Stupidity reigns in Start the Revolution Without Me, a goofy riff on the French Revolution—and not just because the movie’s version of Louis XVI is a dolt preoccupied with his clock collection. Directed by Bud Yorkin and produced by Norman Lear—the formidable combo behind several big-budget comedy movies but especially known for their spectacular success in television (All in the Family, etc.)—Start the Revolution Without Me features a frenetically paced combination of farce, satire, slapstick, and verbal comedy. Most of the humor is broad, gentle, and obvious, more on the order of second-rate Carol Burnett Show gags than the kind of inspired lunacy that took root in movie comedies a few years later, following the ascent of Mel Brooks and the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker collective.
Among other weak devices, Start the Revolution Without Me employs chaotic fight scenes filled with pratfalls, crude jokes about effeminate men, self-reflexive narration, silly gags predicated on mispronounced words, sped-up photography, and tawdry scenes of men groping and/or ogling women. Most of this stuff was already considered old-fashioned in the vaudeville era. Some scenes in Start the Revolution Without Me almost work, simply because the skills of the performers trump the shortcomings of the material, and the movie boasts amazing production values in terms of costumes, locations, and props. Plus, of course, the movie has Gene Wilder at the height of his powers, as well as an enthusiastic but miscast Donald Sutherland.
The stars play two sets of twin brothers. In the convoluted narrative, one pair of brothers is raised poor, and the other is raised wealthy. Upon reaching adulthood, both pairs are drawn to intrigue surrounding the French Revolution. Naturally, the poor brothers get mistaken for the rich brothers, and vice versa, leading to trouble as the poor brothers exploit their newfound position in Louis XVI’s court, and as the rich brothers try to escape service in the rebel militia. There’s also a lot of bedroom comedy involving a character loosely modeled after Marie Antoinette, as well as a wink-wink framing device during which modern-day Orson Welles (playing himself) introduces the movie and “tells” the story to the audience.
Costar Hugh Griffith scores some points playing Louis XVI as a nincompoop, Victor Spinettii contributes a fun villainous turn in the Harvey Korman mode, and Billie Whitelaw is alluring as the Antoinette character. Yet Wilder, naturally, has most of the best scenes—as well as many of the worst—because of his no-prisoners approach. He’s infinitely better playing the rich brother, since that role allows for Wilder’s signature psychotic slow burns, and the early running gag about the rich brother’s affection for the dead falcon he wears on his arm is pleasantly absurd. Alas, even though Start the Revolution Without Me has its partisans—the script, by Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman, earned a Writers Guild nomination—the movie gets awfully tiresome after a while. The higher your tolerance for brainless humor, the longer you’re likely to stay engaged.
Start the Revolution Without Me: FUNKY