Monday 9 October 2017

Movie Review: What's Up, Doc? (1972)

A modernized screwball comedy and romance, What's Up, Doc? features no plot to speak off but an excellent cast and plenty of loony situations.

Four similar plaid handbags converge at a San Francisco hotel. Dr. Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal) is an unassuming professor of musicology and his bag is filled with rocks. Bannister is attending a conference where he is nominated for a research prize, and is traveling with his domineering fiancĂ©e Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn). Mr. Smith's bag hides top secret documents, and he is pursued by Mr. Jones. The third bag contains the jewelry of a hotel guest, and she is the target of theft. The fourth bag holds the personal items of Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand).

Highly educated but completely kooky, Judy sets her sights on Howard as a romantic conquest and elbows her way into his conference program, sidelining Eunice. Howard is befuddled by Judy's behaviour as he tries to make a good impression on award sponsor Frederick Larrabee (Austin Pendleton) and fend off the boorish other nominee Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Meanwhile a series of hotel room break-ins result in all four bags falling into the wrong hands, and a madcap chase.

Co-written, directed and produced by Peter Bogdanovich, What's Up, Doc? does not even try to pretend that it is anything more than an adult playground for nutty comedy of the cartoonish kind. An homage of sorts to the screwball classics of the 1940s, Bogdanovich includes even less story and less romance than expected. What's Up, Doc? has the same depth as a Bugs Bunny short, but does feature an all-in cast and one terrific highlight.

The film demands the suspension of any attempt to follow an actual narrative. Bogdanovich burns many minutes with scene after scene of characters skulking in and out of hotel rooms, as the ubiquitous plaid handbags repeatedly change locations, hiding places and hands. None of the characters are defined beyond their presence at the hotel to engage in the prevailing shenanigans, with people like Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones and the jewel thieves receiving plenty of screen time but hardly any dialogue.

But the actors fully invest in the prevailing anarchy, turning the exercise into an amusing romp. Barbra Streisand is the engine that powers events well past normal, and she nails the combination of revved-up cool, Judy laser-focused on winning Howard's heart and seemingly unaware of the commotion in her wake. As the clueless midwest professor of obscure music theories, Ryan O'Neal finds a role that suits his rather blank persona, and he provides the empty canvas for Judy to paint on. And in her full-length big screen debut, Madeline Kahn is suitably irritating as Howard's too-desperate wannabe wife.

The film's climax is a prolonged chase through the streets of San Francisco that reaches hysterical levels of madness. Bogdanovich constructs a finely crafted sequence involving a delivery bike, multiple vehicles and a Chinese dragon racing up and down the city's ridiculously steep streets, with a highlight featuring one tall ladder, two workmen and a large pane of glass.

What's Up, Doc? may lack substance, but it doubles down on pandemonium.

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