Sunday, August 29, 2010

Critical Thinking: Caddyshack (1980)

Critical Thinking is a column where I review something I've just watched (usually something I like). No other reason. It doesn't really need a name but I gave it one anyway, since it's different from Cheap Thrills, and I hear things on blogs should have names.

In 2008, Harold Ramis directed Year One, an agonizingly unfunny road picture awkwardly set in a mixture of the Stone Age and also the Roman Empire, which features an all-star cast of comedians in small bits but instead gets constantly sidetracked on horribly unfunny detours, like Oliver Platt's disgustingly over-the-top character (I forget who or what the character was, but I don't want to look it up, either). It's a terrible movie with the occasional, brief bit of brightness from one of many great people that are in it, but as a whole it never has any momentum or focus.

In that way, it's just like Caddyshack.

Don't get me wrong. Year One is way, way worse (and nobody eats a piece of shit in Caddyshack, like Jack Black does in Year One). Still, having just watched the brand new Blu-Ray of Caddyshack (my second time seeing the film), I still have a hard time understanding why the film is considered a comedy classic.

The primary problem with Caddyshack is that it gathers four actors who all bring very specific personalities to the table. Chevy Chase is his usual sarcastic self, quietly mocking everyone to their face. Ted Knight goes incredibly over the top, utilizing every muscle in his face to transition between extreme expressions of emotion. Rodney Dangerfield does classic gag schtick with his entire body, like a Looney Tunes cartoon got in a car accident with a nightclub stand-up act.

Then there's Bill Murray, who, as much as I love him -- and I really do -- gives a painfully broad performance as Carl Spackler, a demented, hobo-like groundskeeper with a weird speech impediment. I can't imagine any other comedian in the world could give the performance that Murray gives in this movie and have people think it wasn't awful, but as far as I can tell, Spackler is one of Murray's most enduring and famous roles.

Maybe one of these people could've carried a movie. I might've even liked Carl if Carl was the only person the film was concerned with. Squashing the four of them into a single movie with even more characters is a different story. Ramis, who was directing for the first time on Caddyshack, seems entirely unconcerned that his stars are all dropping in from different planets, and whenever more than one of them is in a room together, the movie loses its comedic footing, which is made all the more disappointing because, man, I want to see a really funny scene with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase acting opposite each other. The moment they're in the same room, my heart took a leap. The men who gave the world Peter Venkman and Irwin Fletcher, on screen at the same time! It's like the comedy version of Heat! (The pair's off-screen rivalry only adds to the tension.) Sadly, the scene is a misfire in my book. I was more enthralled by the big reunion in The Expendables just recently, and I hated that movie.

Adding insult to injury, none of these characters strike me as particularly well-written. Chase has a dearth of great lines, and when Chase does his usual bit and doesn't have good lines, he basically comes off like a smarmy asshole. Every once in awhile, he has a good joke (the "no steering wheel" pantomime is great), but he seems adrift and unengaged, like he's wandering through the movie as opposed to starring in it. Dangerfield is hit and miss, as not all of his routines translate as well as they could to the big screen, and Knight gets one note to play over and over. Murray's lines are probably better than the others, but the lisp or whatever he's doing just ruins them for me. Bill's brother Brian Doyle-Murray gets better lines as caddy management ("Pick up that blood!").

Caddyshack does have two saving graces. Well, maybe two and a half. The first two are Michael O'Keefe and Cindy Morgan, who are both charming and engaging as supposed hero Danny Noonan and the sexy Lacey Underall. Morgan doesn't have to do much but stand around and look beautiful, which she does with ease, but Morgan deepens the impression with a playful, bemused attitude that makes her almost impossibly endearing. O'Keefe makes for an appealing main character, but the movie sidelines him too often to invest much in his story, which is a shame; I think Caddyshack might be more deserving of its acclaim if there were more of O'Keefe and his conflict in the film (co-screenwriters Ramis, Doug Kenney and Doyle-Murray don't introduce any tangible stakes until the last 20 minutes). As for "half", Ramis' direction works wonders in the scenes where the actors aren't the primary focus: the impromptu swimming ballet and subsequent "doody" scene are worth a chuckle, and the golf course exploding at the end of the movie would have been the perfect end to a better movie. Alas, Caddyshack is not that movie: pretty much any other comedy from the 1980's starring any one of these guys is funnier and better constructed than this "shot-in-the-dark" mush.

The Blu-Ray comes with a lengthy episode of "Bio" on Caddyshack, but it's also a disappointment. Since it was produced for television, it has the aggravating habit of recapping for every intro and outro before unspoken commercial breaks, and if you pared this ep down to the real meat and potatoes, it'd easily lose 30 minutes of painfully repetitive narration. What's left is somewhat intriguing but not particularly fresh or in-depth, especially given that Dangerfield and Knight have both passed on, and neither Chase or Murray deemed it worthy to appear for new on-camera interviews. Even Brian Doyle-Murray had better things to do, although yet another Murray brother, John Murray, pops up frequently. The Blu-Ray's only other extra (no commentary?) is the shorter doc produced for the DVD, called "The 19th Hole". The PQ and AQ are both solid, although not quite as impressive as some other '80s films I've seen.


  1. I think I may have been spoiled. I saw Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, Fletch, Stripes, and Vacation before I saw this, and I saw it when I was an older teenager. Like Christmas Vacation, maybe it has to be a treasured memory of your youth to stick with you, but that's just a guess.

    For me, The Blues Brothers is the best movie in terms of being a legitimate film. Like Block Party, that movie just makes me happy to be alive; it's celebratory. Ghostbusters is probably the funniest, but I really did grow up on that one.