Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What's Up, Doc?

Several years ago I had the pleasure of watching the movie Bringing Up Baby, one of the best screwball comedies I've ever seen.  Starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, it's the story of a paleontologist (played by Grant) who gets caught up in the world of a free-spirited young lady (Hepburn) who needs his help dealing with a tame leopard, a missing dinosaur bone, and her growing fancy of him.  He just wants to finish building his brontosaurus, secure funding for his museum, and marry his secretary (all in one day!).

I'm seriously underplaying the story, but it's a madcap romp (and how often do you get to say that these days?) that builds and builds through the entire film until you're laughing throughout the ending of it.  It has great improvisations, sharp humor, and wonderful slapstick sensibilities with two extremely classy actors leading the way. describes a screwball comedy as "sophisticates gone silly," and that truly is what that movie represents.

In 1972, a spiritual successor came out starring Barbara Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, and Madeline Kahn called What's Up, Doc?  I watched it over the holidays, and while I found it to be a great successor to Bringing Up Baby, I think it slipped a few times while trying to reach such lofty goals.

Barbara Streisand plays Judy Maxwell, a young woman seemingly without a penny to her name who sneaks into hotels and swindles roast beef sandwiches from room service.  Ryan O'Neal plays Howard Bannister, a ... you know, I don't know what his proper term is other than "professor" who has a theory involving prehistoric rocks he wants to present at a musicologist conference in order to win a huge award.  He's engaged to Madeline Kahn, who plays straight and humorless while being hilarious like nobody else.  There's also a man who stole classified government secrets and a ridiculously wealthy woman all staying on the same floor as the other three.

What do all of these people have in common?  They all have an exactly similar bag, and much of the movie is spent with people stealing bags, almost being caught with them, and stashing them near other bags just to have mass confusion rule the day until you no longer have any idea who has what bag any more.  A similar plot line drove the movie Oscar, and I absolutely love that movie.

Streisand immediately falls for O'Neal, and honestly that was the hardest part of the movie for me.  After a brief introduction that seems to imply she's actually rather crazy, she keeps intentionally popping into his life, but unlike Bringing Up Baby, it's not because she necessarily needs him for anything, it's that he happens to be the newest thing that fully caught her attention, so she stalks him like a cat stalking a mouse.

It isn't until halfway through the movie when things get more and more insane that you start to get into the interaction of the characters.  Ryan O'Neal goes from somebody confused and upset that this strange woman keeps inserting herself into his life to starting to appreciate the chance to be distracted from what was a rather boring life.  Streisand goes from being borderline stalkerish and a touch crazy to actually seeming like she finds something about Ryan O'Neal attractive.

The whole thing comes together at a small party, where spies, criminals, and civilians all get caught up together leading to a massive car chase through the streets of San Francisco, and I will freely admit that I was laughing and loving every minute of the chase.  As the movie progresses the dialogue gets sharper and quicker, the pacing becomes more intense, and like Bringing Up Baby it just builds and builds until you get joke after joke coming at you, and each one hits perfectly.

It's just that beginning that falters.  O'Neal starts out the film distracted to the point that it's hard to find any reason why Streisand is so obsessed with getting him to like her (sorry, O'Neal, but you're no Cary Grant), and some of the moments seem a bit forced (there's an extended period where a spy following the document thief lugs around a golf bag that might have served better with a quick joke instead of a long one).

Overall, though, it's extremely funny and faithfully captures the spirit of the classic screwball comedy that not many movies have done well since then.  I think a key feature is that a screwball comedy will always err on the side of the joke as opposed to being overly sentimental, intense, or scary, preferring to simply have the audience laugh than attempt to build characters too much.  They're also not too raunchy, going for a global laugh instead of a juvenile one.  To accent that, anybody who can't laugh at a scene in the car chase involving a giant plate glass window and a ladder (you think you know what happens, but you're wrong) simply doesn't have a sense of humor to speak of.

I was slow to warm to the movie, but it won me over completely by the end.  It's a movie genre I wish there would be more contributions to these days, though I'd be hard pressed to find two dramatic actors who could make it work as well.

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