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For Orion Pictures, 1990 was the best of times and the worst of times. A prolific and creative studio, for their every hit there were four expensive bombs, and their 1990 lineup contained what should have been a solid pack of winners. The duds were heavyduty losers - Navy Seals, a pandering and action-impaired combat flick; The Hot Spot, a moody Texas noir ruined by director Dennis Hopper's bad editing decisions, and Mermaids, an interesting Cher vehicle, ruined by yet more cowardly editing decisions. By the time these pictures were ready to go out, Orion barely had the money to promote them and was running up unpaid bills all over town. What would have been a surefire winner, The Addams Family, went to Paramount in a fire sale to keep the roof on. And both Silence of the Lambs and Dances with Wolves were mortgaged so deep, there was no chance of profiting from them. Two best-picture Oscars came from this batch, and yet a year later Orion was way past the point of no return, and folded not much later.
I say all that because there's no good reason why Cadillac Man had to be a failure. It was drop-dead funny, Robin Williams was hot and Tim Robbins was on his way up, and in 1990 people weren't as sensitive as they are now to the idea of a hostage situation being a comedy.
The start is slow, and for a bit it's easy to think that this a jokey first draft for Glengarry Glen Ross, with hucksters pushing cars instead of houses. Joey's barely paying attention to his work, what with the expensive upkeep on his fools' harem. Other salesmen are quitting because Molly (Judith Hoag), the agency's top seller, will easily win the sales race by using her legs to attract the customers. For his part, Joey's as promiscuous as he is sales-happy, and just doesn't know how to stop chasing skirts. His mother is a cute nag who wants him to get back with his wife (the always intelligent-looking Pamela Reed). His 20-something girlfriend (Lori Petty, later to become Tank Girl) is an emotional mess with terrible taste, and needs constant bolstering. And his adulterous girlfriend Joy (the always-funny Fran Drescher) has plans to snag Joey for herself, while retaining zillions in luxury money from her rich husband.
Having Tim Robbins take over the dealership at this point doesn't sound like an inspired plot point, but the show doesn't fall apart because of a clever character development: Joey turns unlikely hero. He takes the rap for Donna's infidelity, even though the real culprit, the son of the dealership owner, is right there. As a car salesman, Joey has a fast wit and a creeping insincerity, that work against his efforts to connect with a guy who might blow his head off at any moment. But realizing that he's the closest thing to a take-charge character among the hostages forces his hand. Joey takes the responsibility for someone else's indiscretion, as if atoning for his own lousy judgement. This is why we like him, and care about him. Even though it's a comedy, Joey has an edge that's missing from Robin Williams' usual soggy nice guys. He swears a blue streak and makes obscene suggestions to women. He sees a broken-down hearse at the head of a line of cars as a sales opportunity - and talks up the funeral home owner and the widow (Elaine Stritch) too!
The script and the no-nonsense direction approach the comedy directly and come away with a constant flow of effective, un-P.C. laughs. Helen, the proprietress of the Chinese restaurant commandeered by the police, is fall-down funny, especially when she bursts from the crowd to shout a final bit of advice for Joey. Fran Drescher has the single funniest line when she shuts up her obnoxious dog by screaming louder than it can. And Tim Robbins and Robin Williams play off one another perfectly - in character, as opposed to the stand-up shenanigans of something like Good Morning, Vietnam. As there's plenty of funny negotiations on the phone, some of the comedy is reminiscent of Bob Newhart humor.
Broad but believable, and with an ending that's not a downer, Cadillac Man is just a fun film that should have been a hit. It's one of Robin Williams' best.
MGM's Cadillac Man is yet another 'minor' DVD given a plainwrap but quality presentation. The handsome 16:9 transfer shows just the tiniest bit of digital grain every once in awhile, as if one more pass, to up the bit rate here and there, would have made it perfect. On all but the biggest monitors, it looks superb. The only extra is the awful trailer, that uses a lot of unfunny 'Robin Williams sells cars' material wisely cut from the film. It also puts the story in exactly the wrong focus, concentrating only on Williams' patter.
The box art features the most unimaginative head shots of the film's two stars that Savant's yet seen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cadillac Man rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 22, 2002