Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Noah Baumbach’s new film, Mistress America, is a modern farce. Gear up for it with five days of classic ones.
Like a lot of cocky young male filmmakers, Peter Bogdanovich first made his mark in show business by putting a personal spin on traditionally macho genres, via the violent low-budget 1968 thriller Targets and 1971’s haunting modern western The Last Picture Show. But Bogdanovich’s heart was always more in fizzy screwball comedies from the 1930s and ’40s. So when the success of The Last Picture Show made him one of the hottest talents of “the New Hollywood,” he upped his degree of difficulty by co-writing and directing his own version of a classic movie farce with 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? He came away with a massive box-office hit, and the conviction that his real skills were in fast-talking comedies—a belief reinforced by his next retro-minded smash, 1973’s Paper Moon.
Subsequent flops dinged Bogdanovich’s reputation, and as a result What’s Up, Doc? maybe isn’t as appreciated by movie buffs as it should be—especially given how hard it is to pull off an homage like this without producing something labored. A clever reinvention of Bringing Up Baby, What’s Up, Doc? stars Ryan O’Neal as a mild-mannered musicologist who travels from Iowa to San Francisco to make a pitch for a grant, but keeps getting flummoxed by a free-spirited flibbertigibbet played by Barbra Streisand. As the two leads stumble over each other, Bogdanovich follows the criss-crossing paths of four identical-looking satchels, and fills the edges of the frame with some of his go-to actors, including Madeline Kahn, Randy Quaid, and John Hillerman.
Always more of a cinema scholar/fan than an artist, the Bogdanovich of the 1970s was good at storytelling and shotmaking and not as good at social relevance or thematic depth, which may be why his biggest hits of that decade aren’t often mentioned alongside the likes of Mean Streets or The Godfather. Also, What’s Up, Doc? in particular has a hyperactive sense of humor that may not be for everybody. But unlike the stilted “zany” comedies of the 1960s, the film demonstrates an understanding of how screwball farces actually work. Bogdanovich relies on long takes—with subtle but effective camera moves—to give the cast the time and space to develop a rhythm, and to allow for spontaneous moments of absurdity. After multiple chases and slapstick interludes, everything comes together in a climactic courtroom scene filled with a rapid-fire approximation of human conversation. Was Bogdanovich showing off? Maybe a little. But damn if he didn’t have the chops.
Availability: What’s Up, Doc? is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.