Friday, July 18, 2014

1980 Week: Popeye



          Based on the enduring character Popeye the Sailor Man, a popular attraction in comic strips and cartoons since the Depression era, this big-budget musical comedy was such an embarrassing misfire that it’s amazing the principals behind the film were able to sustain careers afterward. For leading man Robin Williams, who chose this project for his first big-screen starring role after conquering television with Mork & Mindy, the picture led to a stint in “movie jail” that didn’t end until he took a dramatic turn in The World According to Garp (1982). And for director Robert Altman, who should have known better, Popeye dissipated what remained of the goodwill earned by hits including M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975)—after Popeye, Altman spent more than a decade making low-budget oddities until returning to the A-list with The Player (1992).
          Allowing that some folks consider the movie to be a quirky gem, Popeye is likely to strike most viewers as awkward and boring and silly right from the get-go. Amid preposterously elaborate production design that includes an entire seaside village built from scratch, Williams plays Popeye with prosthetics on his arms that make Williams look as if he’s smuggling hams under the skin beneath his wrists and his elbows. Like everyone around him, Williams (badly) sings arty little ditties penned by the idiosyncratic rock musician Harry Nilsson. Meanwhile, Altman regular Shelley Duvall plays Olive Oyl as a mess of goofy pratfalls and shrill noises, while offbeat actors ranging from Paul Dooley to Bill Irwin to Paul Smith (best remembered as a would-be rapist in 1978’s Midnight Express) personify one-joke characters with performances of astonishing monotony.
          All of these resources are put in the service of a turgid story about Popeye competing with the brutish Bluto (Smith) for Olive’s hand, about Popeye and Olive becoming the surrogate parents for an orphaned baby named Swee’Pea, and about Popeye reconnecting with his long-lost dad, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston). There’s also a big fight with an octopus, and, naturally, lots of spinach. While it might seem small-minded to criticize Altman and his collaborators for trying to blend unusual elements, there’s nothing quite so inert as a failed experiment in genre-splicing. As penned by satirist Jules Feiffer, who shares an insouciant approach to comedy with Altman and Nilsson, Popeye clearly wants to be entertaining and ironic simultaneously. Instead, it’s too plodding and stupid for cerebral viewers, and too weird for casual watchers. It’s fair to say there’s never been a movie exactly like Popeye—an arthouse cartoon, if you will—but that’s not meant as praise.

Popeye: LAME

6 comments:

Alan Beauvais said...

There's no spinach until the very end. I still applaud the production design and casting (though the script severely handicaps the actors), and one must admit that the film proves you can "Altman-ize" anything. Unfortunately, the whole thing is like a dish that looks great but tastes terrible.

adam said...

Saw this at the movies (suppose I was about 16) and even then I couldn't figure out who the film was aimed at. Didn't seem like a movie that would appeal to kids or adults. I do think the casting (particularly of Williams, Duvall and Moffat) was good but other than that, I have to agree; this was a mess.

Xteve said...

One of those films that wound up being a tremendous bomb despite the talent involved. I love Nilsson but even his score for this just doesn't quite work.

Will Errickson said...

Saw it in the theater when I was 9, found it odd and boring and ugly. In recent years I've become a huge Altman and even Nilsson fan but I'm reluctant to revisit POPEYE.

James Wood said...

Well, somebody has to be the voice of dissent. Also saw this in the theatre when I was 9 and loved it. Saw it a couple of times actually. It's definitely from the Shel Silverstein school of kids entertainment though. Probably made more sense to hippie kids. Most of my friends loved it. The Nilsson songs are great, especially "He Needs Me", which PT Anderson used in it's entirety for 'Punch-drunk Love".

Kevin Mac said...


I loved it, and have great memories. I was a comic strip Popeye fan, and to me they captured that world. The 1930's one Segar created. Yeah, it's weird. But at around 17 and into New Wave, I might have been the right audience for it. Saw it on my very first date, and this was our movie. My GF and I would often sit and listen to the soundtrack album, and my mom would later make fun of me for it. "Popeye?" she'd query, in a snarky Scottish accent. But hey, we were young, in love, and stupid as hell.