50 Movies for 50 States Part Two – The `80s: #3 – Arizona, Film – Used Cars


#3 – Arizona, Used Cars

Used Cars (1980), a Columbia Pictures Corporation and A-Team production, directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, with Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Gerrit Graham, Frank McRae, Deborah Harmon, Joe Flaherty, David L. Lander and Michael McKean, original music by Patrick Williams, cinematography by Donald M. Morgan, edited by Michael Kahn, filmed in Mesa, Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona

The plot: Brothers Luke Fuchs and Roy Fuchs own competing used car lots on opposing sides of a stretch of Arizona highway. When Luke dies of a heart attack, purposely caused by one of Roy’s schemes, Roy stands to take over his brother’s business. However, before Luke dies he leaves evidence with Rudy Russo – a young and cunning salesman with political aspirations – that Roy might something to do with his death. Rudy then attempts to prevent Roy from taking over Luke’s lot by burying Luke’s body and claiming that Luke went to Miami on vacation. But the situation gets complicated when Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Jean – the rightful heir to Luke’s business – shows up looking for her father and Rudy takes a romantic interest in her. And then things get really out-of-hand. Barbara Jean winds up taking control of her father’s business, but winds up in court after Roy has one of Barbara Jean’s television commercials altered to make it appear that she’s practicing false advertising. (Barbara Jean states on the commercial that her used car lot has many “styles” of cars. Roy has the audio changed to make it sound like she’s saying that she has “miles” of cars. In reality, Barbara Jean only has about 25 cars on her lot.) Luckily, Rudy Russo has the connections (and money raised for his senatorial campaign) to bring an extra 250 cars onto Barbara Jean’s lot. But will Rudy Russo be able to find the resources and time to move that huge convoy of cars where they need to be in time for Barbara Jean to win the court case and save her father’s business?

The age old problem with writing about comedy is that when you begin to discuss why something is funny, it ceases to be funny. Luckily, this won’t be a problem here because Used Cars is not particularly funny, despite being billed as a comedy and purporting to have gained a significant cult fan base since its release over 30 years ago. To the movie’s credit, there are some amazing car stunts toward the end of the film, but since Used Cars is supposed to be a comedy (it says so right on the poster) and not an action movie, I’m going to talk about it from a comedic standpoint.

There are many reasons for Used Cars‘ lack of yucks. The plot is bloated, confusing – not to mention completely infuriatingly implausible. Its dated, risque adult humor feel out-of-place and awkward. A woman’s dress being torn off after it gets caught on a car hood is funny when it’s a throwaway gag, but when you base an entire scene around it, it doesn’t cut the mustard. Some of my only laughs came – aside from one or two throwaway lines here and there — came from Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster of The Munsters), in his role as a courtroom judge. That probably speaks more to Lewis’s abilities as a comedian than to the film itself.

Zemeckis and Gale’s script is long and complicated and hardly ever slows down in time to give you the chance to laugh and, based on the Used Cars screenplay alone, I would guess that Zemeckis and Gale are two of the least funniest people alive. Rather than create intrinsically funny characters, Zemeckis and Gale have an over reliance on gags to get a laugh. A number of these gags involve gratuitous nudity in some form, but even those that don’t are as subtle as a cream pie in the face. Take, for instance, when when Kurt Russell’s character uses a piece of chewing gum to hold up a broken car bumper. Talk about some serious Looney Toons shit. Remarkably, Gale claims on the DVD commentary that he and Zemeckis spent time with real used car dealers in preparation for writing the script. Surely the world of used car dealerships is strange and quirky enough to render something like the aforementioned bubble gum gag unnecessary.

The story is completely unbelievable. I hate to make too big of a deal out of this, but — like I mentioned — Zemeckis and Gale claimed to have done “research” prior to writing this movie. So, remember this piece of information, because it may come in use one day if you’re ever trapped in a Robert Zemeckis movie:

Two hundred and seventy-five cars equals one mile of cars. Exactly. Not 274. But 275.

That’s an important fact, because — SPOILER ALERT — the final scene of the movie, which takes place at the character Barbara Jean’s used car lot, rests on this fact. If you remember from the synopsis, the character of Barbara Jean is on trial for “false advertising” because she claimed (or appeared to claim) that her car lot had “miles of cars.” In the end, everyone involved in the trial is at her business to see if she can back up the claim she made on her commercial that her dealership has “miles of cars.” But Barbara Jean only has 274 cars!

That’s not a mile! She needs one more car!

Come on. A good story doesn’t need to lapse into implausibility as a convenience. That’s just lazy screenwriting. I guess you can defend the movie by claiming that, from the start, it never intended to be realistic since a major plot point involves a burying a man who died of a heart attack then covering up his death by claiming he’s on vacation. But how is that unrealistic? That happens all the time! (Probably)

People don’t get sued for using a figure of speech like “miles of cars!” That’s something a 4th-grader with no understanding of libel laws would make up! It’s not funny! It’s just dumb! It’s not outrageous! It’s a convenient but wholly unrealistic way to interject conflict into a plot!

Did I mention that Used Cars is dated? Maybe the character of the shady used car dealer was once clever and new. But today, that character is about as cliched as the horny housewife or the horny milkman or the dishonest preacher. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mostly, Used Cars had me wondering: How is it possible that the same person responsible for one of the greatest films of the 1980s, Back to the Future (not to mention Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), is responsible for this clunker? Is it that Robert Zemeckis – despite being a special effects whizkid – is nothing more than a mediocre director who got himself a lucky rub from Steven Spielberg (who also failed spectacularly in the straight comedy genre with 1941) and who has been smart enough to continually surround himself with really talented people (usually Spielberg) to cover up his own weaknesses as a filmmaker? If ever proof was required that “making it” in Hollywood is just as much about who you know than what you know, Robert Zemeckis is that proof.

Used Cars is Zemeckis, the auteur. There’s plenty of other people to blame for the film’s failure, but I blame Zemeckis. It’s easier that way. Especially when he continues to make crappy multi-million dollar Uncanny Valley fests. It makes sense too that Zemeckis should be so into 3D animation, since Used Cars proves that — in addition to being a terrible writer — Zemeckis is also terrible with actors. There’s plenty of funny people in Used Cars. If Zemeckis had spent as much time encouraging his actors to “be funny” as he probably did prepping the big car chase scene at the end of the film, maybe Used Cars could have been a classic.

But probably not.

From the soundtrack – I couldn’t find Bobby Bare performing the theme song (which runs over the end credits), so here’s John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” (which runs over the opening credits)

Next week: Arkansas


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18 responses to “50 Movies for 50 States Part Two – The `80s: #3 – Arizona, Film – Used Cars

  1. Boy do I completely disagree with this review. Used Cars not funny??? How can you say this??? Obviously what is funny to one person isn’t funny to the next. I laughed only a few times during The Hangover. Anyhow, Used Cars was one of the funniest films in the 80’s. Loved Kurt Russell. Loved Jack Warden. The film really takes sitiations that are serious and had me laughing. (knocking nuns down with firehoses, that’s funny. Selling a car as a man has a heart attack, again funny to me). Jack Wardens double acting duties showed just how talented this late actor was. Of course I fell in love with this film back in 1980. If someone was to pop it into a blu-ray player now, its dated. No doubt. Depending on age they probably won’t understand some things. (Lenny and Squiggy who??? Jimmy Carter who???). It was the simple humor in Used Cars that I Love. It’s the way the film was shot. Used Cars captures a moment in time. The begining of the 80’s. Used Cars will always have a place in my collection and in my heart. To the people that don’t like it. “YOU MUST BE TOO FUCKING HIGH!!!” (a line from the movie for all you that didn’t get that.

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  2. I knew I’d get grief for not liking Used Cars. It was just way to “Hyuck yuck yuck!” type of humor for me, if that makes any sense. Maybe I just need to lighten up. 🙂

    Guess somewhere down the line I’ll have to give Used Cars a second chance review.

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  3. Bret A. Arnold = @ZeekZombieMan on Twitter, by the way. Follow him. He’s a cool dude even if he is a little bit deluded about Used Cars. 🙂

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  4. I really don’t believe that you get the gist of this movie, or probably even movies in the same category like “Slap Shot”, “Captain Ron”, “Trading Places”, “1941”, and “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” And yes, even The Three Stooges, and Laurel and Hardy fit here.

    These movies illustrate the humor and satire that we really never see in real life except when told in a story.

    This is not a movie like “Airplane”, laced with anticipated jokes and vaudeville acts. This is not a movie to support overbearing comedians like Will Farrell or Billy Crystal, or idiot directors like the Farrelly Brothers, that illustrate nothing but lame buffoonery and cheap one-liners. You can shove Lou Costello here, too. Gags and stupid witticisms can be found here.

    Create intrinsically funny characters? The entire cast are intrinsically funny characters. Used Cars is brilliant film-making with an great story. It’s an excellent Kurt Russell movie. Some serious veteran actors star in this motion picture.

    I’m sure that Cary Grant was laughing his ass off when he watched this.

    But, uh, Cary Grant is too “dated” for you.

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  5. i like this quote the best: “Used Cars is brilliant film-making with an great story.”

    whatevs. who cares. internetz.

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  6. LOL.

    No, I embrace this kind of feedback … and, you know — I’ll concede that I might have totally missed the mark with Used Cars the first time around. It SEEMS like the kind of movie I should have enjoyed.

    As for the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy — sorry. Kurt Russell has nothing on these guys. Are you a Kurt Russell fan? That might explain a few things.

    I don’t know, man. Motherfuckin movie thinks it’s all zany and wacky and shit.

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  7. I think that if Used Cars didn’t captivate you within the first five minutes, then it’s not your type of comedy.

    Actors have a lot to do with the enjoyment of a film, particularly if you like the actor. A friend suggested the movie Idiocracy, commenting about her non-stop laughter. I couldn’t get past the first 20 minutes and dumped it. It was a stupid premise for a movie, and I can’t stand either of those moron Wilson brothers.

    Not sure what you do like, but Used Cars will never be a lemon to those who lavish in this type of humor.

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  8. It’s not my type of comedy. I expect comedy to be funny.

    I’m just teasing you. I don’t get the Kurt Russell fetish that a lot of people seem to share. I once had a friend who would go on and on about Captain Ron…

    Idiocracy was pretty stupid. See. We can agree on some things.

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  9. Well, if you grew up with Kurt Russell, as I did, then that is part of it. The other part is that he’s a traditional actor, as opposed to Farrell, Hanks, and Crystal, who started out as dopey comedians and tried to become actors.

    That, of course, is my opinion, but Used Cars, and Russell’s next film after it, Escape From New York, attest to the fact that you don’t have to be a comedian to make movies that are funny. Or not. Hanks got smart and made that transition. Crystal was good in Monsters, Inc., though we did not have to look at his ugly mug, but that’s about it for that curly-hair fruitcake. Will Farrell should have retired upon leaving SNL.

    Yeah, Kurt Russell had done some less than home-runners, like Poseidon, but I could go on and on about Captain Ron, too!

    Here’s a test:

    Select one.
    a. Seinfeld
    b. Elaine
    c. Kramer
    d. George

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  10. Also, Monty Python? No.

    John Cleese in Basil Fawlty? Yes.

    Benny HIll? Always!

    And American Robin Williams? Never! Fucking Ever!!

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  11. agree to disagree, again, and yes, just teasing.

    i LOL’d at this though: “And American Robin Williams? Never! Fucking Ever!! … as Basil Fawlty.”

    i would probably be interested in that trainwreck.

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  12. I was correcting my grammar, not inferring that Robin Williams play Basil Fawlty. That’d be even worse. I just can’t take his machine-gun-type Mork humor.

    You didn’t give me an answer to the test.

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  13. Chicken?

    Just trying to get a feel for what you do like? Personally, I can’t stand Jerry — he’s in that same stupid overbearing comedian catagory; Elaine is so-so; Kramer is nuts; and I like George.

    I figured that Seinfeld show might be a fair gauge.

    Perhaps a well-liked movie instead?

    Like

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