“Where’s Poppa”: When farces plod.

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I was prepared to love “Where’s Poppa”, it features the nexus of Normal Lear sitcom character actors who, when I was growing up, felt like extended members of my raisenette-sized broken nuclear family. How fun it would be to see censor-free Barnard Hughes, Vincent Gardenia, Ron Liebman, Rob Reiner, and a pre-SNL Garret Morris.

But alas,”Where’s Poppa” drags. It’s claustrophobic and plodding, and breaks the cardinal rules of farce, lightness of mood and a fast pace.

The plot involves the efforts of a lawyer (George Segal) to rid himself of his overbearing Jewish mother, who lives in his gigantic New York apartment. Along the way we are exposed ridiculous characters and situations: a comedic group of muggers who repeatedly mug the brother of the main character, the rape of a policeman which involves the use of a gorilla suit and subsequent gay love, Ruth Gorden pulling down Segal’s pants and biting his ass as he serves her dinner. Why doesn’t this work?

Part of the explanation is the sense of doom engendered by the cramped, dark interiors and antique set-decoration. I absolutely eat up cinematography of New York during this era, but watching this movie felt like I was leafing through the Police Gazette in a dark bus terminal.

The main reason though is the slow pace. Modern MTV-style quick cuts have changed what moviegoers feel is a comfortable editing tempo, but, even taking this into consideration, camera shots are held for an excessively long time. Plot developments are also very slow. There is one situation in which this works: a weird love song George Segal sings to Trish Van Devere, softly, very close to her face, and for an excruciatingly long period of time. It reminded me of those cringeworthy extended shots in the British version of “The Office”, where you find yourself mentally begging the camera to cut away, and at the same time you can’t stop looking.

Sadly, most of the film is more “hurry up” than “can’t look away”. Which made me wonder if it’s possible to have a black comedy that is also a farce. The dilemma is that the gravitas of the subject matter in a black comedy tends to weigh down lightness of the farce. Movies like Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H” and Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” prove that it can be accomplished.  They do this not only through speed but also through entertaining subplots,  something “Where’s Poppa” neglects.

Although the film features multiple, stereotypically-funny characters, almost all of them are directly involved in the central drama of how to deal with the recalcitrant mother. The scenes featuring Garret Morris and the Central Park muggers are as close as the viewer gets to a mental break. The muggers seemed almost Shakespearean, following the tradition of comic ne’er-d0-wells. If the rest of “Where’s Poppa” had clung a little more closely to stage tradition it would have been a better film. Edgier isn’t always better. It’s as if all these talented actors and the director Carl Reiner, were taking a short sabbatical before the creative maelstrom of the 70’s .

Random notes: After stealing Ron Liebman’s clothes, the muggers mention Cornel Wilde’s “The Naked Prey” (1966), a great action movie that was a stylistic precursor to 1968’s “Planet of the Apes”.

As politically incorrect as he was, it’s disquieting to learn about the death of an action hero as formidable as Charleton Heston. Linda Harrison, who played “Nova”, Taylor’s mute mate, said that James Fransicus, in the sequel seemed to be cute and tiny compared to Heston.

  1. hey when u gonna update yer blog yo?

  2. why innt u updatin yer blog?

  3. its been almost 6 months since yer last update, ekrap!

    whens u gonna post sumthin?

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