A while back in "Ask The A.V Club," reader Aaron Weiner inquired if there were any musicians or filmmakers we felt we were incapable of reviewing objectively because of a blind, unquestioning love for their work. For me, Robert Altman falls into that category. Altman didn't just make movies: he made rich, sprawling worlds to get lost in.
Altman famously managed to bend countless genres and forms to his will: musicals, comic-strip adaptations, detective movies, Hollywood satire, the political miniseries, icy psychodrama, plays, and even one-man shows. But according to conventional wisdom, it was the lowly teen sex comedy, the reviled Mad Dog 20/20 of genres, that ultimately defeated Altman in O.C. And Stiggs. The film was finished in 1984, but received such disastrous test scores that it was shelved for three years and released to vitriolic reviews and nonexistent box-office. Even the screenwriters distanced themselves from it.
The pairing of Robert Altman and the teen sex comedy wasn't quite the mismatch it might appear. A prankish, youthful irreverence courses through many, if not most, of Altman's films, even his non-comedies. If '70s cinema were a lowbrow slobs vs. snobs comedy Altman would be the John Belushi-esque Dionysus tossing Peter Bogdanovich in the pool, shattering his monocle, and getting his silk ascot all wet in the process.
The interview with Robert Altman on the O.C And Stiggs DVD provides a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of failure. Half-hearted defenses are offered ("There's some good stuff in this movie, honestly there is!"). Actors are praised ("Even if you don't like my work, you gotta give it up for lovable old Ray Walston, my main home slice Paul Dooley, and the divine Miss Jane Curtin!"). Claims that critics and audiences misunderestimated his project and its aims are made ("It was a satire of teen sex comedies, gosh darn it, not an example of that dubious breed!"), alongside weary concessions of friction ("The screenwriters hated me and I hated them in return") and ultimately critical and commercial failure. In the saddest, most poignant part of the interview, Altman boasts/concedes that guests intermittently come over to the Altmansion and want to watch O.C And Stiggs, sometimes to laugh with it, and sometimes to laugh at it.
Altman argues that audiences and National Lampoon wanted Robert Altman's Porky's and were flummoxed when he delivered a satire of teen schlock instead. I think O.C And Stiggs is a satire, but less of teen sex comedies than of the things that always enraged Altman: consumerism and hypocrisy and racism and the narcissistic self-absorption of well-fed Caucasians. Here Altman occasionally comes off like the misanthropic cheap shot artist his critics have always accused him of being–like pretty much all '80s teen sex comedies, this seems to think homosexuality is inherently a laff riot–but behind the snark lies a genuine shiver of revulsion towards the complacency and sun-baked decadence of the Reagan '80s.
Adapted from a single issue of National Lampoon, O.C And Stiggs centers on a pair of bored, wildly co-dependent teens whose sole mission in life is to bedevil the Schwabs, a wealthy family led by Paul Dooley, an insurance kingpin whose hilariously stiff commercial concedes that his company simply won't tolerate such abominations as "drinking" or "the continent of Africa."
The eponymous wisenheimers wage a campaign of psychological warfare against Dooley for doing wrong by Ray Walston, the crusty ex-cop granddad of O.C. or Stiggs (damned if I can tell the difference). They call Africa on Dooley's dime. They sabotage his daughter's wedding by getting Cryer to go nuts with a machine gun (when the boys tell Cryer that firing a machine gun is the most fun he'll ever have, he scoffs and replies that that's highly unlikely, as "I have Legos, you know.")
Daniel Jenkins and Neill Barry play the title mischief-makers with the smirking superiority of people forever enjoying a private joke at the world's expense. Like the Van Wilders and Buellers to follow, there's air quotes around everything they say and do. Yet in their own snotty way, they're out to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They're both smug assholes and righteous avengers.
In the film's climax, the boys invite a wide cross-section of Arizona's housing-free population to party at the Schwab house. As things get increasingly out of control, the fellas call in Dennis Hopper's deranged veteran–a buddy of the boys and co-conspirator in their mischief brigade–to fly in with his helicopter and bring a little Vietnam to Casa De Schwab. As Hopper and his buddy fly over a pool-festooned suburban wasteland, they're at a loss for which gaudy nouveau riche house to invade. "They all look the same!" Hopper marvels in horror as he surveys one Stepford home after another, a sly commentary on suburban conformity that rings even truer today. The moment is echoed later when a father argues "Arkansas is one of the United States. All America is the same."
All the while, a television broadcasts the inane natterings of Hal Phillip Walker, the H. Ross Perot-like demagogue who riveted the nation with questions like "Have you stood on a high and windy hill and heard the acorns drop and roll?," "Have you walked in the valley beside the brook, walked alone and remembered," and perhaps most trenchantly, "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?" in Nashville. When Hopper, playing a gonzo caricature of himself in full-on wild-eyed hippie freak mode, invades the Schwabs it's Apocalypse Now colliding into Nashville in a suburban Arizona bomb shelter in the mid-'80s. It's Robert Altman prankishly making one of his most reviled films into an unwitting, half-assed sequel of sorts to one of his most beloved triumphs. It's the grand glory of '70s cinematic ambition crashing helplessly into the soul-sick, mercenary '80s. It's so goddamned crazy it really does work.
O.C And Stiggs takes a while to get going, but by the time Hopper is descending on the Schwab compound, the film had whipped up a fine, frenzied madness. In the giddy climax, the boys bring the war to the Schwabs. It's the return of the repressed all the way as the fellas force Dooley to confront the poverty and drunkenness of the black underclass (represented by Melvin Van Peebles' soulful wino and his homeless drinking buddies), the lingering scars of a disastrous war in Vietnam (Hopper), and, of course, the continent of Africa (special guest star King Sunny Ade and His African Beats, who also provide the score).
I liked O.C And Stiggs better the second time around, in part because I was more familiar with its satirical targets. Having spent some time in suburban Arizona, where new money goes to die a pampered spiritual death amongst jackrabbits, javelina, and scorpions, I could better appreciate the cultural specificity of its satire.
I like pretty much the entire supporting cast, especially Martin Mull as a wealthy lush with a seemingly painted-on beard luxuriating happily in his own booze-sodden decadence. I also like the O.C And Stiggsmobile, a deafeningly loud lemon on stilts and speed and Bob Uecker's insane self-deprecating cameo as a loudmouth so intoxicated with the sound of his own voice that he never notices that no one is paying attention to anything he's saying (including himself, apparently).
An achingly young Cynthia Nixon has a lovely moment early in the film when a tuxedo-clad Barry accosts her at the Schwab daughter wedding and they engage in an elegant little dance to "How About You." It's an oasis of old-school, retro glamour amidst all the gauche tackiness. For once I found myself wishing that Altman had just let the moment linger untouched instead of piling on acerbic asides and curdled satire. This uncharacteristically romantic, sincere moment has a nice counterpart later in the film when Barry swoops down from Hopper's helicopter to woo Nixon at her home. The fresh, radiant, and casually bright Nixon goes a long way towards undercutting the film's rampant sexism.
I found a lot to like about O.C And Stiggs, but more than anything I love Altman's style: the overlapping dialogue, the purposefully wandering cameras, the jittery zooms, and the long shots that suggest both sociological distance and the perspective of a bemused trickster-God. Altman might not have succeeded in making a trenchant satire of teen sex comedies, but as is his nature, he twisted and contorted and perverted his source material until it became the basis for something infinitely more wonderful and relevant: a Robert Altman movie. Then again, that's just the minority opinion of one frothing fanboy. Oh, and for the record, Christmas has always smelt like oranges to me.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success