Film Review: What's Up, Doc?
In 1972, Peter Bogdanovich released What’s Up, Doc? as a homage to the comedy films of the 1930s, particularly Bringing Up Baby as well as old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Starring Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, Philip Roth, Sorrell Brooke, Stefan Gierasch, Mabel Albertson, Liam Dunn, John Hillerman, George Morfogen, Graham Jarvis, Randy Quaid, and M. Emmet Walsh, the film grossed $66 million at the box office. Nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer – Female, the film won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen and was ranked #68 on the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 love stories.
When Judy relentlessly pursues repressed academic Howard throughout San Francisco, havoc and chaos follows wherever she goes. At the same time, there are four identical red-plaid suitcases floating around the hotel Howard and his fiancée are staying in. One has Judy’s personal items, another has Howard’s musical minerals, the third has a jewel collection and the final has top secret government documents. While someone is after the government documents, another party wants to steal the jewels and the bags become mixed up.
A love letter to the farcical comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, What’s Up, Doc? is a wonderfully hilarious film with a fairly decent plot. It’s a pretty standard farce where identical bags get mixed up not only by their owners, but by people out to steal a certain one that results in madcap hijinks. However, while there’s nothing notably special about the story, where the film really succeeds is how the film goes about presenting the audience with those moments that they expect as well as know and love. For instance, it’s pretty clear that with so much attention being spent on establishing the hotel that part or all of it is going to get destroyed. That does happen after Howard finds Judy in his room’s bathtub in a scene that culminates in him lighting the curtains on fire by yanking the television’s cable out of the wall in order to get it to shut off while Judy is hanging on the ledge outside the window as Howard is trying to convince Eunice that there’s nobody else there and what she heard was the television. The scene also involves the firemen running down the hallway, with a few of them falling over themselves and breaking into the wrong room.
There’s also the chase scene that can be predicted at the very beginning of the film when it becomes apparent that there’s four different identical bags. Yet, while it’s easy to know it’s coming, the scene is possibly one of the funniest car chase scenes in film. It sets up for a lot of tropes found in comedy chase scenes and in its execution of them, subverts how they’re pulled off. Take the large glass pane and the guy on a ladder. The participants in the chase all come dangerously close to destroying the glass, but it doesn’t get smashed until the final car simply nudges the ladder and the guy on top of it comes swinging down on the banner he’s been fixing and crashes into it feet first. Another great moment in the chase comes from when Howard and Judy have found their way into a Chinese dragon, which becomes funnier when Howard replies to Judy stating that she can’t see anything with the fact that there’s not much to see because they’re in a Chinese dragon in an extremely matter-of-fact tone. The various workers they bother in their scene is also pretty funny, with the construction workers just tossing their tools behind them as they walk off along with the guy smoothing the concrete just throwing the smoother down and jumping on top of his work in a fit of rage.
Further, while the characters are as noteworthy as the story, they’re very well acted. For one, O’Neal is able to really play up the humor in a guy who’s just trying to unsuccessfully understand why this woman won’t leave him alone as well as explain to his high-strung and high maintenance fiancée that nothing’s going on. What’s more is that Streisand perfectly plays Judy, with it being very apparent that she’s having fun showing up unexpectedly in Howard’s life and making the case that everything she does is perfectly reasonable.
The film may not have a particularly compelling story, but it’s the type of film that doesn’t need to. Instead, it succeeds in basically telling its audience to sit down, laugh and enjoy the escapist absurdity.
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