It Runs Like A Dream: Used Cars

Published on November 29th, 2010 in: Comedy, Issues, Movie Reviews, Movies, Retrovirus, Three Of A Perfect Pair |

By Cait Brennan

It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, at least in mainstream studio movies, gross-out comedy pretty much didn’t exist. The Motion Picture Production Code dutifully garroted impure creative expression from the early ’30s through most of the 1960s, and when the Code was finally broken, New Hollywood spent ten years making mirthless character studies about sexually dysfunctional bank robbers, suicidal Vietnam casualties, and internecine crime syndicates. There were hints of what was to come in movies like Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears, but for the most part, auteur baby-boomer navel-gazing was the order of the day.

used cars russell

All that changed in July of 1978, when a no-budget frat comedy called Animal House belched its way into theatres with no real stars and zero expectations. It grossed over a million dollars a week and ran for a year and a half. Like a flatulent Trinity explosion, Animal House set off a raunchy-comedy arms race, with every studio in Hollywood frantically green-lighting anything with a dick joke. 1979’s Meatballs struck more box office gold, and by 1980 the marketplace was near-flooded with “adult comedies” from Airplane! and Caddyshack to the Tony Danza/Fran Drescher classic The Hollywood Knights. Even Mad magazine tried to copy their effete Ivy-League “betters” with the nakedly imitative Up The Academy (directed, almost beyond the limits of human credulity, by Robert Downey, Sr.)

In a year like that, it’s not surprising that a great movie might have gotten lost in the crowd. One did, and it might be the best of the bunch: director Robert Zemeckis’ 1980 comedy Used Cars. Zemeckis’ second feature (after his inventive and joyous Beatles tribute I Want To Hold Your Hand), Used Cars stars Kurt Russell and Jack Warden in a merciless send up of American corruption in the pre-Reagan era, with a razor-sharp script penned by Zemeckis and Bob Gale.

It was Russell’s first real attempt to shed his Computer Wore Tennis Shoes image. A few months earlier, Russell had starred as Elvis Presley in a TV movie-of-the-week, John Carpenter’s Elvis. But here, he not only sheds his squeaky-clean Disney image, he soaks it in kerosene and tosses a match. Russell plays Rudy Russo, a giddily corrupt used car salesman whose one salivating goal in life is to buy his way into the Arizona State Senate and an endless river of graft. All he needs is ten grand to pay off the party—and needless to say, he will do anything to get it.

used cars warden

The irascible Warden plays two roles: kindly, broken-down Luke Fuchs, owner of a failing used car dealership; and his vastly more successful (and ruthless) twin brother, Roy L. Fuchs. The evil Fuchs has paid off the mayor to run a lucrative new freeway through the area, and Roy’s determined to take his brother’s dealership by any means necessary. Warden was indispensable in the ’70s, riding a hot streak that included acclaimed turns in everything from All The President’s Men to Being There. He was reportedly attracted to the film for the opportunity to play a dual role, though the beneficent Fuchs brother meets his end early in the film. In a fit of fratricidal rage, Roy hires a demolition-derby driver to take Luke on the test-drive from (and to) hell. Luke’s heart blows its last bad gasket in one of the great convulsive death scenes of all comic cinema. But like an Edsel Messiah, Fuchs dies, is buried, and is then resurrected for one final drive that eventually sets the stage for the film’s climax.

Used Cars also boasts an over-the-moon performance from the criminally underrated Gerrit Graham, already well known for his memorable turn as Beef in Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise. By rights, Graham should have been as big a star in the 1980s as Bill Murray—he’s at least as gifted a comic actor, and perhaps even more nimble than Murray at allowing human vulnerability to break through the manic façade. Graham does his damnedest to steal the movie out from under Russell in scene after scene, including the dealership’s anarchic pirate TV commercials, breaking in to Presidential addresses and football games to literally “blow the shit out of high prices”—along with thousands of dollars of Roy Fuchs’ inventory. Graham also shines in perhaps the film’s single funniest scene, where he convinces a harried father to test-drive a station wagon with the aid of a particularly devious beagle whose sudden demise may have been slightly exaggerated.

used cars dog

A parade of ace comic hands rounds out the cast, including David L. Lander, Michael McKean, Zemeckis fave Wendie Jo Sperber, Second City alums Deborah Harmon and Joe Flaherty, and cult icons like Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis and Dick Miller. And like Raising Arizona seven years later, Used Cars captures a documentarian slice of turn-of-the-1980s Arizona culture. The film was shot on the working Darner Chrysler Plymouth lot at 837 W. Main St. in Mesa, Arizona. (As recently as 2009, Joey Darner told the Arizona Republic that the film’s lease fees helped save the dealership during the downturn of 1979. Sadly for the Darners, a 2010 remake is not in the cards.)

A series of howlingly filthy set pieces, romantic entanglements, and double-crosses leads to the film’s kinetic climax—a classic Zemeckis-Gale race-against time sequence, a cross-country demolition derby race with 250 implosion-ready junkers driven at maximum speed across open desert by a small army of mentally-challenged driver’s ed students.

It may have been sold to the studio as just another raunchy comedy, but Used Cars owes much more to The Great McGinty than to Animal House. Zemeckis and Gale combine the machine-gun wit and razor’s-edge cynicism of Preston Sturges’ best films. The setups are merciless, but the movie’s underlying message is downright Capraesque, railing against the institutionalized corruption that had come to define life in the 1970s. At its best, Used Cars is a stinging satire on the sorry state of the American dream (it’s not for nothing that the dying dealership is called “New Deal Used Cars,” with a ground-down Works Progress Administration-inspired logo fading away to nothing in the harsh Arizona sun.)

Despite its pedigree—the film was executive produced by Spielberg and John Milius, no less—Used Cars underperformed badly at the box office, reputedly done in by the 800-pound gorilla that was Airplane!, a hilarious if comparatively mindless slapstick comedy that was a bellwether of the American mood in the nascent Reagan decade. Zemeckis and Gale, already stinging from the (unjust) drubbing they took over 1941, retreated and regrouped.

used cars cards
Lobby cards

Gale went home to his parents, where he soon found himself thumbing through his father’s yearbook and wondering what his parents were like when they were 17, and wouldn’t it be interesting if he could travel back in time to find out. Gale and Zemeckis set up a script development deal in the fall of 1980 that would eventually produce Back To The Future, just a few short months after the wonderful, woefully overlooked Used Cars ran out of gas.

4 Responses to “It Runs Like A Dream: Used Cars

  1. Eric Weber:
    November 30th, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    This is a great article! I loveeeee that you champion Gerrit Graham as an underrated actor. I’ve been a huge fan of him for years and really wish he had gotten the career he deserved. Did you ever see him in HI MOM!?

  2. Cait Brennan:
    December 2nd, 2010 at 2:27 am

    Thanks! I love Gerrit. I’ve heard about “Hi, Mom!” for years but have never tracked it down to watch. Possibly an excellent topic for a future article!

  3. Pino:
    March 20th, 2014 at 8:14 am

    “…like an Edsel Messiah, …”

    “When the kids had killed the fan, I had to total the van”

  4. Popshifter:
    March 20th, 2014 at 10:08 am

    HAHA! Very clever! Thanks for reading.


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