Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Michael Ritchie: Semi-Auteur

Hey you alls, I've been on a big Michael Ritchie kick as of late and this past weekend I caught up with "Semi-Tough" and "Smile" and was hella impressed by each. It's hard to say what exactly marks them as Michael Ritchie movies but I think it has something to do with his ability to create memorable, sympathetic characters without diluting the vitriolic nastiness and caustic wit of his film's satire. "Semi Tough" for example has aged far better than any film built around an elaborate parody of Erhard Sensitivity Training has any right to. Where "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" gave audiences headbangers in therapy, "Semi Tough" coaxes equal comic mileage out of macho football players immersed in a very seventies program of self-help through self-abuse. I grew up only knowing Burt Reynolds as the macho cheeseball star of lame action movies and hillbilly car-chase opuses so his sly, understated, beautifully modulated performance in "Semi Tough" came as something of a revelation, and not just because he plays the kind of incorrigible smartass who shocks a stuffy publisher early on by matter-of-factly proclaiming that he and his peers aren't really all that into football, that they just enjoy "showering with niggers". The iconic shit-eating grin and even more iconic stache' (remember back when wore mustaches? Good times, good times) are there, but so is a teasing, playful mock-braininess, the sneaky scheming calculation of a guy who's far smarter than anyone gives him credit for. Other things I love about "Semi Tough": 1. Ron Silver as an inscrutable European place-kicker 2. Brian Dennehy as a violent, deranged caveman of an athlete prone to dangling women over balconies 3. Rival football player Carl Weathers chastisting Reynolds for subscribing to New Age EST-style nonsense instead of his chosen belief system, "Pyramid Power", a much more reasonable program rooted in harnessing the amazing spiritual powers of the pyramids 4. Future game show host Bert Convy's surprisingly multi-dimensional, ambiguous take on an egomaniacal self-help guru (it's not hard to see alot of Tom Cruise in "Magnolia" in Convy's performance here) 5. The use of Gene Autry songs as a recurring musical motif 6. Just how utterly incidental football seems to the proceeding 7. its belief that football and satire can comfortably co-exist in a very commercial mainstream comedy 8. The great Robert Preston devouring copious amounts of scenery as a good ol' boy of a team owner. 9. The profanity "Smile" joyously desecrates another American institution, the beauty pagaent, and while there's much about it I love, from its savvy use of Nat King Cole crooning "Smile" to its vaguely Altmanesque freewheeling ensemble mood I think what I like most about it is Bruce Dern's indelible performance as used-car maven "Big Bob", the man behind the pageant. In a sour misfire like "Drop Dead Gorgeous" (a film whose facile nastiness seems even more empty-headed and pointless when held up against "Smile") Dern's character would be held up as a cartoonish creature of ridicule, a grotesque caricature of wolfish, hypocritical American sleaziness. In "Smile" however Dern emerges as a figure of heartbreaking pathos and depth, a true believer in a world that mocks his child-like faith in mom, country, apple-cheeked, fresh-faced young girls and apple pie. Far from being a hypocrite or lecherous old man, Dern sincerely believes in the corn, old-fashioned values of his pagaent and that's what makes him ultimately so tragic. There are two particularly moving scenes late in the film that highlight this aspect of his character. In the first, Dern's despondent, cynical, borderline suicidal best friend catches him repeating something from the pagaent brochure and accuses him of being a seventeen year old beauty pageant contestant in a middle age man's body. Dern seems to understand implicitly that his friend is right and there's something utterly haunting about his slow realization that his can-do All-American spirit makes him something of a joke to the people around him, a point that's underlined further in a riveting closing scene where Dern softly tries to connect with a pair of Marines only to have them all but ignore him as they make leering comments about one of the contestants. Ritchie's seventies output is remarkable: "The Candidate", "Prime Cut", "Smile", "The Bad News Bears" and "Semi-Tough". From there on however it's crazy hit or miss: I remember liking the TV movie he did with Holly Hunter about the amazing, fantastical Cheerleader-murdering mom and I know "Fletch" has a sizable cult. Is anything else he did after the seventies worth seeing? Any "Cops and Robbersons" partisans out there? Anybody have any heartwarming anecdotes about Michael Ritchie the man? Please do feel free to chime in, as I'd like to find out everything I can about this underrated and overlooked semi-auteur

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