What's Up, Doc? April 16, 2015
If Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, and 1930s cinema don’t mean anything to you, then What’s Up, Doc? might not either. What’s Up, Doc? is so good, though, you may start caring about those films and those directors and that era. The 1940s had film noir, the ‘50s had decadent, hip romantic comedies, and the ‘60s started cute and then went a little crazy.
But the ‘30s had the screwball comedy, a subgenre in which every character speaks like they’re competing for the title of the world's fastest talker and routinely get themselves into situations you’d only find in your worst nightmares (e.g., cat-and-mouse games with leopards, falling in love with con artists/charming eccentrics). To the more lighthearted of viewers, there’s nothing better.
Apparently, Peter Bogdanovich thinks so too. He began his career as Martin Scorsese’s most critically revered peer (critically, that is) but slowly faded in terms of popularity and critical adoration (the last film he directed was The Cat’s Meow, a fluffer released in 2001).
Like Prince, Bogdanovich hit his peak at the beginning of his career, and, naturally, keeping early acclaim is not an easy task. One can hardly fault him for being a quintessential ‘70s director: he has given us some of the best movies ever made. It’s impossible to mention The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, or What’s Up, Doc? in the scope of cinematic history and only get a passing reaction.
But let’s talk about What’s Up, Doc? for a moment (or for the rest of the review). It was made between the heaviness of The Last Picture Show and the sardonicism of Paper Moon. Both were filmed in black-and-white, both were sad-funny (or just plain old sad), and both existed in a middle ground between bruising reality and sweeping cinematic fundamentals.
What’s Up, Doc? is the odd man out. It’s filmed in color, is a full-blown comedy, and has nothing to say about the culture except for a superiorly meta remark about Love Story. It’s a screwball comedy, though, and that’s part of the fun. It’s a cleverly conceived addition to an established genre that reigned all the way back to the days when Norma Shearer was still considered to be a big deal, and it works.
This time around, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are replaced by Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand with gusto. O’Neal is the square, and Streisand is the cuckoo bird who wins him and us over with her unrealistic, unintentional humorousness.
In What's Up, Doc?, O’Neal portrays Howard Bannister, a musicologist in town with his overbearing fiancee (Madeline Kahn) to receive a grant offered by Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton). Streisand is Judy Maxwell, a fast-talking, multiple degree-holding collegiate who decides that Howard is the man for her, and that Howard, from now on, will be called Steve.
Other guests pass through the hotel in which both are staying, including Mrs. Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson), an aging socialite covered in gleaming jewels, Mr. Smith (Michael Murphy), a potential whistleblower carrying top secret files, Mr. Jones (Phillip Roth), whoo is following Mr. Smith, a bunch of thieves who hope to steal Mrs. Van Hoskins diamonds, and more. But that’s not all. Four of these people are carrying identical bags, four of them lose their bags, and four of them find themselves in the possession of materials that certainly aren’t theirs. Farcial tensions ensue.
It’s difficult to write about comedy, especially comedy like this, because in the case of drama or other sweeping genres, there is an opportunity to go deep into one's analysis, pointing out a metaphor here, an allusion there. What’s Up, Doc? isn’t particularly scholarly, nor is it sweeping or deep. But it's funny, and for now, that's good enough.
For a film like this to succeed, it takes a cinematic master: One false move and you have a misguided pastiche. But Bogdanovich isn't an amateur. He has clearly studied the pulses of films like My Man Godfrey and Midnight and emulates them without a flaw in sight. What's Up, Doc? is short — a quick 93 minutes — but not a moment goes by in which we aren't thoroughly delighted. The dialogue gets the tone of His Girl Friday just right, and O’Neal and Streisand are just as good as Grant and Hepburn were in Bringing Up Baby. (Streisand has never been better.)
And there’s that car chase. That car chase, which includes obstacles like a glass wall, a street blocking ladder, a costume shop, a Chinatown parade, drying cement, a wedding, and even San Francisco Bay. Things that wouldn’t be obstacles in real life but are here, and are somehow easy to accept. How the characters run into them I cannot say, but the way Bogdanovich executes the sequence is effortless. Just like every other sequence in the film. A