“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” – George Burns
“She’s not just another nurse, ma. It means a whole lot to me, ma. And I want you to know that if you mess this one up for me, I’m gonna punch your fuckin’ heart out.” – Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal)
In Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?, George Segal puts on a gorilla suit and tries to kill his mother. He’ll scare her to death, he hopes. It doesn’t work. He rises from bed seemingly the same as he does every miserable morning, silently lamenting that he still lives in the same apartment with his dotty, nutty mother. He takes a shower, clips his mustache and then, quietly, almost delicately, places the gorilla suit on his body. He’s an exhausted, defeated man. In a gorilla suit. He walks into her room, smashes things around and then jumps on his mother’s bed, a ferocious, terrifying gorilla. She socks him in the balls. He collapses on top of her, resigned to the utter futility of it all. When she realizes the trick, she’s neither mad nor scared. She’s delighted: “Oh, Gordon! You shouldn’t do that! Always trying to cheer me up.” He just wasted a perfectly good gorilla suit. But not so fast. His married brother (Ron Leibman) who lives with an actual wife, will put on that gorilla suit later, run through Central Park, hail a cab, get mugged and get naked, go to jail, he’ll do a lot of things, in fact, some terrible things, often in that gorilla suit. And he’ll stay in that gorilla suit for a long time – so long that the viewer tries to remember when he’s not in the gorilla suit. The gorilla suit should never have been bought. You don’t want a spot-on, costumed representation of your primal, Oedipal madness bubbling to the surface from decades of repressed fury, all encased in fake fur and plastic paws. Or maybe you do.
In Alan Arkin’s Fire Sale, Rob Reiner musters up the courage to finally confront his father while his dad is in a hospital bed, comatose. The beleaguered, frazzled son is visiting his controlling, domineering dad who has recently suffered a heart attack outside a Howard Johnson’s. Normally when faced with the stress of running the family store (which is in dire straits) and contending with his pop, Reiner starts wheezing and gasping for air, making a terrible sound of asthmatic dread. It’s so horrible that it’s hard to listen to without feeling anxious yourself. He makes this awful sound throughout the movie. Even when his dad’s not around. But, now, as his dad is lying there helpless, near death, and since dad won’t even motion to give him advice about the failing family store, Reiner finally lets loose, taking charge, hollering at old dad about the business and his much needed emancipation. Reiner yells: “Well, up yours, genius! I’ll save the store in spite of you! I’ll throw out all that shitty merchandise and I’ll buy some new stuff! And I’ll remodel, rebuild, re-STOCK! I don’t know where I’ll get the money but I’ll get it somewhere! I’ll sell your eyes to Harvard! I’ll sell your heart to the Mayo Clinic! You like that?! And get this! Get this: I will SEE that little Irish number whenever the hell I please! You got that? Putz!”
After this rousing, freeing moment, his dad opens both eyes, wide, and stares right back at his son with fury. Well, that glorious moment is over. Reiner is immediately seized with fear, gasping and wheezing and backing out of the hospital room in a hyperventilating fit. But that’s not the end of it. His married brother (Alan Arkin) who lives with an actual wife, will soon enter the picture, desperate for money and drawn into a scheme to save and expand the store. Neither wears a gorilla suit. They don’t need to. The actualization of their madness lies in their uncle who resides in a mental hospital where he’s under the delusion that World War II is still raging and his brother’s clothing store is Nazi headquarters. He’s going to burn it down.
August Strindberg wrote, “Family … the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children.” I think Strindberg, that laugh riot (actually, Strindberg could be very funny), who also said, “I find enjoyment in the powerful and terrible struggles of life; and the capability of experiencing something, of learning something, gives me pleasure…” would find the terrible struggles of Where’s Poppa? and Fire Sale pleasurable. These are movies about the suffocating damnation of family, of the only freedom being death, of the constant angst of living tied to perishing blood relations. These are about mothers who won’t die, fathers who won’t die – parental figures who can still control their children while infirmed with various ailments or suffering dementia or borderline insanity. They are the center of the madness and they like it that way. Kind of like pill-addled Meryl Streep in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, except with Ruth Gordon as the mother and Vincent Gardenia as the father. And, as I recall, Meryl Streep doesn’t announce to the table George Segal’s penis size. She could have though. I’m not being funny in making these comparisons – family is the source of many miserable works, many dramas so brilliantly utterly awful, they verge on comedies. Novelist and screenwriter Robert Klane, who wrote both Where’s Poppa? and Fire Sale, threw out the drama and went straight to the laughter – laughter from hell. What’s the point? Every horrific thing about family, from terrifying old folks’ homes to wives locking themselves in refrigerators attempting suicide is funny to him.
And he was funny to many readers at the time (Phyllis Diller and Joseph Heller blurbed his novels – pretty sure the great Philip Roth cannot boast the same). Klane adapted both movies from his blackly comic novels that were, in vast understatement, obsessed with dysfunction and death. And not only with death-death, but the stages of death in all of its rude permutations – decay, flesh almost rotting, embarrassing outbursts and gross displays from demented minds. Ruth Gordon pulls her son’s pants down and kisses his buttocks at the dinner table. Vincent Gardenia lies in bed, constantly, with his pajama top open, belly exposed. Either he doesn’t care or no one in his family does or everyone likes it. One doesn’t know with Klane, his humor is so perverse, and if your mind is going there, it’s probably going to the right dark place. With this morbidity obsession, it’s not surprising, then, that Klane’s natural progression was in taking a stand in-paternal figure (a boss), killing him, and having his two leads drag his dressed-up corpse all over the movie. Death! Freedom! Well, not really. Death’s not so easy either, and when you put a hat on it, it’s really an issue. That was Weekend at Bernie’s, another Klane creation.
There’s not much information about Robert Klane out there these days other than his largely out of print novels, his IMDB page (he also wrote and directed the second Weekend at Bernie’s) and a 2014 suit against the studios behind Bernie’s, for, among other things, breach of contract and “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.” (Look it up and see all of the headlines joking about dragging out the dead body, 25 years later. Klane seemed to create his own real life absurdity comedy with the suit). In a 2009 Independent column about forgotten authors, he’s described as “loud, lewd, offensive and hilarious, his books kicked black comedy back into style with a mix of taboo-busting farce and broad Jewish schtick… Klane has been described as ‘Max Shulman spiked heavily with the Marquis de Sade,’ but he also incited comparisons to Joseph Heller and J.D. Salinger… Klane’s prose is as blunt as a chucked brick. He has no time for niceties, and recognizes that the best dark comedy, like life, is painful, mean and short.”
Painful, mean and short. Yes. When taking in the double dose of Where’s Poppa? and Fire Sale, add total mental collapse via gorilla suit or arson to life’s blackly comedic pageant. The much-hated (at the time) Fire Sale is, I think, hilarious, though messy and abrasive, but once you give in to it (which is perhaps dangerous) it’s weirdly satisfying. It’s exhausting, but in that way in which scenes go on for such an almost interminable duration, they become funnier the longer they wear out their welcome. One involves Reiner and Gardenia both gasping on twin beds in some kind of panic-stricken lunatic unison, fear and rage emanating from their lung cavities, and it feels like half of a Béla Tarr movie, it’s so long. But it’s funny for precisely that reason. Sid Caesar plays Gardenia’s insane brother and he’s good but Gardenia’s wife, Kay Medford, is the standout comic force here. At one point she simply thinks her husband is dead and lying in the bedroom – so nuts has this family made her, she takes to organizing the funeral party and even ordering the casket, having his body fitted for measurement, only to become annoyed when he’s alive. He’s going to mess up her plans! Alan Arkin fared better earlier with the brilliant Little Murders, but he’s got his heart in the right dark place here, even if the ending is a little peppier than we’d like. Well, it might not be, come to think of it.
Where’s Poppa? is the better of the two – punchier and more deeply satirical, well directed by Reiner, and featuring a performance by Segal that’s wonderfully manic and desperately despairing and, yet, very human and likable. And one could argue that Gordon, an actress possessed of such unique comic timing and phrasing (who on earth was ever like her before or since?) is too likable as Portnoy’s worst nightmare. How can you hate Ruth Gordon? Well, you don’t have to live with her like George Segal does. Still, it’s a strange joy to see her dance around her room, grab her purse before sitting at the dinner table or grab her son, often inappropriately. Part of the point is that these men need to get a hold of themselves – it’s not their mother’s fault, not entirely, even if we suspect their cowardice comes from a lifetime of smothering. What on earth did their dad do? Considering the men in Fire Sale, he wasn’t much help either. And it’s his damn wish she stays.
The supporting players are remarkable: Leibman, who delivers one of the funniest lines in the film (holding his kid and directed at his wife: “Get away from that door or I’m gonna choke your child.”), manages to slide through what would now be considered some of the most politically incorrect humor with such lunacy that its offensiveness seems more directed at him than the supposed targets (though I certainly accept arguments against that). There’s also beautiful Trish Van Devere as the weirdly innocent object of instant love and lust for Segal, an almost creepy angel who endured a short marriage – her husband defecated on the bed. There’s Barnard Hughes as a bloodthirsty Colonel up against a thuggish Rob Reiner, Vincent Gardenia as a kidnapping coach and Paul Sorvino as a terrible man running a nursing home. Terrible. Wonderfully terrible.
Everything is terrible in Where’s Poppa? and Fire Sale. Life is terrible. Families are terrible. Kids are terrible (unless, in the case of Fire Sale and I’m not even going to explain, adopted basketball players, who are better than anyone else, but then they’re not blood). Work is terrible. Love is terrible. Even Howard Johnson’s is terrible (OK, that is terrible). It’s all so terrible that you yearn for the alternate ending of Where’s Poppa? because it’s so perverse, it makes a perfect sense and seems, in the grand scheme of things, supremely terrible. Or not. Again, with Klane, you never know. It’s the correct (if that’s even the proper word) finale to this madness which I will explain here because you’re probably not going to see that ending on the big screen (although… I’m not sure which ending is showing. I’ll keep it a surprise). The other conclusion finds Segal finally unloading his mother to a nursing home, a sliver of hope to begin his life again, and with his lovely girlfriend, only … he goes back. Right back to mother, starting in a similar fashion as he began the film – in bed. In bed with his mom. And not to sleep. Something else is going on here. You get the picture. This time, no gorilla suit. Oedipus complex completed. Madness fully realized.
And Where’s Poppa? and Fire Sale are madness fully realized. Absurdist dives into the ties that bind and choke and pull down your pants at the dinner table. See both movies. Don’t bring your family. Robert Klane did terribly well here. I hope he made his mother proud.