If you remember a time when Robert Zemeckis was known for “balls to the wall” comedies, before Forrest Gump, The Polar Express and all the computer generated creepy-bloaty digital creations he got involved with, then you remember Used Cars, recently released on DVD/Blu-Ray from Twilight Time. It was a time of “seat-of –your-pants, barely-making-it, scrappy-renegade, throw-enough-stuff-against-the-wall-that-you-hope-something-sticks” filmmaking, and thankfully, we have Used Cars as one of the better examples of this short-lived comedy movement.
Thanks specifically to SCTV (Second City’s late night television show – home to Eugene Levy, John Candy and Rick Moranis) Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon’s Lemmings touring show, there was a movement of in your face, counter-culture, subversive humor from the mid 1970s through the early ‘80s that strived to be both anti-intellectual and cutting edge. Fresh out of film school, the young Turk directors from USC and UCLA who defied authority and found their chief point of view intentionally “ironic,” directors like John Landis, Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante and believe it or not, a young Steven Spielberg, wanted to make their mark in cinema with a raw and raunchy sensibility. Fueled by the continued discontent with government and corporate greed that was the hallmark of 1970s outsider cinema, they desired to have a different, “alternative” take on America’s many hallowed traditions. First came John Landis with his sketch comedy film review, Kentucky Fried Movie; a kind of darker, more cynical satire of media than even Saturday Night Live dared to imagine. Landis followed the midnight movie success of KFM with 1978’s Animal House, the first bonafide “gonzo” film, which even featured John Belushi, one of the original “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” of SNL that was just catching on.
“Gonzo” was an ethos that the writers and performers from SNL adopted from journalist Hunter S. Thompsen, which was characterized by an inflated male bravado, complete disregard for authority and social/political satire. Many of the very young writers and filmmakers of the time also adopted this short-lived attitude, and identified with the sacred cow skewering that SNL eventually made famous.
The same year that Animal House exploded on the American psyche, Robert Zemeckis’ freshman directorial effort, I Wanna Hold Your Hand offered a sweeter, if less than accurate depiction of the hysteria surrounding the British Invasion, but also cynically riffed on that naïve early ‘60s period before Vietnam laid waste to the white man’s previous held notions of safety and trust. In his first outing, Zemeckis satirizes the conservative male majority who wanted their sons to get haircuts and burn records by those four mop tops. This re-writing of early 60s Americana was in line with the same Animal House ethos.
Meanwhile, Spielberg directed his first box office disaster, 1941, a gonzo skewering of another sacred cow, the blind patriotism of WWII on the home front, penned by Zemeckis and his writing partner, Bob Gale. While ticket sales for these comedies were hit and miss, these directors continued to pump out their own un-PC, T&A projects. Most of these films have become cult classics, and their continuing success in home video and DVD attest to their longevity. In fact, while Spielberg’s 1980s work as a director remained painfully safe, looking at the films he produced gives a much different picture of the cutting-edge projects he may not have had the courage to helm, but that he ultimately believed in (Continental Divide, Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Money Pit and Joe vs. The Volcano). His first and second outings as producer “only,” were I Wanna Hold your Hand and Used Cars, the freshman and sophomore projects of director and buddy Robert Zemeckis.
Used Cars, released the same year as Airplane! and The Blues Brothers, had all the earmarks of a success. It reflected that hardcore raunch that R rated films heartily embraced, back when the freedom of graphic sex and language was celebrated, not shied away from. It also featured Kurt Russell as a dodgy, unscrupulous used car salesman who will do anything to make a sale. Russell was desperate to redefine his persona, which through the 1970s had been “that Disney kid.” Looking back now, it was a smart and prescient move on his part, but could’ve been too far off the grid for audiences to feel safe.
And feeling safe is what Zemeckis and partner Bob Gale definitely did NOT want the viewer to feel. Used Cars embraces antiheroes just as much as antagonists. In fact, in the DVD’s audio commentary, Zemeckis admits “….Used Cars is a classic Frank Capra movie, except everybody lies. (Kurt Russell is like) Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, but totally corrupt.” And this is a very apt take on the whole film.
Two used car lots are in a fierce rivalry. New Deal Used Cars, the scrappy underdog, is run by kindly but simple Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), whose small sales staff includes Russell as corrupt Rudy Russo, Gerrit Graham as superstitious sex addict Jeff, hyper intelligent dog Toby, and clueless mechanic Jim, last seen in Spielberg’s 1941. Across the way is Roy’s Used Car lot, the high-end, bells and whistles, rival lot, run by Roy L. Fuchs, evil and corrupt brother of Luke, (also, hysterically played by Jack Warden). Roy is doing everything he can to wrest control of Luke’s lot from him, especially because unbeknownst to everyone but Roy, there’s a freeway coming through, with an offramp planned to dump right in front of Luke’s lot.
Meanwhile, smooth talking Russo (Russell) has dreams of a state senate seat, and needs seed money to start his campaign (His motto: “Trust Me”). Kindly Luke agrees to loan Russo the money, but not before he can die of a heart attack (initiated by a hilarious, darker-than-dark stunt orchestrated by evil brother Roy). In order to keep Luke’s death a secret, Russo and Jeff bury Luke in a pit behind the garage in his favorite Edsel that once sat atop the car lot sign. Rudy knows something’s up and does everything he can to discover his dead brother’s whereabouts.
Enter Luke’s long-lost daughter who arrives hoping to visit “daddy,” which Russo keeps her in the dark about as much as possible. Against this farcical story, is the backdrop of the lot, which offers many opportunities for Russell and Graham to play out scam after scam in order to make deals. Turning the odometer backwards, sticking gum on a bumper to keep it hanging on, even faking little Toby’s death are all fair game in order to sell cars. And we root for these sleazeballs the whole way through.
Strippers, violence and explosions are used as advertising strategies opposite evil Roy’s transparent circus and carnival acts (a tip of the hat to Southern California icon Cal Worthington). In fact, the highlight of the film are the two inadvertent “R” rated commercials the guys shoot, then illegally break into TV broadcasts of a football game and Presidential Address to advertise. Their tech savvy hacker pals happen to be played by Michael McKean and David L.Lander, then known from Laverne & Shirley as Lenny & Squiggy.
While the film revels in its frat boy humor and irreverent satire, it does wallow in the cheesiest of period trappings including disco, shag haircuts and sadly, a misogyny that comes with the territory. Leading lady Deborah Harmon is not much more than a plot device, and completely and unapologetically one note. As well, the first half of the film is stronger than the second, as a cross-desert car race feels more like Smokey & The Bandit and less in line with the story that was so well plotted in the set-up
Still and all, there’s something nostalgic about the whole affair, especially seeing Wendi Jo Sperber (from I Wanna Hold Your Hand and 1941) as the annoying driver’s Ed student, and SCTV’s Joe Flaherty as the government stooge.
Twilight Time’s Limited Edition Blu-ray of Used Car’s is a small treasure all its own. The video transfer is beautiful, and the extras are excellent, including insightful audio commentary by Zemeckis, Gale and Kurt Russell, a series of radio commercials that perfectly reflect the times, as well as some local car commercials Kurt Russell appears in for the lot that the production actually shot on. There’s also a gag reel that is obviously assembled from an old 16mm workprint, unintentionally hilarious due to its shoddy editing and slapdash, lo-fi quality.
Used Cars was definitely the beginning of the end for the gonzo comedy style. Three years later, Animal House’s Landis would direct the very conventional Trading Places with Eddie Murphy, Zemeckis would helm the very successful and very traditional rom-com Romancing the Stone, and Spielberg would produce safer more mainstream family fare. Sad attempts in recent years have been produced in hopes of revitalizing the genre (can anyone say the odious Movie 43?) but it will take a confluence of great talent to once again reinvent this movement.