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  What's Up, Doc? That's The Dumbest Thing I Ever Heard
Year: 1972
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Stars: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, Phil Roth, Sorrell Booke, Stefan Gierasch, Mabel Albertson, Liam Dunn, John Hillerman, George Morfogen, Graham Jarvis, Randy Quaid, M. Emmet Walsh, Kevin O'Neal
Genre: Comedy, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: This is the story of a plaid suitcase. Or two. Or three, maybe four. One contains some top secret government documents, and the current holder of that is being followed by a man carrying golf clubs, while another contains the prized rock collection of a musicologist, Dr Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal), who is in San Francisco with his fiancée Eunice (Madeline Kahn) to attend an event. That event sees him pitted against a rival (Kenneth Mars) for the grant being given out by the patron, Larrabee (Austin Pendleton), but soon Howard has bigger worries when he crosses paths with a mysterious young woman (Barbra Streisand) who takes a shine to him.

The films of Peter Bogdanovich perhaps epitomise the nostalgia that American pop culture had for the Golden age of Hollywood during the seventies, and after he had made The Last Picture Show, he went on to take over a new project, an adaptation of Herman Raucher's novel-with-a-twist, A Glimpse of Tiger. However, what he really wanted to do was an homage to classic screwball comedies, so the project was quickly refashioned into a tribute to the likes of Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve, often with some of the same jokes.

Producer and director Bogdanovich hired the Bonnie and Clyde writers Robert Benton and David Newman to adapt his story into a script, then Graduate writer Buck Henry was brought in to polish it, though he actually rewrote significant parts. The result was a film which never escaped the shadow of its influences, but then, it was happier to be compared to them, flatteringly of course. Not all the reviews were kind, accusing the director of offering a carbon copy of the laughs of the originals, but who listened to them? What's Up, Doc? was a big hit in its day and if you're not too slavish in your admiration of the likes of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, then you should find much to enjoy here.

In fact, although she reportedly didn't like the film very much, it undoubtedly contains Streisand's best performance, at least in a comedy setting. For nearly half the film we don't even know her name, and the reason she latches onto Howard is never really cleared up - she's the antecedent to all those magical females who improve the hero's life for countless comedies to come. Of course, she was based on an archetype established decades before, but here she proved such a thing could be successful in a modern setting. Winningly, Streisand never overplays her character, acting as if what she is doing is perfectly sensible, and it probably makes perfect sense to her.

Without such a force of mayhem, the film would have trouble getting off the starting blocks, and O'Neal is perhaps not quite as convincing as a musicologist, but Bogdanovich wisely lets the comedy happen to him more often than not, rather than have Howard be the instigator. Along the way, his new admirer's attraction to him has her posing as the prim Eunice at the dinner in the hotel, something he has to comply with without making him sound crazy - which he does anyway, as she makes everyone sound crazy eventually. Streisand gets to sing two songs, overselling Cole Porter at the start and presenting a surprisingly sweet version of "As Time Goes By" with O'Neal at the piano, but the real highlight is the breathless chase through San Francisco streets, ending up in the bay with some terrific stuntwork. Far funnier than its detractors would have you believe, you can see why many take What's Up, Doc? to their hearts. Music by Artie Butler.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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