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How Mismatched Direction Ruins a Movie / Whining About "Popeye" (1980)

I really, really did not enjoy Popeye.  I'm not sure why Stephanie and I bothered to watch it in the first place - I'd heard it was terrible and neither one of us is exactly a super-fan of the original comics / cartoon.  Maybe we were just feeling sentimental about Robin Williams and wanted to see something of his we hadn't seen before.


But whatever the reason, we sat through this movie.  We did not laugh even once.  It's safe to say this is one of the worst comedies ever made.  I hate using phrases like that because it devalues the word "worst," but I don't know what else to say... Movie 43 had problems, sure, but at least a few of the sketches in that one made me laugh.  Popeye just made me cringe.

It was like watching a couple of parents struggle to make up a bedtime story for their kid and act it out with silly voices and a couple of rap songs, except the kid in question is actually sixteen years old and is introducing his girlfriend to them for the first time.  "Why are you doing this to me, Robin Williams Dad and Shelly Duvall Mom?  You ruined my life!"

I'd go on about all the things I hated in this movie, but that's not really my shtick here.  I'm less curious about what was bad than I am about why.

The thing is, Popeye did so many things right that it should've been a home run.  The set design was terrific.  The actors were all basically doing a good job.  Everything was over-the-top and cartoony, which was perfect since it was a movie based on an over-the-top cartoon.  The music... well, okay, the music was shit, but that can't be the reason the movie didn't work.

After thinking about it for awhile, I believe the blame here rests entirely with Robert Altman.

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on Altman.  I've only seen three of his movies so far, Popeye included.  But the other two - Gosford Park and The Long Goodbye - give me a good idea of his sensibility.  Cartoony it ain't.

Altman uses a naturalistic, deadpan take on his subject matter.  His direction involves moving the camera and focus to wrench movement and progression out of banality and subtlety.  The Long Goodbye is a great comparison point.  It's an excellent movie about betrayal, murder, and crime - but a good 90% of it is just Marlowe talking to various witnesses and trying to figure things out.  The emotional impact comes from a growing sense of dread as he puts the pieces together and makes horrible realizations.

When you try to make a living cartoon like Popeye, that style is counter-productive.  The great thing about cartoons is that they're punchy and absurd.  You need tight editing and explosive direction to emphasize those qualities.  The one thing you don't want to do is give the audience a chance to scrutinize the reality of the scene.  Altman's naturalistic direction gives you time to evaluate every nuance and say, "Wait... that isn't right.  People don't have huge forearms.  Am I being lied to?"

The result is a flat and monotone movie with a bunch of actors humiliating themselves.

Contrast this with another living cartoon that succeeded: Little Shop of Horrors, just six years later.  It's another musical comedy about outrageous characters who overact at every chance they get, but it's fun.  Frank Oz never lets the camera linger too long, he keeps the movie snapping along, and he emphasizes every moment of camp.


Even the run-times are telling: Popeye clocks in at 114 minutes, which is ridiculous by pretty much any standard of comedy, while Little Shop of Horrors is a trim 95 minutes.

I would hardly call Altman a bad director.  Obviously his technique worked well most of the time and established him as one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history.  But this was such a bad fit for him, I would have expected it to ruin his career.  (Actually... I'm pretty sure it did, at least for awhile.  IMDb shows that the '80s were basically an era of made-for-TV productions and other small films.  It wasn't until The Player twelve years later that he seemed to have any other big projects.)

Popeye is an oddity and a failure, but it inspires a good forum game.  What's the worst directorial / content mismatch you can think of?  Like if Tarantino directed Office Space, or if Bergman directed Maid in Manhattan?  Not that the latter is a good movie, but I bet it coulda been worse.  It's kind of hard to imagine a worse example than Popeye, but I'm sure we'll keep trying.