I’ve never quite understood why Caddyshack is so beloved, even though it features an unusual confluence of comedy actors—notably two generations of Saturday Night Live stars, Bill Murray and his predecessor Chevy Chase—and even though the movie fits into an appealing slobs-vs.-establishment continuum that stretches from Animal House (1978) to Ghostbusters (1984) and beyond. Maybe it’s my disinterest in sports, and maybe it’s my disinterest in stupidity, but the magic of Caddyshack escapes me. That said, it’s fascinating to observe how many different levels of comedy the film contains.
The main plot, about a working-class caddy who endures rotten treatment from obnoxious country-club members until turning the tables on his oppressors, is satisfying in an obvious sort of way. A secondary thread, about the mano-a-mano competition between nouveau-riche vulgarian Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) and old-money creep Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight), is performed in broad strokes by traditional comedy pros who make no pretense to real acting. Intermingled between these elements are scenes featuring the SNL guys, and that’s where Caddyshack really springs to life. Chase, who has top billing even though he plays a supporting role, is leading-man handsome as he performs at the apex of his charming-smartass skills, so watching him effortlessly render one-liners and sight gags is a kick. Chase only shows up every 20 minutes or so, but he crushes every time. Concurrently, Murray plays his scenes in virtual isolation, rendering a batshit-crazy characterization as a demented groundskeeper waging ultraviolent war against the pesky gopher who’s digging holes in the golf course where most of the movie’s action takes place.
The irony is that none of these name-brand comedians is the movie’s protagonist. That honor falls to young Michael O’Keefe, so impressive in The Great Santini (1979) and so outgunned by his costars here.
Cowritten and directed by frequent Murray collaborator Harold Ramis—who cowrote Meatballs (1979) and Ghostbusters, then cowrote and directed Groundhog Day (1993)—Caddyshack employs a scattershot approach to jokes. Some of the lowbrow stuff is embarrassing, such as the gag about a candy bar floating in a pool causing a panic among swimmers who mistake the thing for excrement. And some of the throwaway stuff is great, like the bits with a sleazy caddy supervisor played by Brian Doyle Murray, Bill’s brother and also one of the film’s screenwriters. However, the gulf between Dangerfield’s overbearing joke-a-minute attack and Murray’s sly shaping of a complete mythos is massive. And maybe that’s why fans dig Caddyshack—it’s got something for everyone, except for discriminating filmgoers. As a sidenote, Caddyshack introduced the theme-song artistry of soft-rock star Kenny Loggins, who later created tunes for Footloose (1985) and Top Gun (1986). Oh, and Chase was alone among the stars of the original film to reprise his role in the commercial and critical failure Caddyshack II (1988).