As he explains to the customs officer, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) has arrived at Los Angeles airport as part of a competition which he won back in his home country of Britain. As he has a relative in America, he thought it the best place to go, pointing out to the officer (James Coburn) that he may be a poet by trade, but still plans to get a proper job when he's here. The relative he is visiting is his uncle (John Gielgud), who has worked in Hollywood for many years as an art director on the movies, and Dennis begins to meet the network of associates his uncle knows, from the expatriates to those in showbiz, little knowing of where he is truly destined...
Evelyn Waugh wrote The Loved One back in the forties, and after a long while as a project planned by Luis Buñuel the reins were handed to Tony Richardson, fresh off the success of Tom Jones. He had a script by Christopher Isherwood that was retouched by Terry Southern, himself fresh from the success of Dr Strangelove, with both receiving credit, and it does come across as far more of a Southern work than a Waugh with his recognisably sixties satirical flights of fancy popping up throughout. It was not only Britain which enjoyed a satire boom in that decade, and for some this was one of the gems of the American version.
In truth, although it has plenty of targets in its sights, what The Loved One lacks is focus, tending to ramble from one blackly comic gag to the next without much of a story to hold it all together. If you like to approach it as a connected series of sketches with Morse at the centre of them, then you will probably get more out of it than if you expected a satisfying narrative; it's not quite random in its construction, but it's not far off. Some complained Morse was outclassed by his co-stars, but he actually does well enough if you ignore his accent, half an everyman bemused by this strange new world he has arrived in, and half as morally dubious as almost everyone else in the film, with one notable exception.
She is Aimée (Anjanette Comer), the pure and virginal worker at the vast funeral home that Dennis ends up at after his uncle commits suicide. This act is significant in that it's the only truly poignant part of the movie, as Gielgud's artist finds himself sacked and with no place for him to go in modern Hollywood (heavy handed message-making alert): the death that occurs at the end is not offered quite as much sad dignity. The tour of the funeral home is one of the highlights, with Dennis being shown the services by Liberace, whose unctuous charm and pursed lips when his suggestions are politely rejected contribute to the eerie calm of the sequence, while still tickling the funny bone.
Liberace is only one of a host of famous faces turning up to indulge themselves in "we're in on the joke" scenes; also appearing are Roddy McDowall as a ruthless producer, Milton Berle having trouble with his wife's grief, and Tab Hunter as a too good to be true tour guide. Perhaps the performance which makes the best impression is Rod Steiger as the truly odd Mr Joyboy, who prepares the bodies for their funerals with a painterly precision, and shares his home with his grossly overweight mother who he is devoted to, which allows the tone to lurch into the grotesque. Mr Joyboy ends up in a love triangle with Aimée and Dennis, with her desperate to make up her mind between two not exactly great options, and in one of the funniest bits writing away to a religious guru for advice only for us to see he is actually a cigar chomping Lionel Stander, making a quick buck out of the gullible. This owes most to the wackiness of the day - it's a sort of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World for the decade's hip generation - but ultimately proves tiring all together in one place. Music by John Addison.