Sunday, 17 April 2011

Carbon Copy (1981)

“When you’re shoveling manure, you really find out which way the wind is blowing…"

Carbon Copy (1981, Michael Schultz)
Starring: George Segal, Denzel Washington, Susan St James, Jack Warden, Paul Winfield, Parley Baer, Ed Call.

Box Notables: ‘VHS Format’ sticker. The following lie…

Tagline: ‘Any resemblance between Father and Son is purely hysterical!’

Trailers: The Sad Mongol, Magic & The Goose, Seven Minutes To Zurich, Gantry

Cherrypick: “He’s not black, he’s what interior decorators call ‘Hickory Bronze’!”

Scanning through director Michael Schultz’s thoroughly demented filmography for any clue to the man behind the man behind Carbon Copy proves a vexatious business indeed. A robust schooling calling the shots on such sun-kissed Californian bubblegum as 'The Rockford Files' and 'Starsky & Hutch' would seem to have somehow qualified him for his first big gig - directing 1976 P-Funk lather saga, Car Wash. After the hitching of his subsequent star to Wash alumnus Richard Pryor’s wobbly wagon resulted only in a couple of disappointing wrong turns, 1978 saw him return - tail between his feathers - to musical farce with the Beatle-free zone, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
'The Chicken... You Eat... With Your Hands...' Erm...
A man of apparently catholic tastes and variform talents, he was more than capable of boshing out his take on 'The Medgar Evers Story' for TV in between such eggy guffers as Steve Martin-lite sequel The Jerk, Too and the wholly inexplicable Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon’, and still have the juice to get forgotten rappers The Fat Boys’ cheapjack medical parable Disorderlies in the can before anyone could reasonably prevent it. All this while simultaneously honing and refining what would come to be seen by any right-thinking student of cinema as his chef-d’oeuvre, 1990’s Jury Duty: The Movie (aka Twelve Hungry Men).

But the film we have chosen to go under the lasers comes in the middle of this baffling catalogue; long before Schultz coughed up the dirty pearl in the ERH clamshell, Krush Groove, and well ahead of his eventual return to the lucrative primetime ooze of 'LA Law' and 'Ally McBeal'. And if the director himself remains something of an enigma, then this 1981 polemic is his Riddle of the fucking Sphinx.
What possible confluence of events...?
Tumbling off the very top of the ‘What The Frick?’ pile, Carbon Copy comes screaming down the pike to the Banshee wail of the excruciating cry-for-help that Rocky-fanfare tunesmith Bill Conti has slathered over an elephantine credit sequence that leaves the retinas scarred well into the films second act. 

But on to the frippery, which highlights the whitey plight of George Segal’s cuckold advertising exec Walter Whitney. After a breezy pre-breakfast bout of attempted spousal rape, the merest soupçon of homophobia and a fragrant nosegay of the impending racism that will not, surely, be long in coming, George tiffs along to the upscale Beverly Hills offices of father-in-law Jack Warden’s steadfastly generic UniComp Corporation one morning only to find the long-lost son he never even knew he had there waiting for him. Of extra-special note to George is that the son in question is Denzel Washington, and while he may be blessed with a thespian range that can flit effortlessly between surly and cocky and then back to surly again, the great Den-Zel can play nothing other than ‘black’.

Though initially a little surprised and confused by his dark progeny’s miraculous appearance, George does, to be fair, do the decent thing and take the lad in. No DNA test, nothing; just swallows the story wholesale, tells his snotty wife that the lad is part of some Little Lebowski Urban Achiever ghetto-swap programme or other and sets Den-zel up. In the garage, obviously.
Will Work (At Senior Executive Level) For Food
It doesn’t last long, of course. Before you can say “Somnambulant Trading Places Retread”, George has come clean and his enraged father-in-law has them both booted out of the house and George stripped of his assets and blackballed by every Major Corporation in town. Soon feeling the hot flushes of the ‘social menopause’ – a term continually ballyhooed throughout the film, but which signally failed to make it’s way into popular parlance – Segal is ere long busted down to mucking out stables for three bucks a day and living in a dilapidated rabbit hutch in one of the less salubrious purlieus of Watts.

“When you’re shoveling manure,” he remarks to his son one day after a particularly gruelling shift, “you really find out which way the wind is blowing…” It is not only a neat commentary on this slovenly Cinderella story, but a searing indictment of the then-current Hollywood trend that saw underprivileged young African-American’s plucked from the projects and jimmied crosswise into the oak-panelled blue-chip brownstones of Upper West Side perverts or the ghastly new-money confections of fickle Malibu profiteers. However, unlike Richard Pryor’s The Toy, Six Degrees of Separation and TV’s Diff’rent Strokes, the Black Experience is not held up here as a lens to examine the navel lint of the White Man’s Burden, but as a rich, interactive pageant against which George must measure his mortgaged humanity.

So, we would seem to have dodged the bullet – racially speaking. Perhaps it was to be expected given the calibre of the cast and the social-conscience occasionally displayed by the director’s schizoidal film credits, but - hard as it is to admit - we cannot deny that after clocking that video cover, the clear-eyed consideration Carbon Copy affords its subject matter came as a crashing disappointment…
Too little too late, George

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