Calling First Family a political satire is being too generous, but as one watches—more like endures—the unfunny sprawl of Buck Henry’s solo directorial debut, it’s possible to imagine how this might have worked on paper, specifically as a short story or a comic novella. The arch characterizations, the lewd running joke about a nymphomaniac, the ridiculous payoff involving gigantic fruits and vegetables grown with the aid of a sexually satisfied pagan god—given Henry’s dry wit, all of this stuff must have seemed quite droll at the conceptual stage. On film, none of it works. It’s not simply a matter of Henry lacking directorial experience, though the inert quality of First Family lends credence to the lore that Warren Beatty rightfully usurped Henry during the making of Heaven Can Wait (1978), hence their shared directing credit on that wonderful film.
The problem stems from the nature of the jokes in First Family. To a one, each verbal and visual gag is an intellectual flight of fancy that’s amusing only in broad strokes. The African ambassador who learned random English phrases without understanding what the words mean. The high-level political meeting held in the Oval Office during a costume party, with the nincompoop VP wearing a pink bunny suit. The African leader who wishes to purchase several hundred white, middle-class American families so his country an experience the presence of a “repressed minority.” These are cocktail-party one-liners, not the foundations for screen comedy.
Still, Henry’s track record (cocreating Get Smart, cowriting The Graduate, etc.) attracted a terrific cast to this doomed enterprise. Bob Newhart plays an unpopular president desperately looking for a big win. Madeline Kahn plays his boozy First Lady. Gilda Radner, in the picture’s most absurd role, plays the 28-year-old First Daughter, a virgin whose chastity is protected by the Secret Service. (Because most 28-year-old American women have neither had sex nor left their parents’ homes.) And so on. Richard Benjamin. Bob Dishy. John Hancock. Julius Harris. Harvey Korman. Rip Torn. Fred Willard. Even Buck Henry himself, in two roles. All wasted on material that never elicits so much as a chuckle. Unsurprisingly, First Family was also Henry’s last hurrah as a director, notwithstanding one episode of a PBS sitcom (!) in 1989.
First Family: LAME