Connie (Colleen Camp) has a talent, and that is enough to get her a place in this year's annual Young American Miss pageant; well, actually it was because she was attractive, for nobody among the judges was overwhelmingly impressed with her demonstration of suitcase packing, but there's a knack to not only winning, but getting selected for time on stage with the other contestants, no matter what other merits you're meant to be displaying. This year the Californian final is being held where it always is, and the duo of car dealer Big Bob (Bruce Dern) and former winner Brenda (Barbara Feldon) mean things will go as smoothly as ever...
Or that's the plan, but there will be more than one crisis happening along before the end credits roll. Smile was sold as a black comedy in the Robert Altman mould, but as Altman himself was releasing Nashville that very same year it overshadowed director Michael Ritchie's efforts here, which was a great shame as any of its fans would tell you. Working from a pin sharp script by Jerry Belson, he created his finest film in a decade which saw him produce the majority of his best efforts, an era which he never quite was able to live up to. That sense of American melancholy also imbued the story with unexpected insights as the last act came around.
But primarily this was intended to make you laugh, and Belson, a veteran comic writer who mostly worked in television, summoned up the height of his talent here to fashion jokes which not only provoked the chuckles and guffaws, but leant a richness to the characters which could easily have been satisfied simply to send up these plain folks and their aspirations, which we're in little doubt are not as terrific as they would like to believe. Or convince themselves to believe in, at any rate, for there's one chap, Big Bob's best friend Andy (Nicholas Pryor) who has become an alcoholic, not that his wife Brenda knows what to do about that. Neither does Big Bob, continually offering pep talks in place of understanding, and building up a local initiation ceremony among the town's men to little effect.
Somehow Andy's crisis affects his best pal, and by the end Big Bob is questioning all this pageant business and his place in the world, something that never bothered him before. Dern was a revelation if you'd only ever seen him in the bad guy roles which had established his career: given the chance to do comedy, he was hilarious but subtle with it - check out the priceless expression on his face when Andy points out he's actually "goddamned Young American Miss" - yet when the call came to be poignant as Big Bob latched onto the notion that this was as good as it was ever going to get, no matter if he was content with that or not, Dern shone with flying colours. It was one of the highlights of a not inconsiderable run of mostly cult movies, and something his fans could readily point to as evidence of just how superb he could be.
The rest of the cast supported him just as well, with Feldon, best known as Agent 99 from sitcom favourite Get Smart, displaying her acting chops in brittle form, and legendary choreographer Michael Kidd returning to the screen twenty years after another underappreciated cult gem in It's Always Fair Weather as the professional hired to put the entrants through their paces and routines. Of those contestants it was Joan Prather's naive Robin and Annette O'Toole's more worldly Doria, who she has an unacknowledged crush on, we focused on the most, though Camp and Melanie Griffith also made an impression, as did Maria O'Brien (Edmond O'Brien's daughter) as the pageant's sole nod to racial diversity, a Mexican-American who sees her act sabotaged by the casually racist members of the lineup. For all its surface gentleness, there was real smart to the humour as it made us recognise we were laughing at these people's pretensions and foibles, but also that they had to have something to believe in or they would just crumble, and that's why Smile was so wonderfully bittersweet.
American director, from television, whose films of the 1970s showed an interesting, sardonic take on America. After sour skiing drama Downhill Racer, he had an unhappy experience on the bizarre Prime Cut before a run of acclaimed movies: political satire The Candidate, the excellent Smile, coarse comedy The Bad News Bears, and another sporting comedy Semi-Tough.
An unsung gem of observational comedy. Arguably mimicked endlessly by all those semi-improvised ensemble comedies done by Christopher Guest. Hilarious and humane. What's missing from lesser imitators, Guest's excepted, is the heart. Hard to believe Ritchie went from this to the intermittently fun but deeply dumb Golden Child a decade later.