Putney Swope May 10, 2021
Robert Downey, Sr.
1 Hr., 24 Mins.
utney Swope (1969), iconoclastic writer-director Robert Downey, Sr.,’s most enduringly popular movie, is an indefatigably energetic but unfocused satire — a farce whose prioritization of comic mania over clear ideological purpose ultimately thwarts the provocative originality of its opening stretch. It’s a comedy where the narrative’s set-up is better than its follow-through. Shot for little and in black and white,
the movie is set in the New York City advertising milieu. It’s another tiresome day in the office at the firm in which most of the movie is set when Putney Swope opens. Its almost entirely white, conservative, middle-aged, and male executive board is half-heartedly planning a new campaign for one of its tentpole drinks. “A glass of beer is pee-pee dickie!” a guest spokesperson offers as one possible tagline.
The day’s tedium shocks awake when the chairman of the board drops dead mid-sentence. None of the men bearing witness to his demise reacts with seriousness. To them, it’s more instinctual to immediately take a vote for his replacement than call 9-1-1. Without missing a beat, these men unceremoniously scribble their picks on paper scraps and drop them into a passed-around hat, careful to avoid the corpse still heaving over the conference-room table. Even more attention is stolen from the late chair when, by accident, the vote reveals that his replacement will be this executive board’s sole Black member: the cynical Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson). The film’s opening scene might be its finest. Its cockeyed line deliveries and dry absurdism feel predictive — redolent, even — of the style of “alternative” comedy to flourish in the 2010s while also sharply satirizing marketing-world shallowness. (Directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Jim Jarmusch have also cited the film as influential on their own crafts.)
Swope, who speaks like a grumpy ashtray, assures his colleagues that he isn’t going to rock the boat. (Johnson had some trouble memorizing his lines, so Downey, Sr., dubbed his dialogue himself.) But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some shaking, we learn. By the next day, Swope has replaced the firm’s majority-white staffers with a Black batch of employees (save for a couple of token whites), has renamed the place Truth and Soul, Inc., and refuses on principle to sell tobacco, alcohol, and toy guns. Swope gets more authoritarian as the film wears on. (The disjointed-as-it-is storyline is broken up by clever, echt late-’60s parodies of contrivedly hip ad placements, shot in color.) Swope’s staff — whose ideologies range from capitalist complacence to radical leftism — gets more restless. It’s hard to be very successfully subversive when the systems worked under aren't dismantled entirely and instead just loosely reworked.
Putney Swope plays into its era’s white, conservative paranoia around Black radicalists attaining “too much power” and then inserting themselves into — and usurping the white powers that be from — powerful institutions. The problem with the movie is that, although it makes plenty of fun out of the fundamentally misconceived anxieties behind these fears, it doesn’t do much beyond that. Because Downey, Sr., doesn’t that meaningfully ruminate over the hypotheticals he poses, the movie has a hollowness, though its anarchic look (guided by odd shooting angles and a fondness for bouncy handheld camerawork) and feel still have an ahead-of-their-time electricity. Downey, Sr.,’s approach, foundationally flawed as it is, is remarkably original, neo-Duchampian. You can feel his mind spinning its wheels to think of new ways to take the hot air out of anything that dares step in front of the camera. But his frequently exciting-to-watch presentational inventiveness can only do so much. Although absurdism isn’t off limits in satire, it must be countered with incisiveness to work. Putney Swope chronically doodles. It’s eager to laugh at its various invoked subjects and themes without ever really examining them beyond how they might serve a prankish, surface-level gag. B+