Although many ’70s filmmakers brilliantly modernized the film-noir genre of the 1940s and 1950s, most ’70s attempts to revive the “screwball comedy” style of the 1930s fell flat. Part of the problem, of course, is that screwball comedies are inherently fluffy, a tonality that creates an inherent dissonance when juxtaposed with the realism to which viewers gravitated in the ’70s. Plus, for better or worse, film comedy had grown up since the ’30s, so the idea of a gentle farce predicated on silly misunderstandings seemed archaic. Yet somehow, wunderkind director Peter Bogdanovich managed to turn an unapologetic throwback into a major success—in every possible way, What’s Up Doc? is an homage to yesteryear. After all, the deliberately confusing storyline swirls several frothy subplots around the even frothier main plot of a fast-talking misfit trying to win the heart of a bumbling scientist.
There’s no denying Bogdanovich’s craftsmanship, because he clearly studied the work of everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Howard Hawks in order to analyze the construction of repartee and sight gags. As a clinical experiment, What’s Up Doc? is impressive. Furthermore, Bogdanovich benefited from the contributions of smart co-writers, namely Buck Henry and the Bonnie and Clyde duo of Robert Benton and David Newman, and the talent represented onscreen is just as first-rate, with one notable exception. Leading lady Barbra Streisand is terrific as she blasts through thick dialogue, somehow making her overbearing character likeable. She also looks amazing, oozing her unique strain of self-confident sexiness. Comedy pros lending their gifts to smaller roles include Madeleine Kahn (appearing in her first movie), Kenneth Mars, Michael Murphy, and Austin Pendleton.
The aforementioned exception, however, is leading man Ryan O’Neal, who comes across like a beautiful puppet—in addition to being far too fit, handsome, and tan to believably play a cloistered researcher, O’Neal evinces no personality whatsoever. One gets the impression that his every gesture and intonation was massaged by Bogdanovich, so O’Neal’s performance has a robotic feel. Similarly, the movie’s elaborate physical-comedy set pieces are so mechanically constructed that they seem more focused on showcasing production values than on generating laughs. For instance, the finale, during which the heroes soar down San Francisco streets inside a Chinese dragon parade float—and during which characters keep just missing a sheet of plate glass that’s being delivered across a roadway—is exhausting to watch instead of exhilarating. (Even the movie’s rat-a-tat dialogue has an overly rote quality. At one point, O’Neal says, “What are you doing? It’s a one-way street!” Streisand shoots back, “We’re only going one way!”)
Ultimately, however, the real problem with What’s Up, Doc? (at least for this viewer) is twofold. Firstly, it’s impossible to care about characters who exist only to trigger jokes, and secondly, it’s difficult to overlook the anachronism of ’70s actors playing situations borrowed from the 1930s. But then again, millions of people flocked to What’s Up, Doc? during its original release, putting the movie among the highest grossers of 1972. So, as the saying goes, your experience may differ.
What’s Up, Doc?: FUNKY