Remedial Film School: A Conversation with Doug Benson About Zemeckis’ Used Cars
Our monthly film club is in session.
I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Comedian Doug Benson from the podcast Doug Loves Movies is our guest, and he chose Used Cars (available for rent on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon). Each section begins with a quote from the film.
Benson explains: I don’t like recommending movies to people. I don’t like being told that I was wrong. About MY opinion. So now I say things like, “I like it, you might too.” Or, like in the case of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I say “I hated it, but you should check it out if you think you might like it.” So when the proprietor – is that the right word? – of this column asked me to pick a great film that he hasn’t seen, my very first thought was Used Cars. It’s a movie that is most certainly not everyone’s cup of proverbial tea, but man do I love it.
The star of Used Cars, Kurt Russell, is one of my favorite actors. I’ve been a fan back to his Disney days, when he was a tennis shoe wearing computer, or the subject of strength and invisibility experiments, but in his overall film career, I’d say he’s in only one truly great comedy. Before you come at me with the likes of Captain Ron or Overboard, I’d argue that dramas like The Hateful Eight and Bone Tomahawk were more amusing. What I love about Russell’s performance in Used Cars is that he accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of making a sleazy used car salesman likable. A used car salesman who wants to be a politician, even. How can this happen? Well, not only is Russell’s Rudy Russo a charmer, but the owner of the mega car lot across the street is a much bigger a-hole. As played by the late great Jack Warden, he’s a thoroughly over the top villain. That the same actor plays his sweet and low-key twin brother just adds to the fun.
I should also mention that Used Cars is raunchy as hell. It’s dirtier than anything else from acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis, but includes the complex plotting and fast pace of the Back To The Future films (I know, I know, Back to the Future II was TOO complex), the slapstick of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and the action of Flight and The Walk. It’s also got the manic energy of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Spielberg’s 1941, both of which I enjoy but are not for everyone.
Used Cars – I like it, you might, too.
“Fifty bucks never killed anybody.”
Bayer watches: I recognized two actor’s names in the opening credits (Russell and Warden). That’s it. Normally, with a film from 1980, I hope for more surprises. Thankfully, Used Cars delivers with a ton of familiar faces. If you don’t know these names, you know a performance… Al Lewis, Alfonso Arau, Frank McRae, Marc McClure, Michael Talbott, Joe Flaherty, Wendie Jo Sperber, David L. Lander, and Michael McKean. Those last guys are Lenny and Squiggy. Part of me wants to stop everything and figure out how these two decided to be in this movie, while also appearing together in Laverne & Shirley, and part of me realizes I’m dating myself for 80 percent of my audience. More important than that, this is Zemeckis. This is Spielberg (executive producer). Thanks to Rob Hunter’s Film School Rejects article “34 Things We Learned From The Used Cars Commentary” I just found out Spielberg brainstormed this plot, but wanted George Hamilton instead of Russell. This is hilarious because I can’t imagine anyone besides Russell pulling off this charm (plus, Hamilton?!?). Benson, you’re right. It shouldn’t be possible. A used car salesman/wannabe senator is not someone we consider caring about. I’d argue the script for Used Cars even agrees with that. But Russell had other plans. Case in point, as you mentioned Warden plays brothers. Well, the nice one dies from a heart attack. It’s something comedies used to do. They’d kill. 1974’s The Longest Yard did it as well. So let’s just decide N=2 and it happened all of the time. I was worried when I saw this scene coming, but two things made it worth while. Russell fully, truly commits to the scene. In fact, he’s the only one acting like he’s in an intense drama (for this scene), while everyone else is trying to find a laugh. Warden finds the perfect one. While fighting for life, he happily makes a sale. It’s truly brilliant. Not only that, I found that it was my moment of giving myself over to this comedy and having a really good time. If Warden doesn’t make the cash grab, I don’t accept this silly world. Instead, I’m in.
That doesn’t mean the movie is perfect. Benson, when you say the movie is “raunchy as hell,” I assume you mean, “It objectifies women like almost every other film, especially those in the ’80s that were rated R.” Women exist in this world to accidentally get naked, felt up, sexually assaulted, or rescued. Wait, there is one who is simply a nervous teenage driver. Women! It’s an indicator that Bob Gale and Zemeckis didn’t know how or didn’t care to write a quality female character. It’s obvious, but by no means is it a deal breaker for me with the film. It’s like your racist grandmother. Easy to spot, typical for the time, and impossible to change.
Eventually, a plot emerges. Oddly, it hinges on telling the truth (in a court room) that this used car lot technically has a mile of cars to sell. It feels weird, mainly because we never assume commercials are telling you the truth.
The problem with the film flow comes when Rudy and Barbara (Deborah Harmon) spend time developing a relationship. Once it starts, the fun comes to a screeching halt. There are many varieties of the line, “I got something I need to get off my chest,” but the truth never comes out. Laughs don’t seem like the top priority anymore. Since this world is fairly over-the-top and fictitious, you’re just left waiting. But don’t worry. Action is coming. The ending is truly enjoyable. There’s a huge caravan of cars (having to do with a mile of cars). With it comes some high-quality action featuring Russell and his stunt double. Benson, I like it.
Here are a bunch of tiny moments and some questions for you to consider…
How many times have you seen this film? What was your first or most memorable viewing of the movie? Is the homemade pacemaker your favorite surprise in the film? It’s mine. The sidekick Jeff (Gerrit Graham) is great, which makes me slightly sad because while he’s a working actor, he didn’t become famous. Anyway, when he does his thing in the bar about luck, and spills salt, crawls under a ladder, and breaks a mirror, it feels like that could easily be borrowed into it’s own film. I love the concept of luck and the lengths that people are willing to go when they believe in it.
Just recently, I’ve become addicted to film fridges thanks to the perfect one in Empire of the Sun. Rudy’s refrigerator contains a jar of pickles, Coors (heavy), a safe, and a ton of celery stalks. While Empire offers the best, this is now the weirdest (until someone proves me otherwise). Just to make sure we understand, it’s due to the insane amount of celery, not the safe.
Russell disco dancing should be a gif. I wouldn’t use it, because technology frightens me, but seeing him fully commit to dancing, while thinking about his brilliant character John Ruth (from The Hateful Eight) is the history of an actor that I just love knowing.
Because I’m evil/awful/annoying you have to cast the remake. There is a figurative gun to your head. Who are in the main leads? The audition scene for Rudy would definitely be the fast-talking used car salesman scene that Russell nails in the beginning of the film. My only change, I want middle school kids to somehow have to drive all of the cars at the end of the film.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention there is a title song at the end of the film. I want all movies, but specifically comedies, to be required by movie law to roll credits with a title theme song.
Movie Score: 7/10
“Don’t let the little head do the thinking for the big head.”
Benson responds: Lenny and Squiggy also appeared together in 1941 (the movie, not the year). I think maybe Spielberg was high on George Hamilton around that time because Love At First Bite was a hit and Hamilton was pretty funny in it. Would’ve made Used Cars a much different, not to mention sleazier, experience with him in the role instead of Russell. And if Hamilton had done Used Cars we may have never gotten Zorro, The Gay Blade. Bayer, would you want to live in that world?
I think The Longest Yard is more drama than comedy. The Burt Reynolds one, I mean. But bonus points to you, Bayer, for mentioning a prison movie while talking about Jack WARDEN.
Yeah, dude, women do not fare well in Used Cars. The film would get an F- on the Bechdel Test. But at least one could argue that the nudity is there specifically as exploitation. Sex sells, and the characters in the film figure out that boobs and bad words are an excellent way to get people to the lot.
You attribute the underwritten roles for women in this film to the youth of the writers, but has there ever been a fleshed-out and interesting part for a woman in a Zemeckis movie? Jessica Rabbit? Lea Thompson in Back To The Future? Oh, wait, I just remembered: Angelina Jolie in Beowulf! Anyway, creating great roles for the ladies has never been in his wheelhouse. But what he and Bob Gale were great at was twisty plots and exciting set pieces. The bad luck scene in Used Cars with the ladders and umbrellas is brilliant.
I’ve probably seen Used Cars a couple dozen times, and have always been a little dismayed that it wasn’t a very popular film. I meet people all the time who love it, though, and a couple years ago I saw a screening of it in a packed theater that was laughing throughout. The biggest surprise in Used Cars for me, and part of the reason I think the movie holds up, is how vicious it gets, both in the killing of one Fuchs brother, and the fight between Rudy and the other Fuchs (wielding a chain) in the back of a pick-up truck. It’s like a Fast And Furious movie with jokes. Or intentional jokes, I should say.
A remake of Used Cars, you say? I’m completely against it. But since there’s a gun pointed at me, I’d say Chris Pratt could do a pretty good job in the role of Rudy. In fact, the rest of the characters could be played by the cast of Parks And Recreation. Would love to see Nick Offerman in the dual role, Aziz Ansari could be the super superstitious guy, and Amy Poehler (or Aubrey Plaza) could add some comedic dimensions and personality to the female lead.
And yes, Used Cars has a fantastic song at the end. Reminds me of “Eastbound and Down” from Smokey and the Bandit. Do movie themes get any better than that one?
“I’ll tell you something. This country is going to the dogs. You know, it used to be when you bought a politician, that son of a bitch stayed bought.”
Bayer concludes: Lenny and Squiggy … That’s right. I forgot about 1941, which is definitely ready for me to watch again. It’s been years. I only remember liking, not loving, the film, and wondering why most considered it bad.
Zemeckis could point to Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone and Jodie Foster in Contact, but I think everyone would give the actresses credit over Zemeckis’ lead. You’re right. He, like almost all directors, isn’t great creating meaningful female characters.
I’m a big fan of the Parks And Recreation crew reuniting for a film. Yes, it should definitely be this one. Offerman would clearly have a mustache for one brother. Perhaps Poehler can direct the film, if she wants to, and we’ll have Pratt and Plaza recreate some chemistry. Poehler and Rashida Jones can be Lenny and Squiggy. Adam Scott can play Joe Flaherty’s character. Nice job on the recasting Benson, and sorry I had to use an imaginary gun to get you to do it, but it had to be done.
Also, I forgot to mention, Jim’s (Frank McRae) punch through the windshield is amazing, and most importantly, necessary for the moment. It could be felt. This should be mimicked more. In fact, John Wick 2, if you’re listening, borrow it.
File this under, “Times Are Changing,” when Rudy has the promotion with the strippers. He is later shocked and bothered that someone actually got video of the thing. It made me realize we, and most definitely our children completely are without the concept of, “I did a public thing, but I assume no video was taken.” We truly are our own Big Brother, which is probably the most important lesson that Used Cars teaches us. That and Russell is brilliant at any age, and boobs sell. One final question, do I really have to watch Zorro, The Gay Blade?
Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Sam Fragoso (host of Talk Easy, founder of Movie Mezzanine) selected Sweet Smell of Success. It is available to rent on Amazon, and iTunes. Your due date is Thursday, May 26.
Related Topics: Comedy