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Used Cars

Used Cars
Columbia TriStar
1980 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 113m. / April 1, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Gerrit Graham, Frank McRae, Deborah Harmon, Joe Flaherty, David L. Lander, Michael McKean, Michael Talbott, Harry Northup, Alfonso Arau, Al Lewis, Woodrow Parfrey, Andrew Duncan, Dub Taylor
Cinematography Donald M. Morgan
Production Designer Peter Jamison
Casting Sally Dennison
Film Editor Michael Kahn
Original Music Patrick Williams
Writing credits Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis
Produced by Bob Gale, John Milius, Steven Spielberg
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis began as a writing team by getting the attention of John Milius and Steven 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 pandemonium afoot.

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 Oh, Mendacity!.

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 an Actor, 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 cliché whereby every comedy since time began concludes with a (yawn) 'wacky' car chase. This one's a humdinger, with a convoy of 200 vehicles tearing across the desert, a la the Oklahoma Land Rush. It makes for 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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 Movie!

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