Used Cars (1980)

D: Robert Zemeckis
S: Kurt Russell, Jack Warden

After the disastrous failure of Steven Spielberg's elephantine comedy 1941, director Robert Zemeckis and writing partner Bob Gale (I Wanna Hold Your Hand) have fallen back on their own resources for this smaller scale but still fairly elaborate black comic yarn this time. It concerns the rivalry between two used car dealerships run by estranged twin brothers (played by Jack Warden). When the kindly, sickly one dies near the beginning of the film, his loyal sales force cover up his death in order to prevent his nasty brother from inheriting the lot. They also try to increase sales with tactics the old man would never have approved of including interrupting live football coverage with advertisements and featuring live strippers dancing on top of their merchandise. It is all in pretty bad taste, with much of the humour centring miscellaneous harm befalling one person or another or various sex and nudity jokes. It is as if, having gotten away with the orgasm scene in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Gale and Zemeckis decided to go in for more titillation this time. It is not quite National Lampoon's Animal House in its dedication to juvenile hijinks though. It is sometimes closer to the kind of black comedy of which Alfred Hitchcock would approve, and there are some scenes which I'm sure the master would enjoy staging himself (there are shades of The Trouble With Harry in the initial set up). It is not nearly that sophisticated, mind you.

The script is inventive, and the film is not without a satiric undercurrent. For one thing salesman Kurt Russell harbours political ambitions, and there are some nice details regarding this aspect of his personal life and how it affects his professional ethics. There are also quieter jabs at the actual President, shown at one point giving an address to the public which is interrupted by a used car commercial which picks up on his rhetoric and turns it into a sales pitch. There is also an inherent irony in the fact that the lewdness and rule-breaking is all committed by the film's young, modern-minded heroes in the name of basic 'goodness' (saving the lot, protecting the old man's daughter), whereas the villain, outwardly a model of 'old-fashioned' capitalistic values is involved in graft, demagoguery and other manipulations of his own and purely for his own gain. On the whole though, it is mostly a succession of gags and ruses, most of them set pieces and character vignettes revelling in lowbrow humour and comic excess: and they are mostly funny.

It is not as sweet or as compact a film as I Wanna Hold Your Hand, but Zemeckis as director shows a confidence in the use of wider spaces and a broader palette of humour. As if aware of the constant feeling that the film is about to tip over the top into outright farce, certain scenes are staged with a pleasing excess which relieves the tension, including the finale, which involves a spectacular car chase with an entire convoy of beat-up automobiles streaming across the desert like something out of Smokey and the Bandit. The film on the whole is well paced, and though one despairs that the gentler humour of its immediate predecessor has been abandoned, it does work well enough on its own terms to indicate that larger and more interesting things are to come from this creative team. On the other hand, if this is the face of American satire a decade after MASH (five years after Smile) it is a sad lookout for the nineteen eighties.

What is missing from the film is a real sense of humanity. Its characters are really just cyphers, a collection of mannerisms and habits which allow the plot to develop and which set up the gags (Gerrit Graham plays an incredibly superstitious salesman with a thing about red cars). When the script goes for a real moment of human connection between Russell and Deborah Harmon (playing the 'nice' Warden's estranged daughter), it is not there. The relationships between characters only work in conjunction with the more outrageous developments in the story, getting them all together produces comic hysteria which Zemeckis uses well to keep upping the stakes in the action. But one doesn't really care for these people, and we watch just to see how it will come out.

Used Cars is still a funny film though. If you are of a mind to enjoy something in a fairly low brow and black comic mould without being completely asinine, then it fits the bill perfectly. There are nice touches scattered throughout, and watch for amusing appearances by Wendie Jo Sperber and Al Lewis, and though it is not a film that will appeal to everyone, it is bound to develop a loyal following among those to whom it does.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.