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Retro Rental: Need a Laugh? We Prescribe ‘What’s Up, Doc?’

Retro Rental: 'What's Up, Doc?'
Warner Bros.

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Retro Rental,' by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

I’m lucky. I’m lucky I get to write this, and I’m lucky you chose to read it. You like movies, and these have been a rough couple days for anyone who likes movies, because it’s been a rough couple days for everyone. Last week, I filed a column about how ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ with its big action and urban politics, wouldn’t make a bad double bill with ‘The Battle of Algiers.’ And waking up Friday to the news, I didn’t much care about that article or any article about Batman. I doubt you did either.

When you’re lucky enough for this to be your job, you love movies and you love talking about them. But everyone loves talking movies. You must talk about the larger things lost when life ends early in tragedy. You can also talk about the smaller things lost, like the idea that Thursday night a bunch of people I would have probably liked didn’t get to walk across the lobby after their night at the movies and, as film writer John Lichman said on Friday, make fun of Bane’s voice or talk about IMAX.

So, I just wanted to laugh and so I rented ‘What’s Up, Doc?,’ a comedy I loved as a kid and a crazy fast-talking movie that (as I did not know when I first loved it) director Peter Bogdanovich made as a tribute to the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. Ryan O’Neal is a professor checking into a San Francisco hotel for a conference on musicology with hopes, dreams and a plaid overnight bag. Soon different guests — a whistleblower, a dowager heiress and wacky wanderer Barbra Streisand at the height of her powers — arrive, with different hopes, different dreams but identical overnight cases.

Streisand’s a wandering genius even smarter, in too many ways, than absent-minded professor O’Neal. There’s chases and slapstick and a closing stunt sequence that cost a quarter of the film’s budget, which means it cost a whole million dollars. There’s crazy-talk and romance and songs, and I loved it as a kid for the finale, a live-action cartoon if ever there was one. It’s a movie that wouldn’t exist if not for other movies. And I just wanted to get away from the news.

Even as I was busy writing about ‘What’s Up, Doc?,’ Bogdanovich wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter where he said of recent events that “violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It’s almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. … It’s all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy.”

I had a split-second brain freeze about if I agreed with him or not and if I should mention it or not, and then I laughed because these aren’t really problems. Then I went back to his movie from 1973, laughing out loud at Streisand and O’Neal laying the streets of San Francisco to waste in his big finish, part Sam Spade and part Bugs Bunny, both of whom have their own history in regards to violent media.

No matter how bad things are, the movies — old ones, new ones — still make us laugh. And I think the movies do more good than harm, a statement it’s hard to make about a 100-round magazine or 6,000 rounds of ammo. There’s an old joke: “People say there’s a lot of violence on TV, and it causes violence in the streets. Well, there’s a lot of comedy on TV, and I don’t see a lot of comedy in the streets.” It’s not very funny, but, then again, the fact it’s old — and the fact we’ve been having this debate for so long — isn’t really funny when you think about it. And thinking like that is what got me needing a laugh in the first place. So maybe tomorrow I’ll go to a movie theater, pay my money, sit down and watch another movie, and laugh, and not think about the news; and not think about, as Roger Ebert put it in The New York Times, how the place so many of us call home, the movie theater, doesn’t feel safe now.

But I always feel good at the movies. Because I love them. And, if you’re reading this, odds are you do too. And we’re lucky that we get to talk about them, and laugh, whether online during the day or in a movie theater lobby long after midnight.

Soon, we’ll talk about what all of this means, when we’re not all in shock or rage, and the only thing I know for sure about that is better-qualified and smarter people than I will do it. In times like these, we recognize how lucky we are to be lucky, and how lucky we are to be alive. And if you need a laugh this week, like I did, try ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ And I hope to see you out at the movies, too.

‘What’s Up, Doc?’ is available on DVD or VOD through Amazon.

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