Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A different view from astute reader Gil Lamont, 12.19.2002 .
A weird black comedy in the theater of the absurd mold, Where's Poppa? is an intermittently
funny, yet ultimately despairing show. Robert Klane's script raises the age-old problem of what to do
with elderly relatives, mostly to mine bizarre comic situations that play off cruelty and hopelessness.
An energetic cast, especially the winning Ruth Gordon, make it watchable; for many it's a fall-down laugh
riot from stem to stern.
When not defending weird clients who attack army generals and kidnap children for pro football
teams, Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) tries to deal with his intolerably senile mother (Ruth Gordon).
Even before he meets the love of his life, nurse Louise Callan (Trish Van Devere), Gordon's trying in vain
to solve his problem by doing things like donning a gorilla suit scare mom to death. Nothing works, and his romance with
Louise is in jeopardy because mom is not only impossible to be around, but behaves as if she and Godon
have some kind of oedipal relationship going.
We all rushed out to see Little Murders in 1971, only to find a fashionable kind of existential
New York stage nihilism being played out in a black comedy form. Where's Poppa? isn't as despairing
as that so-called comedy, but has similarities. Gordon Hocheiser's NYC is a nightmare land of bizarre people,
including himself and his lady love. With nobody to identify with, we instead laugh defensively at the the
cruel and ugly goings-on. Gordon fantasizes a court banishing Mom to live in a bathroom, or the police coming
to arrest a dog which has conveniently eaten her.
Where's Poppa? is also wrapped up in what's commonly known as liberal guilt. Gordon's brother Sidney
(a wonderfully demented Ron Leibman, from Slaughterhouse - Five) keeps running through Central Park,
where he's repeatedly beset upon by the same gang of rather upscale black thugs, including a young Garrett
"You remember Cornel Wilde? You remember The Naked Prey? Well, you better start prayin', 'cause
you gonna be naked!"
That incident is mirrored when Sidney, wearing Gordon's ape suit, takes a taxi back
home. The NYC cab driver chooses a man in an ape suit over a black woman vainly trying to get a ride.
Gordon and Louise try to see some kind of happy life together, but she's a borderline trauma case because
her patients always die, and her first marriage ended after 36 hours because her husband defecated in the bed.
Gordon spends much of the story close to emotional collapse, dragging himself around the apartment, or barely
staying coherent while defending Vincent Gardenia's kidnapping football coach. His attempts at abandoning
mom in Paul Sorvino's hellhole of a rest home are equally disturbing.
As you can see, this was not the laugh riot for Savant that audiences have reported for 32 years. After his
bomb The Comic, Carl Reiner's reputation was made on this movie, and it must have been solely for the
Outrageous factor. I enjoyed
the main laughs, such as the much quoted 'tush scene' where Ruth Gordon pulls Segal's pants down to kiss his
behind. I also was pleased to see a rare movie appearance by the wonderful Rae Allen, who sang Shoeless Joe
from Hannibal Mo in Damn Yankees. She plays Ron Leibman's uncooperative wife.
MGM's DVD of Where's Poppa? is a flat transfer that either isn't perfect, or is just making do with a
film that isn't always in perfect focus. Colors are lacklustre, but again, the picture may always have looked
like this. The visuals are so hard to nail down that one b&w fantasy sequence looks more like a kinescope than film.
The most interesting feature for Where's Poppa? fans will be the alternate ending. (spoiler) Instead of
finishing the film as Gordon and Louise ditch mom at Happytime Farms, it continues for another scene in
which a phone call from mom causes Louise to leave once more. Gordon returns to the old folks home, breaks
down mom's door, and climbs into bed with her. I've never seen the film before now, but I remember reviews
that talked about this scene when the film was new, so I don't know if it was widely shown or not. It'll be
horrid or hilarious, depending on your general reaction to the show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Where's Poppa? rates:
Supplements: trailer, alternate ending
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 15, 2002
A response from Gil Lamont, who has perhaps a better understanding of the picture:
Glenn: Wow. A speedy response.
To me, the main theme of the film is Gordon's overwhelming sense of
impotence and despair. His clients are truly deranged, but this is a world
over which he has no control. Even his senile mother can outwit him, as
when she kicks him in the balls the first time we see him don the gorilla
suit. His own brother would rather choke his own son than accept that
notion of putting Momma in a h-h-h-h-home. When Gordon first sees Louise,
he is immediately and hopelessly in love and she is his ticket to a reality
he can enjoy, so much so that all her problems -- her patients dying, her
new husband "making a kaka on the bed" -- only endear her to him more. Why
else the ultimate threat to Momma: "If you mess this up, I'll punch your
fucking heart out."
Of course it's a black comedy, but why do we find that we can accept the
humorous side of some dark things -- kidnapping kids for a football team --
but not others -- senility? Klane's satire mercilessly looks at how surreal
life can be with just a little twist out of skew, yet he doesn't accept
Gordon and Louise dumping Momma in any convenient nursing home. Not until
they find the best is it enough, so for all the fun we have with Momma's
senility -- and the fun is really in how Gordon can no longer deal with it
-- Klane shows a caring side in wanting Momma to find a world that she too
can live in.
You see. A subtext. Who knew? Gil
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson