Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Survivors (1983)

...pretty soon Williams is sitting in a downtown saloon working through his paltry redundancy money by repeatedly firing Phil Collins’ ‘I Missed Again’ into the jukebox and depth-charging Boilermakers...

The Survivors (Michael Ritchie 1983)

Starring: Walter Matthau, Robin Williams, Jerry Reed, Skipp Lynch, Yudie Bank, John Goodman, Morgan Upton.

Tagilne: ‘Once they declare war on each other, watch out. You could die laughing.’ Hmm…

Trailers: Love in Left Field, Jeans and the T’s, Timeclock!

Cherrypick: “Betty, there’s a parrot in there – I just got fired by a parrot!”

There is, as we all know, a simple but dogged axiom to which even the most successful comedies essentially conform; that a first half jam-packed with free-flowing gags and fanciful digressions will invariably be followed by three quarters of an hour of leaden, inattentive plotting that attempts to wrap the whole caboodle up with as little fuss and as few larfs as poss. It has ever been thus, but during the Decade of the Doldrum this expedient maxim was to light up the eyes of filmmakers brighter than that of a Sunny Delighted kid finding daddy’s gun.
No, no, no, NO!
One of the decade’s biggest hits, 1983’s Trading Places, for instance, delivered a notably bravura opening salvo of Eddie Murphy’s expert Richard Pryor impression allied to a Dan Aykroyd effectively gurning against type only to subsequently fizzle out with a toilsome closing hour of actually-very-confusing stock exchange machinations. ’84’s Ghostbusters treated us to a freewheeling spin around Manhattan in the company of a drunk, libidinous Bill Murray for a good portion of it’s first half before we were eventually assaulted by an endless parade of rancid dayglo handpuppets and scratchy blue lasers. And although the Coen brothers managed to up the ante with ’87’s Raising Arizona by ploughing through a good seventy-five minutes of breathless trailer park anarchy, even they ultimately succumbed to a routine babysnatching denouement.

In this respect, as in so many others, The Survivors takes the road much less traveled.
That's not us talking - that's science!
Opting instead for a first hour of plot followed by an hour of a different plot, and with no clearly defined ending at all, Ritchie’s film marries form to content in a confused and entirely birdbrained attempt to divine the duality at the core of an embattled America enduring the socio-political corollary of both a crisis of confidence resulting from the debacle of the Vietnam War and the economic daze that followed ’79’s Iranian oil crisis

Literally “shit on” by big business, Robin Williams’ uptight, Waspish and all too sensitively monikered Donald Quinelle is fired from his job as some vague form of executive for WorldCorp Enterprises by a talking parrot. Already pretty tightly wound, this sends the hairy gnome over the edge; scotching, as it does, his wedding plans and canceling his ‘dental’ (?). Pretty soon he’s sitting in a downtown saloon working through his paltry redundancy money by repeatedly firing Phil Collins’ ‘I Missed Again’ into the jukebox and depth-charging Boilermakers.
'Grumpy Old Men: The Bongo Years'
Balancing out the social scale is redoubtable curmudgeon Walter Matthau as gas station owner and unmade man Sonny Paluso. Unable to keep up with oil company price hikes, Sonny reluctantly torches his outmoded establishment for the insurance money - unaware that his claim agreement distinctly warns ‘Do Not Torch The Place’ in big red letters at the top of page one. He is presently on the next barstool to Williams. When they are then robbed at gunpoint, their respective days are complete.

And so we are introduced to the uncertain plight of Average Joe Working Stiff circa 1983 – your employer doesn’t give a monkey’s fudge about you, the welfare system is overrun with Mace-wielding immigrants and the cops are besieged, corrupt and too old for this shit. Society, in short, has gone to hell in a hatchback.
So, what’s John Q. Citizen to do? Well, it seems there are two options. He can either spend his afternoons - as does honking man-mattress Matthau - blithely watching porn with his teenage daughter or, like the unraveling Williams, buy a shitload of guns, hook up with a band of survivalists enjoying a self-imposed nuclear winter in the mountains of Vermont and eagerly count down the seconds ‘til Doomsday: “We’re not going to stay up there. When the shit hits the fan, we’re going to come down and take over – and you can’t get any more American than that!”

By the time Matthau turns up resolved to deprogram the gung-ho Williams with some tough-love torture techniques it’s all gone quite expectedly wrong. Like some freshly gouged level of hell, the mid-life crises and clangorous jingoism of this drunken band of corpulent, vacationing stockbrokers has made manifest vast Lovecraftian tumbrels of charred entrails and rivers of blood that vein the virgin snow of the outward-bound Gomorrah they have fostered. “They did things to me,” confides Williams as he and Matthau flee the airstrike now raining down on this wacky Waco, “Bad things.” A jiggered audience is left with that familiar sinking feeling of yet another of it’s Friday nights having been similarly desecrated.
Hairy is as hairy does
Yes, Hollywood’s poolside Pizarros had once again pulled out the blindfolds, a copy of ‘Newsweek’, stuck their big shiny pin in at random and told a couple of passing writers to have ninety pages on the subject on their desk in an hour. Two big stars were hired to drag the result over the finish line and some jaunty military music then added to signal to the marketing bods that the whole thing wasn’t intended as a gritty drama-documentary about urban psychosis. Then it was slapped into a box.

The Survivors was a sure sign that, structural idiosyncrasies notwithstandng, the quick-fix Conquistadors were nearing ERH’s El Dorado.

And it was to be us put to work in the mines.

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