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In the late 1970s through the '80s, Hollywood's most frenetic and consistently funny screwball comedies came from the writing team of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. They got their start by snagging the attention of John Milius and Steven Spielberg with their screenplay The Night the Japs Attacked, which later became 1941. With the Spielberg name behind them, 'The Two Bobs' were able to make their hilarious Beatlemania comedy, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and the hilarious Used Cars. Appropriately crass and crude to reflect its sleazy subject matter, Used Cars is a scattershot satire on decadent America in the last years of the Carter administration. 1
Never was there a darker, funnier view of cutthroat business practics. 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 ailing twin brother Luke (also Warden). Luke's crooked establishment uses every sleazy trick in the book to pawn off the worst cars ever offered to an unsuspecting public. 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, but Jeff and Rudy are ready with a devious counter-plan that involves the help of their narcoleptic mechanic Jim (Frank McRae), an old Edsel and an open oil pit. It all this works fine until Luke's long-lost daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) shows up for a reunion with her daddy. Rudy has a crisis of conscience -- whether to tell Barbara all, or keep mum so he can reach his real goal: amass $60,000 so he can buy a candidacy with the local political machine, and run for the state senate!
As the third of their complex crazy comedies, Used Cars shows Zemeckis & Gale's cleverness with farcical plotting and outrageous excess. Based in part on apocryphal and legendary used-car tales, Used Cars knows how to hype the comedy for maximum impact. The cars they sell look simply atrocious, some with chalky paint jobs hiding taxicab yellow underneath. Rudy baits a customer from the lot across the highway literally sticking a ten-dollar bill at the end of a fishing line. Credible gags are mixed in with the outrageous as when David Lander and Michael McKean, as two gonzo video pirates, cut into the satellite signal for a Presidential speech to put a soft-core car ad on the air. The best gag in the picture has Gerritt Graham nailing a sale by convincing a potential customer that he's just run over a puppy -- the laughs here are almost painful. Zemeckis and Gale go for frantic action whenever possible, keeping the comedy machine going at a frenetic pace. A car chase, a fight, or some similar pandemonium is never far away.
There's nothing subtle about 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 his brother Luke, any way he can. Not that far beyond fifteen years of Disney 'Shook-Up Shopping Cart'- style roles, Kurt Russell is more than capable as Rudy, a salesman so accustomed to lying that he suffers a moral crisis when 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 game player capable of taking the rough-and-tumble the story dishes out to female cast members. 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 for their I Wanna Hold Your Hand and did the same for 1941. Wendie 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 Wendie Jo is a shame. She should have been a bigger star.
Viewers that know 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. 2 It's also a 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 of this show.
In Used Cars, David Lander climbs atop a Washington, DC building to access 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 takes a ladder to the roof of a Hollywood building in 1941, this time to steal a shell from (David Lander's) anti-aircraft battery. And all three of the Back to the Future movies revolve around the heroes climbing a clock tower, which is/was/will be struck by lightning. I've talked to Bob Gale (a nice fellow who drove a klunky old car for the longest time, convinced glory would be fleeting) but never got to quiz him about his repeated motifs and "in depth" jokes -- his screenplays with Zemeckis carry on the tradition of screwball plotting and interconnected jokes.
Zemeckis and Gale tried their best to come off as wild cards in Hollywood, circa 1980. I have a poster for an unproduced Gale project called Plain Wrap Movie done in the style of generic grocery products. Its credit text reads, "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 had backfired. They mailed greasy old auto parts to film critics, with tags reading, "Hey, check out Used Cars and enjoy this free gift!"
Sometimes it seems as if 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 satisfactory ending, especially considering the film's modest budget. Used Cars is not as endearing as I Wanna Hold Your Hand but it probably contains an equal number of sheer laughs.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Used Cars is the expected picture perfect Sony transfer of this hit from the Summer of 1980. TT's extras duplicate the contents of an old (2002) DVD, and add a few more. The commentary track by 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 are brutally honest with their mistakes, etc. 'Outtakes' is a reel of funny and risqué odds and ends spliced together. The gallery of ads is an improvement on the earlier disc. Also renewed are a trailer and some radio spots. For one local dealership in Mesa, Arizona, Kurt Russell actually went on the air in a low-tech TV spot, hawking a car for the owner. I'm guessing that these goodies came from Bob Gale, who has done a great job hanging on to such things: he's the one who preserved the cut scenes from 1941.
Twilight Time adds an Isolated Score Track for composer Patrick Williams' music, and a second music track with an unused score. Julie Kirgo's insert liner notes capture the film's raunchy appeal to a tee, although she sent me to the dictionary with the word "aperçu". How dare she confront me with my own ignorance! And make me work, too.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Used Cars Blu-ray rates:
1. The anti- Jimmy Carter jokes and references to hippie communes in Used Cars seemed reasonably funny until fourteen years later, when Bob Zemeckis released Forrest Gump.
2. One of the bodacious strippers straddling the cars and baring all is the talented actress/director Betty Thomas, of TV's Hill Street Blues and The Brady Bunch Movie!
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T'was Ever Thus.
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