Monday Movie: What’s Up, Doc?, by David Bax
Every Monday, we’ll recommend a movie–it could be a classic, an overlooked recent treasure, an unfairly maligned personal favorite or whatever the hell we feel like–and we’ll tell you where to find it online.
1972’s What’s Up, Doc? is the first of three collaborations between director Peter Bogdanovich and star Ryan O’Neal. Each of these (Paper Moon and Nickelodeon round out the trilogy) is a throwback of some sort but What’s Up, Doc? is most specifically an homage. There’s an irony there in the fact that it’s the only one to take place in the present day. As referential as it may be, though, this love letter to 1930s screwball comedies never comes across as academic, mostly because it’s so hilarious. O’Neal’s best work was done with Bogdanovich and he’s even better paired with co-star Barbra Streisand, who seems give him permission to contort his teenage-bedroom-wall-poster good looks into the goofiest, most physical performance of his career.
Four individuals check into the same San Francisco hotel, each coincidentally carrying an identical red plaid bag. One belongs to O’Neal’s Howard Bannister, a musicologist in town on business; one to Streisand’s Judy, a brilliant and stubborn college dropout whom chaos follows around like it’s her very own shadow; another to a wealthy society woman (Mabel Albertson); and the final bag to a secretive, potential government whistleblower (Michael Murphy) carrying sensitive documents. Obviously, everything goes smoothly for everyone with no confusion whatsoever. The cast also includes the great Madeline Kahn as Howard’s prim fiancée, Kenneth Mars as Howard’s professional rival, Austin Pendleton as a wealthy patron of scientific research, Blazing Saddles’ Liam Dunn as a judge and more.
As mentioned already, What’s Up, Doc? is hilarious. Some of it is just plain silly, like a marching band playing “La Cucaracha” on glockenspiels for no evident reason; some of it is truly skilled physical comedy, like O’Neal struggling to hold a phone to his ear and keep his pajama bottoms up at the same time. Mostly, though, it works because it’s not actually trying to be another Howard Hawks screwball classic. Comedy, more than any other art form, changes over time. We find new things funny and cease to laugh at the old things in some cases. Bogdanovich, one of the premier, pre-Tarantino pastiche filmmakers, succeeds by cranking up the self-awareness. What’s Up, Doc? is all the funnier for acknowledging that its forebears were, well, funnier.
What’s Up, Doc? is available to rent on Amazon.