Greaser's Palace

Though now best known for siring one of America's most famous ex-cons, Robert Downey Sr. became a major cult filmmaker in the late '60s and early '70s thanks to irreverent, provocative social satires such as Putney Swope and Greaser's Palace. Time has not been kind to Downey, however, and after more than two decades of terrible flops (Up The Academy, Too Much Sun), his critical reputation has faded significantly. That slump is unlikely to reverse with the video reissue of Greaser's Palace, Downey's surrealistic 1972 comic western and religious parable. Approaching the life of Christ with a sensibility informed equally by Buñuel and Mad magazine, Greaser's Palace stars Allan Arbus as a Zoot-suited Christ figure who parachutes into a frontier town run by tyrannical saloon proprietor Albert Henderson. Arbus just wants to sing and dance, but he soon finds himself healing the sick, resurrecting the dead, tap-dancing on water, and fending off the advances of frontier little person Hervé Villechaize and his transvestite "wife." Like Putney Swope, Greaser's Palace is less a coherent story than a ramshackle collection of skits built around the flimsiest possible premise. But while Putney Swope's self-indulgence is partially redeemed by cutting moments of social criticism, Greaser's Palace's outrageousness feels like facile adolescent shock for its own sake. Filled with random violence, slapstick, silly names, toilet humor, and various other signifiers of lowest-common-denominator satire, the film doesn't so much reward its audience's patience as punish it. Glacially paced and filled with enough dead time and shots of people walking and crawling to fill a half-dozen Bresson films, Greaser's Palace is well-acted and handsomely filmed but unrelentingly dull. Perhaps worst of all, for a film that aims to shock and offend, its juxtaposition of show business and divinity now seems downright quaint. As a product of an unusually adventurous time in cinema history, Greaser's Palace has perverse appeal. As a comedy, it's virtually unwatchable.

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