With its barrage of surrealistic plot developments and tasteless jokes, Where’s Poppa? would be a weird movie under any circumstances—yet it’s doubly strange when viewed as part of its director’s overall career. Carl Reiner, one of the most likable comedians America has ever produced, is best known for gentle humor of the family-friendly variety, since his professional highlights include creating the beloved ’60s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show and helming such inoffensive comedy features as Oh, God! (1977) and All of Me (1984). Excepting this bizarre movie, the most offensive thing Reiner ever made was probably the Steve Martin vehicle The Jerk (1979), which is incredibly tame by comparison with Where’s Poppa?
Adapted by Robert Klane from his own novel, Where’s Poppa? depicts the travails of New York attorney Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal), who lives with his senile mother, Mrs. Hocheiser (Ruth Gordon), in a cramped apartment. Momma’s a dottering nut who keeps asking “Where’s Poppa?” because she can’t grasp the fact that her husband is dead, and she smothers Gordon with constant nagging and with inappropriately physical affection. Over the course of the movie, Gordon faces three predicaments: 1) He wants to dump Momma in a nursing home but can’t break a deathbed promise to his father that obligates him to care for his insufferable mother; 2) He wants to marry Louise (Trish Van Devere), the pretty nurse he just hired to care for Momma, but there’s no way the three of them can live together; and 3) Gordon’s high-strung brother, Sidney (Ron Leibman) keeps getting into trouble.
The tone of Where’s Poppa? is all over the place, so it’s hard to know when the movie is going for absurdist humor, black comedy, nasty satire, or surrealistic farce. One scene might involve a gentle joke like Momma using cola in her cereal instead of milk, and the next scene might involve Sidney committing rape in Central Park while wearing a gorilla suit. Yes, you read that right—the “comedy” centerpiece of the movie is a rape scene, which is as gruesomely unfunny as it sounds. So, too, is the icky sequence in which Momma yanks down Gordon’s pants and chews on his ass while a shocked Louise watches. Underlying all of this is the distasteful central premise: The “hero” of the story wants to break a blood oath and dump his mentally ill mother so he can get laid.
Segal does what he can, providing a few almost-amusing moments of exasperation, but his character is so ugly it’s hard to find anything Segal does funny. Similarly, Gordon drops the crazy-like-a-fox bit that distinguished most of her late-career roles and hits the same note of annoying senility again and again; her characterization is alternately boring and pathetic, neither of which is much fun to watch. Leibman’s performance is grotesque, and Van Devere seems lost amid the repulsive situations. Where’s Poppa? has a minor cult following, so clearly some people find the picture amusing, and it’s worth noting that a handful of familiar actors—Vincent Gardenia, Barnard Hughes, Garrett Morris, Rob Reiner, Paul Sorvino—make appearances. Yet it’s telling that after making this picture, Carl Reiner mostly left the realm of bad-taste humor behind, gravitating toward stories that reflect the sweetness one associates with his persona.
Where’s Poppa?: FREAKY