Comedy Oddities: Popeye

popeye1980film index

Robert Altman’s musical comedy starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall was an infamous critical flop upon it’s release in nineteen eighty and it’s not hard to see why in the slightest. Not that it’s necessarily a bad film, it’s just an incredibly odd one, what with the way Robin Williams’ mumbles his way through the film, the songs are often strangely paced and there’s a sense of melancholy in certain scenes as Popeye mourns his shitty childhood and the father who abandoned him.

Altman’s of course known for his dramatic character pieces with overlapping dialogue but he did have a fondness for broader comedy as O.C. and Stiggs shows, yet I’m still not convinced he was the right choice for Popeye, the action scenes often misfire as Altman fails to get laughs out of many of the rather brutal fight scenes and he doesn’t stage the big musical numbers that well either, sure, a lot’s going on but none of it is particularly memorable. Having Williams speak in the manner that he does is an unusual choice too, Popeye has a habit of muttering certain things under his breath in the cartoons / comics but he doesn’t do it all of the time in the way he does here.

The story is typically Altman-esque as well in that meanders all over the place, often being a selection of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole, though by the time it gets to the end it becomes more traditional in it’s storytelling. It begins with Popeye arriving in the small town of Sweethaven seemingly quite frightened by strangers and we soon learn that he’s looking for his long lost Pappy, though that part of the story is forgotten about for long patches. He finds somewhere to stay at the Oyl family’s guest house and there he meets the rather perky Olive (Shelley Duvall) who’s due to be engaged to Bluto (Paul L. Smith) though she worries her family just wishes to exploit his wealth.

Then Popeye is mysteriously given Swee’Pea to look after for the next twenty five years, as the child’s parents think Popeye is the right person to bring him up, which turns out to be a good decision as Popeye’s instantly enamoured by the kid. Seeing Popeye with him gives Olive the right horn, ahem, sorry, I mean makes her fall for our beloved one eyed sailor man, but a jealous Bluto beats the shit out of him and leaves Olive, and soon after the Oyl family are ridiculously in debt. It’s around this time that they find out that Swee’Pea has a psychic ability to predict the future, because what kid doesn’t, but when the Oyl family use him to predict the outcome of horse racing Popeye is outraged at such child abuse (his words, not mine) and leaves the Oyl family, and then things get worse for him when Swee’Pea is kidnapped.

A quick bit of research suggests that the plot is very faithful to the original Thimble Theatre comics that Popeye appeared in, bar Swee’Pea’s psychic powers, and though it starts slowly by about the half hour point it becomes very likeable material. It’s a film full of strange decisions though, like the melancholic aspect when it comes to Popeye searching for his father which is genuinely affecting but out of place with the rest of the film, and the songs (by Harry Nilsson of “Everybody’s Talkin'” fame) are mostly downbeat affairs. That’s not to say that they’re not any good (though the quality definitely greatly varies) but for what’s supposed to be a rip-roaring adventure it’s somewhat weird that so many of them are slow, quite downbeat affairs.

A lot of the dialogue is actually very funny, with Robin Williams apparently ad-libbing certain parts of it, but due to the way he mutters it you really have to listen carefully to catch many of the best lines. A lot of which are due to Popeye’s unique way with language – my favourite being when Popeye is searching for Swee’Pea in a brothel / gambling den (which yes, is as bizarre as you might imagine) and he utters “Don’t touch nothin’. You might get a venerable disease”, but there are many other great examples. The rest of the cast are superb too, Duvall is amazing in general, all odd squeaks and squeals, Paul L. Smith embodies Bluto’s surly meanness perfectly, while Paul Dooley’s Wimpy could have walked straight out of the comics as he captures his mannerisms completely.

In some ways I’m glad that Altman made the film that he did, it’s an engaging and entertaining work, even if it is a ludicrous mess, which I found myself liking a lot. But it’s definitely a shame that it takes a quarter of the movie before it starts to work effectively, that the songs are so all over the place, and that the action scenes mostly don’t generate laughs when they’re supposed to. I can’t help but feel that a more conventionally shot and directed film might have led to a much funnier film, especially as the cast are impeccable and I can’t imagine any group of actors doing better, but as it is we have this outlandish and eccentric movie which at the very least succeeds in being compelling viewing.

Alex Finch.
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Related Link:
Our Mars Attacks Popeye Review.

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