probably because I felt like a change of pace after the B&W likes of 'Rumble Fish' and 'Manhattan' and 'Duck Soup' -- Drew picked the certainly colorful 'Used Cars' as our follow-up. I've seen my fair share of films directed by Robert Zemeckis, but beyond the immaculate 'Back to the Future,' I hadn't really appreciated the few screenplays co-written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale. What this film and, later on, '1941' made me realize was what kind of craft Zemeckis used to bring to his screenplays, a special effect in and of itself that has since been eclipsed by his preoccupation with advancing on-screen technology to increasingly eerie effect.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. 'Used Cars' starts with a dream: Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) wants to run for office. More importantly, he's willing to do anything and everything to get off the used car lot at which he's currently glad-handing customers, if not outright duping them. Owner Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) doesn't support Rudy's proudly amoral approach, but he loves the kid and he'll do anything to keep his brother, Roy (also Warden), from putting the lot out of business. Of course, Roy's even sneakier and manages to have the already frail Luke agitated into having a heart attack, forcing Rudy to take drastic measures in order to move that metal.
I was initially won over by the film's ribald yet affable sense of humor and charming cast. (Russell's perfectly cocky/charming/desperate here, and between this and 'Phantom of the Paradise,' I'm starting to form a soft spot for the wide-eyed antics of Gerrit Graham.) Rudy knows that sex sells, and that the right lie can not just sell a car, but save the day; to see our "hero" show up in court and convince Luke's daughter and heir apparent (Deborah Harmon) to lie under oath in a last-ditch effort to salvage their business only reinforces the casual refrain of "Trust me" that seems to issue from every last liar's mouth at some point. It's a refreshingly skewed view of the American Dream post-Watergate, mid-Iran hostage crisis: the only honest men here are soon dead, and some of these hucksters who openly criticize the government are merely thousands of dollars and votes away from being the target of constant cynicism rather than the culprit for a change.
However, I wasn't prepared for the scale of the film's climax. For all intents and purposes, 'Used Cars' starts out as a small comedy that volleys from one side of the street to another, but Zemeckis and Gale go for broke with a desert-set, 250-car race to the finish line that I would've expected from '1941' or 'The Blues Brothers,' not from this. It's great, though, as a stunt spectacle full of people jumping between cars and cars ramping over trains, as an opportunity to finally pay off several smaller gags, and as an excuse to introduce a much-needed ticking-clock element to the otherwise shaggy proceedings.
Few modern comedies bother with such a calculated and satisfying sense of escalation, instead dawdling their way to the two-hour mark (I'm looking at you, Judd Apatow). More disappointingly, Zemeckis hasn't bothered to write anything in the past two decades that even attempts to match the playful nature of his work here. Granted, neither he nor Gale have to prove themselves anymore, but it'd be nice to see them step away from the temptations of motion-capture and back towards making comedies that genuinely reward an audience for their time and trust.
Usually, I'd sign off with the phrase "Until next time..." followed by a quote from whatever movie I was covering. I suppose there's little use in maintaining the sentiment, though. I've had a good run here. I'm grateful to Drew for allowing me to pick up the dropped baton that was "The Basics," even if things did taper off in the end on my part. I'm beyond beholden to Erik and Scott for giving me the opportunity to find my voice before such a staggering audience. And finally, I'm thankful to Rudy Russo for encouraging me to follow my dreams and finally run for Senate.
Good night, everybody, and don't forget to vote Goss in 2012!