Why were so many radical '60s movies set in not-so-radical places? In Robert Downey Sr.'s 1969 underground touchstone Putney Swope, an advertising agency feels the full force of the revolution, as the executive staff's token black man, Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson), gains control of the company, and turns it into a phenomenally successful subversion factory, turning out commercials so frank and shocking that people stay home to watch them and don't go out and buy things. The gruff Johnson—voice-overdubbed by Downey himself—ultimately becomes a capricious, terminally dissatisfied dictator, every bit as bad as the fat cats he ousted. So there's some small comfort for said fat cats.
Putney Swope comes on strong early, with an opening boardroom sequence that rivals Mike Nichols and Elaine May for the cutting precision of its language, from the biker-suited "motivational researcher" who comes to New York City to tell the executives that "beer is for men who doubt their masculinity," to the white-collar crank who accuses a colleague of turning his son into "a fag" when "you took him on that picnic hike." But later, the movie loses its focus, jumping from vignette to vignette, interspersed with only occasionally riotous examples of the Johnson administration's TV commercials. Downey scores points off the establishment's hang-ups and the impossible standards of insurgents, but his pacing goes slack, and when he brings in a midget president and a barrage of journalists following Johnson's every move, Putney Swope becomes hard to follow, and subsequently toothless.
Taken in smaller, manageable chunks, though, Putney Swope can still be as pungent and bracing as it was 37 years ago. While it isn't as inherently funny as it once was to hear a guy say "No shit!" in a TV commercial, and while there's little about the film that seems as "vile and offensive" as reviewers once complained, Putney Swope still has the refreshing feel of someone trying to tell the truth in a forum where people aren't used to it. The movie remains a landmark, if only for the way it brought hipness to the town squares.
Key features: An informative Downey Sr. commentary track and interview.