During the early years of his career, before he discovered the joys of motion-capture effects and ponderous drama, Robert Zemeckis was an expert manufacturer of zany comedy. He made his directorial debut with the zippy I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), about crazed Beatles fans, and he cowrote Steven Spielberg’s over-the-top World War II farce 1941 (1979). Yet Zemeckis’ next project arguably marked the apex of his cinematic apprenticeship. Used Cars, which Zemeckis cowrote and directed, is an adrenalized super-comedy filled with wall-to-wall action, jokes, plot twists, and youthful energy. The movie is gleefully crass and merrily overwrought, but for viewers who encounter Used Cars in the right mood, it’s a total blast.
Conceived as a broad satire linking consumerism with politics and salesmanship, Used Cars stars Kurt Russell as salesman Rudy Russo. Working at decrepit New Deal Used Cars, which is run by amiable geezer Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), Rudy decides to run for a state Senate seat. Meanwhile, Luke’s twin brother, the dastardly Roy Fuchs (also played by Warden), schemes to put Luke out of business by opening Roy L. Fuchs Pre-Owned Automobiles directly across the street from New Deal. Eventually, Rudy finds himself in the middle of war between the brothers—even though Luke dies fairly early in the movie’s running time, and even though Luke’s daughter, Barbara (Deborah Harmon), emerges as both a challenging X-factor and Rudy’s potential love interest.
As they later demonstrated with their Swiss-clock script for Back to the Future (1984), Zemeckis and longtime writing partner Bob Gale were highly adept at creating outrageously complicated storylines. The writers juggle literally dozens of major elements in Used Cars, from a superstitious mechanic (Gerrit Graham) to a pair of sleazy video pirates (played by Michael McKean and David L. Lander, better known as “Lenny and Squiggy” from TV’s Laverne & Shirley). The storyline also features Jimmy Carter, a live-TV wardrobe malfunction, a Mexican car salesman, professional football, and student drivers. Much of what happens onscreen is clever, and much of what happens onscreen is juvenile. It all coalescences into a jubilant brand of high-octane comedy, and gentle pokes at real-world issues keep the movie from becoming pointlessly silly.
Russell is fantastic, blending oily charm with dunderheaded confidence; his character comes across as a reprobate version of a Frank Capra hero. Warden is wonderful, too, portraying Luke with avuncular likeability and Roy with devilish intensity, while Costar Graham is endearingly maniacal, freaking out whenever he realizes he’s near a red car. Zemeckis never pushed the boundaries of good taste this far again, opting for a family-friendly style in Back to the Future and other pictures, so the R-rated Used Cars remains his most grown-up yukfest, which is ironic given that so much of the film’s content is deliberately infantile. At its best, Used Cars is like a manic Warner Bros. cartoon, only with cursing and T&A.
Used Cars: GROOVY