Monday, May 16, 2011

Comedy Cataclysm: SWAP MEET (1979)

If you are an American of a certain age and have a similar taste in movies as we do, you probably have waxed more than a little nostalgic for the American institution of the drive-in. Fond memories of your misspent youth probably include such questionable moments as smuggling a case of beer into a double feature and eating something that was made entirely out of foam latex and salt and painted to look like a slice of pizza. Yes, drinking beer in your car watching cheap-ass movies made by talentless hucksters. Brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? But that was at night! What happened when the sun was up? That was the swap meet.

For those who either aren’t old enough to remember or maybe grew up in some far off land, like say, Vermont, I'm pretty sure this is what happened: one day someone was sitting around thinking about how they had all this property used for viewing movies at night that was being completely unproductive during the day. Co-incidentally, another American phenomenon would occur. All these people would bring all of their crap out of their homes, dump it in their front yard and try to sell it to passers-by, and nobody except the owner would get a piece of that action! Why not combine the two? Rent space to people who would bring all their crap, be it cheap Chinese made junk purchased in bulk for re-sale, the remnants of a deceased relative’s closet or shit blatantly stolen out of other people’s homes and cars. Oh, and if you lived in Southern California, there was usually a couple of Mexicans drilling holes in iced coconuts so you could suck out the coconut water with a straw. The swap meets were hot, dirty, and filled with people who you would never want to actively socialize with. Good times.

Just like the late ‘80s scraped the bottom of the slasher barrel desperately trying to find new themes for some psycho to kill people over (for some reason 1988’s tedious OPEN HOUSE springs to mind with its “plot” about real estate agents being stalked and killed due to housing prices), the late ‘70s and early ‘80s some some serious digging at the bottom of the teen comedy mine. This is one such item.

Clearly trying to do for the swap meet what CAR WASH did for the, erm, car wash, right down to the allegedly “catchy” title song that includes lyrics like this:

“At the swap meet, yeah, we got that special buy! At the swap meet, guaranteed to satisfy! At the swap meet, come on along we gonna make you high!”

No, seriously, I did not just make that up. In spite of that last line and the fact that this was released a year after UP IN SMOKE (1979), there is no drug humor to be found at all. Some bad, and I mean baaaaad, drunk humor, but there ain’t a nickel bag to be found at this swap meet!

These girls believe in peace, not war;
these bombs will never be dropped.
In this, ahem, “dis-jointed” comedy, we have the “stories” of several characters clumsily interwoven and brought together at the meet. I’m sure it sounded positively Robert Altman on paper. High-school top jock Doug (Jon Gries in a thankless role) and his two-clown posse Buddha (Loren Lester) and Billy (Dan Spector), who have borrowed dad’s cherry T-bird and are trying to sell potted ficus trees and a used iron while trying to pick up the hippy girls. The hippy girls, Nancy (Ruth Cox) and Susan (Deborah Richter), are trying to make money to fix their van by selling turtles to obnoxious little boys who want to name them after sports stars that they hate and flush them down the toilet. Oh, and they are also trying to avoid the advances of Ferrari-driving uber-douche Roy (Jed Cooper) who pays a couple of white trash junk peddlers (previously seen harassing the hippy girls) to mess up the T-bird. But wait, there’s more! We also have a sub-plot in which the assistant manager Ziggy (Danny Goldman doing an uncanny Bud Court impression) hustles the crowd and has an odd relationship with Annie (Penthouse Pet Cheryl Rixon), an apparently homeless girl who he lets stay in his boss’ office during the day and, ummmm, “work” the crowd at night while she tries to find someone who will marry her. Yes, this rather grim scenario is actually played for laughs.

DeVito and Gries contemplate the script
In addition, writer Steve Kantz (who was partially responsible for the cult 1977 favorite RUBY) feels he should throw in as many supporting characters as possible and this will somehow magically raise the comedy quotient without having to rely on what some people call “jokes”. There is a fortune teller who predicts that the kid on the skateboard will hurt himself. He of course does, and this becomes a running gag. Rhea Perlman, as the mother of the previously mentioned youth in need of anger management therapy, is frequently used as a cut-away as she steals things and stuffs them down her dress. This actually works up to a punch line after what seems like years of build-up in which she is spotted by the manager who runs down to the meet, throws her into a chain-link fence and whips her around only to get a big close up of a shocked black woman! Phew! Are your sides splitting yet?

Plus, you know if Perlman is around, Danny DeVito can’t be far behind. We also know he’s coming because the German video release has his name video burned into the credits. Here he shows up as an adenoidal auto mechanic named Max who’s main scene is laying some bullshit on Doug about how he will fix his car like new including drying the hand-matched paint with his own soft breath. Clearly DeVito is trying to rise above the material, but there is only so much even a Michelin-star chef can do when handed a can of dog food. And, quite frankly, DeVito is no Michelin-star chef.

The alleged comedy is often completely AWOL as the filmmakers shoot tons of character moments that are simply ill-conceived to begin with. When they suddenly remember that this is a comedy, they scramble around and throw in scenes such as one where Ziggy goes to visit Annie while she does her laundry in the women’s restroom. As they talk a woman comes in, so Ziggy must jump in one of the stalls with a basket of Annie’s laundry and… a mop. As more women come in, Ziggy scrambles from one stall to another, undercranked with wacky music, trying to avoid being caught. In the end he finally stumbles out of a stall in women’s underwear and with the mop over his head. Are you feelin’ it now?

But wait, there's more! In yet another grueling sketch the guys decide that since Annie is making money having sex with guys in cars, sex might sell (if only the producers of this movie had figured that out). The plan? Set up a sign that says “everything you ever wanted in sex $10” then when they get guys in the van they tell them to walk out smiling or people will think that they can’t get it up. Yep, that’s the gag and brother, lemme tell ya, it is a long walk off of that short freakin' pier.

Buddha is, as you may have guessed, supposed to be a fat, jolly character, but it looks like they settled for brillo-haired, spare-tire laden Lester who is so annoying that you will swear that he changed his name to Larry Zerner and went on to play Shelly in FRIDAY THE 13th PART 3 (1983). In fact he didn’t. He actually went on to play the much more tolerable Charlie Boy in EVILSPEAK (1981). As if his attempt to pick up chicks with his Bogart impersonation wasn't torture enough, there is a scene where the guys steal Roy’s Ferrari while obnoxiously drunk and decide to drive it around while the cover is still on and with Buddha parked on the roof to navigate. “Wow,” you are thinking, “this could provide some opportunities for some crazy car stunts!” Ummm… no. They drive into a clearing in the middle of a field and drive in circles, undercranked like a Benny Hill sketch, complete with a Spike Jones, slide-whistle soundtrack and overdubbed cries of “wheeeeeeeee!” that sounds like the pig in that wearisome Geico commercial. The bit goes on so long and is so fucking irritating that I can’t imagine it not bringing instant sobriety to the patrons who stumbled into its original theatrical screenings.

This movie hits all the checkpoints but blows them completely: We have the obligatory hot girls (that never get topless), car chases and crashes (that are off camera), pop culture setting (that is never exploited), alchohol abuse (that is not at all funny), a disco scene (that is totally underplayed) and so on. C'mon, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you have multi-title men's magazine model on the payroll, she should be showing off her assets at the drop of a roach clip. Instead Playboy, Penthouse and Oui veteran Rixon has only two brief moments for which to display her god-given talents. For some reason it almost feels like they were after a PG rating (the old school kind, not the new one), though why that would be is a complete mystery.

Aside from the rush of mainlining pure nostalgia offered up by the location (this was shot at the Rodium in Torrance, California), this film is disappointing not only for all of the above reasons, but also because of the potential of its basic, whisper-thin, premise. If this had fallen into the hands of say… the legendary Chuck Vincent, it would have taken all of those cheese-grater “jokes”, needlessly complex script elements and a cast that have all gone on to solid careers, thrown in a scandalous amount of nudity and turned out something that was admittedly terrible, but at the same time totally entertaining. Yeah, too bad that didn’t happen.

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