Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis began as a writing team by getting the attention of John Milius and
Spielberg with their The Night the Japs Attacked screenplay, which of course later became
1941. With the big names behind them,
'The Two Bobs' were able to make their hilarious Beatlemania comedy, I Wanna Hold Your Hand,
before 1941, and Used Cars afterward. Appropriately crass and crude to reflect its
sleazy subject matter, Used Cars is often fall-down funny, but it's too scattershot to
be a pointed satire on decadent Americana - except perhaps by example.
Synopsis (mild spoilers):
Conniving used car dealer Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden) knows there's a freeway overpass
coming that will blow away his thriving business, so he schemes to seize the competing lot
across the street - which happens to be owned by his twin brother Luke (also Warden). Luke's
crooked establishment uses every sleazy trick in the book to pawn off some of the worst cars ever
offered for sale. His top salesmen Jeff (Gerritt Graham) and Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) hijack
Roy's customers, and steal commercial airtime by tapping into local broadcasts. Knowing his brother
has a bad heart, Roy sends a demolition derby driver over to give him a coronary, but when
Luke indeed kicks the bucket, Jeff and Rudy are ready with a counter-plan: along with narcoleptic
mechanic Jim (Frank McRae), they bury Luke and his Edsel in the oil pit and claim he went to
Florida. All this works fine until Luke's long-lost daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) shows up for
a reunion with daddy. Rudy has a crisis of conscience - whether to tell Barbara all, or keep mum
and keep saving money to buy a candidacy on the local Republican ticket!
The third of Zemeckis & Gale's Hellzapoppin'-style crazy comedies, at every turn Used
Cars shows their cleverness with farcical plots and outrageous excess. Based in part on
apocryphal and legendary used-car tales (as with literally baiting a customer from the lot next
door with a twenty dollar bill at the end of a fishing line), Used Cars knows how to hype
the comedy for maximum impact. Credible gags are mixed in with the outrageous as when David Lander
and Michael McKean, two gonzo video pirates, interrupt a Presidential speech to put a soft-core
car ad on the air. The cars they sell look simply atrocious, some with chalky paint jobs hiding
taxicab yellow underneath. The best gag in the picture has Gerritt Graham convincing a
potential customer that he's just run over a (trained and perfectly healthy) puppy - the laughs here are
almost painful. Zemeckis and Gale work frantic action into most of the gags, keeping the comedy
machine going at a frenetic pace - there's always a car chase, a fight, or some similar
There's nothing subtle about any of the acting, which isn't to say it's not right on the money. Jack
Warden plays the two brothers with more than enough anger and nerve. Roy laughs out loud at the
thought of killing brother Luke, any way he can. Kurt Russell, not that far removed from fifteen
years of Disney 'Shook-Up Shopping Cart'-style roles, is more than capable as Rudy, a salesman so
used to lying, he undergoes a moral crisis if he tries to be even a little bit truthful. He's an
ultimate con-man, with five crooked solutions for every problem, and an absolute faith that
he can lie his way out of anything. The key scene in Used Cars is
where a desperate, grinning Russell signals to the heroine, on trial in the witness box, to lie,
yes, lie, yes lie like a dog. If Used Cars were a Broadway musical, it could be aptly titled
Gerritt Graham and Frank MacRae make
suitably nervous sidekicks for Rudy, with character traits that affect the plot at crucial times.
Graham is superstitious about everything, but red cars in particular; MacRae falls asleep without
warning, sometimes while holding an acetylene torch! Deborah Harmon, previously the host of a TV
show called "What's Up America?" is a fresh ingenue
capable of taking the rough-and-tumble the story dishes out. Spicing up the action are Joe Flaherty
as a crooked lawyer, Al Lewis as a not-very-original hanging judge, Dub Taylor as a political payoff
connection, and Mexican director Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate) as an offensive,
crotch-grabbing cholo clown.
Sally Dennison was the casting director on Used Cars. She helped Zemeckis and Gale find the
wonderful fresh cast of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and did the same for 1941. Wendy
Jo Sperber, the very best thing in both previous movies, gamely tackles a bit
as a student driver in Used Cars. That there wasn't a big part for her is a shame. She
should have been a big star.
People familiar with Used Cars from broadcast TV will surprised to hear and see how it earns
its R rating - there's not one, but two randy scenes where the crazy car salesmen use strippers in
their impromptu TV ads, and the action tends toward the raunchy side. 1
It's also a very foul-mouthed picture
that subscribes to the profanity-is-automatically-funny theory of comedy. Yeah, some of it is, but
everyone swears a blue streak, and MacRae keeps saying Motherfxxxer long after there's much humor
to it. Luckily, plenty of genuinely inspired jokes rattle through every minute or so.
In Used Cars, David Lander climbs atop a Washington, DC building to get to a microwave dish and
cut into the President's broadcast. It's an obligatory Zemeckis-Gale scene that crops up in all of
their broad comedies. In I Wanna, Bobby Di Cicco climbs atop the Ed Sullivan building to
stop the Beatles broadcast, and gets hit by lighting. He goes up atop a Hollywood building in
1941, this time to steal a shell from
an anti-aircraft battery. And the Back to the Future movies all revolve around the heroes
climbing a clocktower, which is/was/will be struck by lightning. I've talked to Bob Gale (a very
nice fellow who drove a klunky old car for the longest time, convinced glory would be fleeting) but
never got to ask him questions like this - his screenplays with Zemeckis carry on the tradition of
screwball plotting in broad Hollywood comedy.
Zemeckis and Gale tried their best to come off as wild cards in Hollywood, circa 1980. There was an
unattributed full-page Daily Variety comedy ad about that time for a nonexistent movie that
I'm pretty sure was their doing. I have a poster for an unproduced Gale project called Plain Wrap
Movie done totally in the style of generic grocery products - its credits read, "Starring
Directed by a Director, etc." For Used Cars, I read in Variety that one of their
publicity gags to promote the film backfired: they mailed greasy old auto parts to film critics,
with tags saying, "Hey, check out Used Cars and enjoy this free gift!"
Used Cars ends with a cross-country car chase, as if purposely trying to transcend the
whereby every comedy since time began concludes with a (yawn) 'wacky' car chase. This one's a
with a convoy of 200 vehicles tearing across the desert, a la the Oklahoma Land Rush. It
a very satisfactory ending, especially considering Used Cars' modest budget.
Used Cars is not as endearing as I Wanna Hold Your Hand, but it probably has an
equal number of sheer laughs.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Used Cars is a perfectly dandy transfer of the film that looks and sounds
fine. A commentary track from Zemeckis, Gale and star Russell is almost as much fun as the movie -
they come off as a trio of genial nuts. Every scene has several funny stories behind it, and the trio have
no trouble at all being brutally honest with their mistakes, etc. 'Outtakes' is a reel of funny odds and
ends spliced together, including an alternate scene with Gerritt Graham wearing pornographic glasses. The
gallery of ads is nice, but they're small in the frame and hard to read. Also with radio spots, and
a low-tech Mesa Arizona local dealership TV spot where Kurt Russell actually went on the air hawking a car
for the owner. There are three trailers, but none for this film. All of these goodies probably came from
Bob Gale, who's done a great job hanging on to such things: he's the one who preserved the
cut scenes from 1941.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Used Cars rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: commentary, ads, radio spots, tv spots, trailer, outtakes.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 31, 2002
1. One of the bodacious strippers straddling the cars and baring all
is actress/director Betty Thomas, of Hill Street Blues and The Brady Bunch
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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