Guilty Pleasures: Thomas Pluck

My guilty pleasure is a Robert Altman film. The Long Goodbye, that beatnik take on Chandler? No, but I do like that movie. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the revisionist Western? Nope, I’m talking about Popeye. Wait a minute, Altman directed that? With Robin Williams and all the
singing? Yes, he did. And I love that movie.

I was nine when it came out, an influential age; I struggle to build my forearms to that level of grotesque hypertrophy. The film has a bizarre and unapologetic cartoonish quality about it like the old animated shorts, set in a Depression-era seaside shanty town where sea shanties are sung at the drop of a spinach can, and everyone is a caricature. In perhaps the most inspired and perfect casting ever, Shelley Duvall is Olive Oyl, a role she was born to play. Robin Williams, fresh from “Mork & Mindy,” tackles his first film role with gusto. It’s one of the few comedic roles you’ll see him in where he doesn’t play himself.

The cast is a motley bunch of character actors, a rogue’s gallery of late 70’s and early 80’s classics film. Donald “Garry from The Thing” Moffat plays a walking stick of a taxman. Paul “Claude Elsinore from Strange Brew” Dooley is the hamburger-mooching Wimpy. Ray “Mr. Hand” Waltson is a snarling roll of sandpaper as Poopdeck Pappy. The background is filled with slapstick and off-kilter vaudeville humor played broad by European circus performers, so until Roger Rabbit came along, this was as close to a real life cartoon as you could find.

And over all this you get a soundtrack written by Harry Nilsson and belted out by the non-singer actors. Best known for “Coconut,” Harry was a hell of a singer-songwriter who penned touching stuff like “Without You,” and beloved children’s albums like The Point! He brings his full skills to bear here. The songs are cute, catchy, touching and just a bit strange. “He Needs Me” is most famous for being reused in Punch Drunk Love, but the rest of the soundtrack is just as good. And
I’m not a fan of musicals. Bluto gets to destroy a house to “I’m Mean,” which as a big hairy destructive guy, makes it sort of an anthem for me. The main theme, “Sweet Haven,” is as sly as it is infectious. Just ask Chad Eagleton, who is cursing me at the moment for sticking that earworm in his noodle.

You also get a couple fights, because it’s a Popeye movie. Popeye tears up a bar packed with ruffians, Bluto hammers him through the floor, a huge bald boxer named Oxblood Oxheart kicks an opponent off the map. It’s no Jackie Chan flick, but they don’t shy from the cartoon violence. And when Poopdeck Pappy shows up, the saltiest salt to sass a comic strip, things get even better. Altman was wise to hide Ray Walston for more than half the film, because he steals the show. Pappy’s favorite saying is “Haul ass!” and like everything Walston did, he puts everything into it.

This movie gets a bad rap because Robin Williams fans were expecting something different. It is a bit slow, very slow for a children’s movie these days, but it’s the rare movie where an overqualified director got handed a peach and had a lot of fun making it, and it shows. I still feel a kinship with Bluto thanks to this movie, where he is more a misunderstood and jealous galoot than a backstabber like he was in the cartoons. But I took a lesson from this as well: I always eat my spinach.

Thomas

Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is co-editor of Lost Children: A Charity Anthology, which collects 30 powerful stories for two great causes, and his stories have appeared online and in print at the usual suspects. He is hard at work writing his first novel (when he is not watching Popeye). His work can be found at www.pluckyoutoo.com