Probably then and certainly in retrospect the film, from Oxford Rhodes scholar George Goodman's novel, has a strange take on its subject matter: affable and jolly when a far more cynical approach seems called for, featuring characters engaging in high stakes chicanery that the audience is supposed to admire for no other reason than their chutzpah and cleverness. It's a movie where Garner is basically playing the long-held (if by now largely discredited) public perception of Donald Trump as a larger-than-life master negotiator, a wheeler-dealer. One is reminded of the big montage at the end of the near-simultaneous release of How the West Was Won in which, thanks to the pioneers that paved the way, the landscape has been miraculously transformed into strip mines and congested freeways. If its cast, particularly its leads, weren't so damn appealing, The Wheeler Dealers would more clearly come off as a horrifying cautionary tale of unfettered capitalism.
Garner plays Henry Tyroon, multi-millionaire Texas oil speculator. He's loves the art of the deal, and isn't particularly interested in money or riches except as a means of "keeping score." Heading to New York to make his next millions, he grabs a ride from cabbie Robert Strauss, and, exemplifying the film's amusing-disturbing approach, Tyroon proposes an elaborate scheme buying Strauss's taxi and reselling it back to him as a roundabout means of securing a ready cab in Manhattan while writing the entire expense off his taxes. Soon after, he instructs an accounting executive to write a series of bad checks as a means to move phantom millions around, and for most of the movie he engages in an elaborate Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, all in the name of good ol' boy system-gaming. In James Garner's hands, it's not hard to believe that all will come out right in the end, but the entire film is saturated with gay, primary colored unsavoriness. It's the kind of movie that'll appeal to people who admire big conglomerates that earn billions in profits yet pay negative income tax. They must be doing something right.
Molly Thatcher (Lee Remick), meanwhile, is a stock analyst at Bullard Bear's (Jim Backus) firm, which gleefully encourages dumb speculators to buy into worthless companies they want to unload or know nothing about. Bear wants to decrease his overhead by dumping Molly, his token female analyst. Trying to educate herself, she belongs to a women's group of entrepreneurs, but their guest speaker (Howard McNear) is outrageously condescending toward them even when they ask informed questions. Like much of the picture, it's painful yet undeniably funny because it's so extreme.
In other hands The Wheeler Dealers would have been insufferable but Garner and Remick topline an amazing cast of talent dotting every scene. Phil Harris, Chill Willis, Louis Nye, the underrated Elliott Reid (again playing a frustrated boyfriend of the female lead), Pat Crowley (as Remick's roommate) and scores of others create delightful character vignettes, many in barely a scene or two. In a long sequence spoofing pretentious modern art and art critiques, an uncredited Bernie Kopell turns up as a very gay maniacal art fan. He's in it for maybe 20 seconds, but his proto-Pee-wee Herman energy is quite memorable.
Charles Lang's bright, slick cinematography resembles a Doris Day sex comedy. The visual design of the film is genuinely eye-catching throughout, and (Frank) De Vol's score is good, as is the title song, performed by the New Christy Minstrels.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, The Wheeler Dealers looks great, with colors really "popping" in this HD transfer, which offers a pleasing amount of film grain. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono is fine, and English subtitles are included. No Extras beyond the usual trailer.
Not good but likeable in spite of itself, The Wheeler Dealers doesn't so much rise above the material as unwittingly collide with it. A misfire, but an affable one. Rent It.