Egged on by the jaunty brass and whistles of John Philip Sousa, a two-bit salesman readies his lot for the business day in the opening moments of Robert Zemeckis' savagely funny 1980 comedy Used Cars. With a swift twist of the pliers, he rolls an odometer from 99,000 miles to a youthful 31,000, then welds a sagging bumper with a thick wad of bubble gum, sprays vehicle interiors with "new-car smell," and welcomes a shipment of yellow cabs glazed in a thin coat of blue paint. Already piling on the visual gags at a breathless pace, Zemeckis and longtime writing partner Bob Gale raise their arms in a one-finger salute to The American Way, with flapping plastic flags as a chintzy stand-in for the real thing. It's hard to fathom that the man behind a movie this spectacularly cynical would later win an Oscar for Forrest Gump; in a mere two decades, Zemeckis changed from a long-sleeved con man to the wide-eyed sucker who drives off in a lemon. Inspired by the whipcrack timing of Golden Age slapstick and the over-the-top scope of comedies like It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Used Cars starts with the premise that all politicians are salesmen, all salesmen are liars, and the best believe their own lies with stirring conviction. Unleashed from a long purgatory of Disney live-action comedies, Kurt Russell brings greasy charisma to the role of a plaid-suited salesman at New Deal Used Cars, a cut-rate sinkhole that competes with the much slicker Auto Emporium across the street. In an early scene, Russell literally lures away business by baiting a fishing rod with a $10 bill and reeling a customer through six lanes of oncoming traffic. When Russell's straight-arrow boss (Jack Warden) dies of a heart attack, his brother and unscrupulous rival at Auto Emporium (also played by Warden) swoops in to claim New Deal as his inheritance. But in his mad bid to raise enough money for a state-senate run, Russell buries his former boss in a '59 Edsel and pretends he's taking a long vacation in Miami Beach. On the commentary track of the Used Cars DVD, which also includes funny outtakes and promotional detritus from the innovative ad campaign, Zemeckis calls his comedy "a Frank Capra movie where everybody lies." No matter how low Russell stoops for a quick dollar, whether wrangling customers with kickbacks, live strippers, or short cons, he's still the classic American hero, a dreamer and underdog fighting hard against heavy odds. (Zemeckis also endorses Hitchcock's premise: "You'll love a man who's good at his job.") The happiest suckers of all, of course, are the viewers, who are conned into embracing a character who would step on their necks for an extra buck. They'd probably vote for him, too. Loud, vulgar, and unrepentantly raunchy, Used Cars occasionally careens into the strident mugging and lowbrow gratuity made popular by Animal House two years earlier. But taken as a rancid, festering slice of Americana, it seems more potent than ever.
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