Classic Film Review: The eye candy that was “Popeye”

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A bomb when it opened, reviewed as if Robert Altman was trying to sabotage his then-lauded reputation and end his major studio pictures career, a misfire that halted Robin Williams’ ascent, “Popeye” (1980) lives on as a monument to ’70s cinematic excess, a harbinger of ’80s cinematic excesses to come.

It’s a fascinating bauble in epic form, “Altmanesque” in the sense of messy, chattering lives doing that chattering in a place that never existed — but which lives on, as a tourist attraction on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean.

Yes, Wolf Krueger’s massive, makeshift-looking, sea-stained “Sweethaven” set — Anchor Bay — still stands. It alone is reason enough to reconsider the picture, which has shared traits with other Big Budget movies such as “Catch-22,” “Chaplin” and Spielberg’s “1941.”

There’s wrongheadedness in the whole enterprise, but they literally “don’t make’em like that any more.”

Harry Nilsson’s sweet, forlorn and nostalgic songs compliment but don’t save Jules Feiffer’s aimless, meandering screenplay.

Altman’s normal saving graces, an ensemble riffing and improvising and talking over one another, has a hard time filling that enormous, eye-popping set. Having a couple of members of his  rep company (Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley) on board wasn’t enough.

Sticking the gifted mime, tumbler and clown Bill Irwin is as many shots as he could doesn’t make enough of a difference.

And yet here we are, 40 years later, remembering a movie that stops film buffs — to this day — when we stumble across it channel surfing.

Williams practically needs subtitles for us to catch all his (sometimes improvised) asides and one-liners.

“Don’t touch nothin’. You might get a venerable disease.”

The running gags never quite wear out their welcome, Father Oyl (Olive’s Dad) muttering “You owe me an apology” to everyone over every utterance or slight.

The “Tax-Man” (Donald Moffatt, who rose to fame with “The Right Stuff) interrupting every action or transaction with a bill — “Four dollars twenty-five cents, movin’ out tax… Not up to no good, are you? Because if you are, there’s a 50 cent “up to no good” tax.”

Oh, to see screenwriter Feiffer’s tax returns while he was inventing that guy for the screenplay.

 

Here’s what killed the picture — the ending. Ray Walston’s scene-chewing (with virtually no decent lines) “Poopdeck Pappy,” Popeye’s Dad, arrives in the third act and ensures the movie leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. It’s not all on Walston (“Damn Yankees,” “My Favorite Martian”). Feiffer couldn’t write his way out of this one.

But “Popeye” is perfectly watchable, often downright entertaining, up to that finale. It’s visually rich enough to reward the alert viewer with all these Altmanesque Easter Eggs among the bit players and extras, most of whom only pop off the screen after repeated viewings.

There’s Beatles’ fan, musician and artist Klaus Voorman, conducting an ensemble. Famed rock percussionist Ray Cooper, bald even then, shows up, and there’s Van Dyke Parks at the piano.

And boy howdy, look what “Andy Griffith Show” regular is over there, picking on the old ban-jo — Doug Dillard.

Two future Oscar winners are in that cast — Williams, and in a distinctive bit part (mother to a man-mountain boxer Popeye fights), Linda Hunt.

The one new face and voice that grabbed my attention this last viewing was Dennis Franz, playing a mouthy thug about to get his butt-kicked by Popeye. “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” were in the future.

Franz, Dillard, Hunt and character actor Richard Libertini, the whole lot were flown to Malta and kept there until this picture wrapped, an exercise in excess few would dare hazard today.

Maybe with good cause. It has its charms. And I’ll still take this comic book movie over more than a few of the digital animation-assisted ones that Marvel’s churned out over the past decade.

Altman would live long enough for a glorious comeback, Williams and Hunt would win their Oscars, producer Robert Evans would go on to brag about making classics and epic messes like this in “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and Sweethaven would live on — as an earworm, a status a couple of songs in the film achieved, and as a better-painted world tourists can visit and dine on seafood in, with a side a spinach.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: PG

Cast: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Linda Hunt, Ray Waltson, Donald Moffatt, Dennis Franz, Richard Libertini and Bill Irwin.

Credits: Directed by Robert Altman, script by Jules Feiffer, based on the E.C. Seegar comic. A Paramount release.

Running time: 1:54

 

 

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