Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? Honestly, a misfire. Something like High Anxiety, maybe.
What did I get? Wow. Just— wow. What’s Up, Doc? clocks in as the biggest surprise of the Boffo project thus far, by a wide margin. I’m not crazy about Barbra Streisand, I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Peter Bogdanovich’s previous movie, The Last Picture Show, and the whole idea of a screwball comedy set in the early ’70s…. well, I wasn’t optimistic. But I must give Bogdanovich and the cast and the screenwriters their due: This movie is a wonder to behold.
What’s Up, Doc? recapitulates the Hepburn/Grant dynamic of Bringing Up Baby, but Bogdanovich and Co. wisely chose not to mimic any of the particulars of Hawks’s masterpiece. Predicated on four identical plaid suitcases vitally important to four different parties, the plot is much closer to traditional farce, albeit one that spills out into the vertiginous boulevards of San Francisco. The script, by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton, shows impressive quality control in the dialogue (always snappy and clever) and in the logistics of the four bags, and Bogdanovich apparently didn’t let the exacting nature of the material bog him down. Those who’ve seen Bogdanovich’s 1992 attempt at farce, Noises Off, are familiar with the ways that a farce, even one that works so gloriously on the stage, can became a joyless exercise primarily about actors hitting their marks. Miraculously, What’s Up Doc? shows not the slightest trace of this problem.
What’s Up Doc? is a testament to the importance of follow-through. A lot of comedies start with a fever pitch of hectic hysteria, and then either the energy lags or it stays sky-high and becomes irritating. What’s Up Doc? has three or four extended set pieces of hilarity and maybe a half-dozen smaller scenes mostly involving Streisand’s mischievous verbal mayhem — in every case, the scenes cash in on the expectations they set up, and the movie has remarkable sustain. There isn’t a single scene that seems overlong, or out of place, or forced, or off-balance — even though the whole movie is about being off-balance. The last set piece, a loooong car chase through San Francisco, is simply a marvel — several times I gasped in admiration or surprise.
Streisand is charming, witty, sassy, unruly — very, very good in the role. I especially like that, even though Streisand’s Judy occupies the role of the daffy, dizzy dame, Judy’s gimmick is that she’s spent her life being expelled from various universities, so she’s studied archeology, veterinary medicine, advanced geology, and so forth; her edge over people is unexpected resources of knowledge. Perhaps this was a reaction to women’s lib, but whatever the reason, it’s a wonderful conceit and runs counter to the Jean Arthur strain of screwball comedy, which wouldn’t have worked as well in 1972. Ryan O’Neal, as Howard the Iowan musicologist, has just the right air of stifled exasperation and also the physicality for the role — he’s surprisingly like Cary Grant’s paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, which is definitely the right aspiration to shoot for. O’Neal and Streisand work together wonderfully, and Madeline Kahn, as Howard’s fiancee Eunice, is a fabulous foil. I kind of love Madeline Kahn here, her Eunice is deliciously put-upon, but it doesn’t make you cringe. Her howls and squeaks of agitation or barely suppressed rage show phenomenal control, nuance, and variety.
What here smacks of 1971? Well, plenty. Streisand’s garb, the interior of the San Francisco airport, Streisand’s “strong” personality seems quite in keeping with the times, in a way that Hepburn’s may not have (Hepburn also shrewdly underplayed the role at certain moments).
IMDB score: 7.6
My score: 9
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writers: Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, Kenneth Mars, Phil Roth, Sorrell Booke, Stefan Gierasch, Mabel Albertson, Liam Dunn, John Hillerman, Randy Quaid, M. Emmet Walsh
IMDB synopsis: Two researchers have come to San Francisco to compete for a research grant in Music. One seems a bit distracted, and that was before he meets her. A strange woman seems to have devoted her life to confusing and embarassing him. At the same time a woman has her jewels stolen and a government whistle blower arrives with his stolen top secret papers. All, of course have the same style and color overnight bag.