S.O.B. August 4, 2016
To rip apart the phoniness of Hollywood through satire is a ballsy endeavor, especially when the person doing the ripping is one of the most successful names contributing to Tinsel Town’s well-oiled machine. Back in 1981, writer/director Blake Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther) had the intrepidity to lampoon the industry that allowed for him to nourish his greatest artistic instincts for decades. Resulting is S.O.B., a nutty skewering that bruises as much as it cavorts Edwards’s own inaccessible personal frustrations.
Much of the film feels autobiographical. The protagonist is a frustrated filmmaker whose later career has struggled in matching his earlier successes. His wife is a Julie Andrews type played by none other than Julie Andrews herself, who was married to Edwards for over forty years. A lot of the supporting cast is comprised of past collaborators and old friends. And yet a rascally ambience prevails; sharp-tongued mockery is more S.O.B.’s brand, not bitterness.
But while it’s pointed and sardonically witty in ways only a comedy maestro of Edwards’s caliber could project, the film never lives up to its brilliantly facetious promise. Edwards goes for nervy scintillation and mostly delivers — but because his satirical edges are widely targeted instead of spikily specific, he never cuts Hollywood quite as deeply (or as painfully) as we’d like him to. Too many characters move in and out of the plot; too many imbalances in pure slapstick and wacky absurdism leave a definite tone questionable.
However many pitfalls stand in the way of S.O.B.’s being designated as a masterpiece, though, it’s still an interestingly splashy film, in part to Edwards’s willingness to eviscerate his profession, and in part to the acerbic dialogue and the caustic performances. The infinitely better Victor Victoria would come just a year later, and would prove to be Edwards’s last great feature and Andrews’s last juicy (and Oscar nominated) role. But S.O.B. gives its maker a chance to parody his own experiences, and gives its leading lady the opportunity to spitefully revoke her squeaky clean image — and that’s good enough for me.
The film covers the behind-the-scenes drama of the production of “Night Wind,” the latest project backed by Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan), a phenomenally successful movie producer. Throughout his decades long career, Felix has acquired a reputation of perfection; all of his pictures have been notable moneymakers and have mostly proved to be critical hits. But his latest excursion was a massive flop, mocked by all and big enough of a disaster to cause execs to worry about his bankability.
Initially, Felix takes the vilification hard; a short time after the “tragedy” does he become manically suicidal. But after a flash of inspiration, he decides that “Night Wind,” conceived as a musical vehicle for his wife (Andrews), will only win him back his commercial prowess if transformed into a sex farce. Not a timid one, either, but a soft core pornographic romp with its musical score very much intact. Wild, maybe. But maybe wild enough to earn his spot at the top of the corporate ladder once again. Convincing his wife to go topless, and convincing his director (William Holden) to go along with his batty overhauls, is a different, longer story.
Additionally rife with balmy side characters — I particular took a liking to Loretta Swift’s bitchy gossip columnist Polly Reed and Robert Preston’s zingy Dr. Irving Finegarten — S.O.B. is always energetic and always intriguing, just lackadaisical when it comes to overarching focus. (And it doesn’t develop movie-within-a-movie “Night Wind” well enough to make it as funny a hot button issue as it could be.) But the film’s inconsistencies don’t harm its overall effect as a stinging satire all that much; its intellect is never to be questioned, and Edwards’s modern screwball staging never ceases to light up the premises.
It just never rises above being a likable vanity project — it’s cutting and it’s self-aware, but it’s also untidy and unfocused. I’m fond of S.O.B.’s acidic wiles, though, and, for what’s it’s worth, it’s a batshit force. C+