Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Neglected Gem #61: Cadillac Man (1990)

As Joey O’Brien, the down-on-his-luck car salesman in Cadillac Man, Robin Williams has a slightly greasy mustache and the sickly complexion of a third-rater who can’t even pump energy out of his sleaziness any more. He can still pull off something nervy, like working a broken-down funeral procession, trying to sell both the besieged undertaker and the grieving widow (Elaine Stritch), but he looks fatigued from trying so hard. And when he arrives at work late, and the boss’s son, Little Jack Turgeon (Paul Guilfoyle), tells him he’s going to lose his job unless he sells a dozen cars by the end of the weekend, his face is an alarmingly clear map of his feelings: terror and failure are written all over it. Joey used to be a hot-shot, and he spent his money faster than he could make it – on women, mostly – and now he’s way behind. He owes money. His ex-wife Tina (Pamela Reed) is pressing him to contribute to their teenage daughter’s college fund and provide the kid some kind of paternal moral support. His married girl friend, Joy (Fran Drescher), is contemplating leaving her husband (Zack Norman) but isn’t convinced Joey will be as good a provider. And his other girl friend, a would-be designer named Lila (Lori Petty), wears him out, dragging him to clubs where she wants her ridiculous creations to attract attention.

Robin Williams & Pamela Reed.
The first half hour of Cadillac Man runs at a leisurely pace, and it’s all about Joey’s losing streak. It’s the portrait of a good-hearted loser, and Williams keeps us rooting for him as the filmmakers, writer Ken Friedman and director Roger Donaldson, reveal just how deep a hole he’s buried in. Williams doesn’t play this guy as a gleeful rat; he keeps showing us Joey’s instinctive decency. He’s still sweet on Tina – Williams and Reed establish such a comfortable squabbling rapport that you can see these two ought to be back together – and genuinely concerned for his daughter. We see him at his best when a photographer insults Lila outside a chic club and Joey sticks around to pick up the pieces. He seems to respond to different aspects of the three women he’s involved with: Tina’s feistiness and warmth, Lila’s kooky vulnerability (Petty is touching in a difficult role), Joy’s tireless erotic energy. Drescher, who shares the screen with a wonderful, yapping Pomeranian named Chester, does hilarious, snappy-nasal line readings with pure Brooklyn music ringing through them, and she gets at this woman’s self-absorption by inventing a kind of syncopated distractedness for her.

The movie really winds up during the frantic Sunday car sale, when Joey, making a last-ditch effort to save his job, finds himself pulled in four directions at once. The undertaker shows up, a Russian couple bids impatiently for his time, Tina calls in a panic to report their daughter stayed out all night, and Joy appears with her husband in tow, stringing double entendres that threaten to expose her liaison with Joey. It’s a terrific piece of Preston Sturges manic farce. And then Tim Robbins, on a motorcycle, crashes through the window, and Cadillac Man turns into a first-rate vehicle for an inspired comic teaming.

Robbins plays Larry, the husband of the firm’s receptionist, Donna (Annabella Sciorra), who’s been out all night with Little Jack. Larry holds everyone – salesmen and customers – at gunpoint, demanding to know the identity of Donna’s lover; furious at him, she bursts out that she’s been screwing all of them. It’s Joey who saves the day by claiming to be the guilty party and then, talking his way into a kind of psychological partnership with Larry – he makes the suggestions while Larry, waving his gun and slapping his hand against his forehead (as if he could drive some bright ideas into that dim brain), follows him – gradually gets Larry to let the other hostages go and negotiate with the cop staked out at the Chinese restaurant across the street.

Tim Robbins.
Robbins brings a combination of loose-screw, jack-in-the-box randomness and a precisely focused air of clownish desolation to this role, a crazed variation on Sonny, the would-be bank robber Al Pacino played in Dog Day Afternoon. With his spaced, just-can’t-puzzle-this-one-out look and his penchant for surprise, over-the-top physical outbursts, Robbins makes every move of Larry’s funny and affecting at the same time. In his early career Robbins had a weird gift for playing characters with strange, eccentric energies – The untutored pitcher in Bull Durham, the pipe-smoking madman brother in Miss Firecracker – and he applies it to the role of this knucklehead whose already low self-esteem (he’s been laid off from his airplane-mechanic job) has been driven through the floor by his wife’s infidelity. (The movie hints that Donna’s affair with Little Jack may be a desperate measure to get Larry’s attention, but the idea isn’t developed very well.) Larry is like a kid who goes nuts to get everyone listening to him, and then doesn’t know what to say once they do.

Robbins has a way of responding a few beats late, as if he’d received the message on rebound – by vibrations through the carpet, maybe – and when it comes, it leapfrogs across his whole face. When Joey’s women start to pile up – Lila breaks through the police line, and Tina calls from the stakeout point – Larry asks, “You got a lot of girls. It’s easy for you?,” and you read his appreciative bewilderment in his darting, rolling-marble eyes and his knotted forehead. Larry is very sweet – crazy-sweet – like one of Shakespeare’s comic buffoons (say, William in As You Like It) but with the hinges removed. Robbins parlays him into a full-blown human being.

Friedman’s script is a fairly simple set-up for Joey’s redemption, but the roles are sketched in skillfully and the loose, ambling style of the dialogue allows the actors to feed right into it and build their characters. The movie has a classic screwball cast. And the teaming of the two stars, Williams’s irony playing against Robbins’s helpless bouncing-off-the-walls lunacy, gives the film an emotional center and releases Donaldson’s talent for pushing at tense situation to the limit and suggesting contradicting tones simultaneously. Cadillac Man is more modest-looking than it needs to be (David Gribble shot it), and the end just leaks away: everything is resolved, but we lose track of the element we’ve grown to care about most, the relationship between the two men. But there’s not much else to complain about here. Even the songs Donaldson chose to frame the movie – Julia Lee’s warmly intoned “Opportunity Knocks,” a light, upbeat tune with a sly sexual subtext, and Ry Cooder’s peerless “The Tattler” – are perfect. And if, in the wake of Robin Williams’s sad demise, you’re looking for a terrific performance of his that everyone seems to have forgotten, you couldn’t do better.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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