Popeye: A Barnacle of the Dinghy
Altman and Robert Evans got into fistfights on the set of
this movie. Well, somebody had to get their ass kicked over
this, and for those who thought Altman couldn't get any worse
than 1979's Quintet, then Popeye is Altman's
overture to The Worst Decade of Any Respected Filmmaker in
the History of Cinema. Popeye contains the worst filmed
stunts in any big budget movie, the worst songs of any musical,
the worst dialogue of any screenplay written in my lifetime,
and the most bizarre idea for a comic book adaptation ever.
This is going to be difficult to cover, so let's just start
with the obvious: What the hell was Altman thinking?
As I understand the story, Altman, feeling a need for a bit
of success after the string of bombs after Nashville,
was offered the opportunity to do a family film to regain
some clout to do the kinds of movies he wanted. Fair enough.
But, presumably, fueled by coke, pot, and anger, Altman insisted
on turning Popeye: The Adorable Kids Film into Popeye's
Rage Against the Machine. The setup: Popeye arrives in
Sweethaven, a gray community where ships are half-sunken in
the harbor and the buildings are ready to collapse because
of the rotten wood. He gets off his little boat and is immediately
greeted by a bowler-hatted Altman-Brand Wealthy Snob®
riding a bicycle with an American ensign in worse shape than
the Ground Zero flag. He immediately starts taxing Popeye
for all sorts of absurd violations, and we find out later
that the Oyls don't pay any taxes. Yes, Altman turns Popeye
into a class-warrior. Popeye uses his anvil forearms to clobber
rich people and their accomplice bureaucrats. Bluto is the
richest guy in town, who sings, "I'm Mean, If You Know
What I Mean!" while oppressing the fine, hard working
folks of Sweethaven. My question: How the hell did Altman
think he was going to make a cartoon with slapstick fight
scenes, goofy sound effects, and tuba music while he's ranting
about taxes? It's like Popeye's spinach is a can full of Marxist
rebellion, fueling his revolution against the Blutocrats.
You can't tell me Altman wasn't high when he came up with
the idea to turn Wimpy's mantra "I'll gladly pay you
Tuesday for a hamburger today" into a poem of capitalist
irresponsibility. It doesn't help that Harry Nilsson's song
score may be the worst in the history of musicals.
That brings us to his portrayal of the Oyl family. Altman
turns the Oyls into the Oy! -ls. Yes, they're Jewish. It's
never said, but Olive's dad wears the hat, the beard, and
the black clothes. Wimpy is an Oyl cousin who spends the whole
movie whining about gold investments and trying to scam up
enough cash to go to the track. The Oyl mom can't stop going
on about Olive's need to get married to a well-off man. And
then there's Olive. Robert Altman turns Olive Oyl into a Jewish-American
Princess. She spends the first half-hour of the movie bitching
incessantly about how she won't drink out of "ugly"
glasses and how her family is using her for her fiancé's
money. She's a typical Altman Whiny, Bitchy Materialistic
Shrew®hell, she makes Carolyn Burnham look like
June Cleaver. So what does Altman do? Olive shows Popeye to
his room, she falls over, and Altman gives us a humiliating
crotch shot. She's so petty that in one of Shelly Duvall's
later musical numbers she pines, "He needs me!"
Hell, her rationale for marrying Bluto is, "He's large.
And he's mine!" It's embarrassing enough that Altman
makes Duvall spend the whole movie moaning like there's a
hamster in her girdle, but then he humiliates her by having
her throw herself at Popeye because she wants to be his mother.
If you think turning the Oy! -ls into Jews is bad, prepare
yourself for what he does to Popeye. Popeye is the typical
Altman Class-Warrior Scamp® who can't find his Pap. He's
getting no help from those Jew Oy! -ls or the omnipresent
tax manit's like there's big conspiracy to keep Popeye
down! This being Altman, you can guess where this is going.
That's right, Poop Deck Pappy is the "Commodore"
(It's listed as "Commandant," but he's called "Commodore"
several times.) of Sweethaven who dumped little Popeye on
his ass at age three so he could go on secretly oppressing
the townspeople. Bluto, it turns out, is his Tool of Oppression.
Altman turns Poop Deck Pappy into Cornelius Vanderbilt, the
railroad and shipping mogul. And in Altman's coke-blasted
brain, Popeye is an allegory for Vanderbilt's control
of steamboat transportation in New York, with Sweethaven standing
in for Staten Island. Poop Deck Pappy is the oppressive capitalist
using wealthy Jewish connections to raise taxes to further
separate the classes, thus making his domination of the Hudson
River (Sweethaven) marketplace a virtual monopoly.
That's fucking crazy. Absolutely fucking crazy. But that's
what he did. It's the only explanation. This a year after
Altman went to Earth's Final Age to play backgammon as a critique
of American Christianity. No wonder Robert Evans was pissed.
All he wanted was a nice little kids movie with Robin Williams
chewing scenery and mumbling Popeye's muffled one-liners,
and Altman's pot-fried mind is doing social commentary. It
must be that "Complex Social Milieu" Anthony Lane
was talking about in his Gosford Park review. Really,
that whole Evil Rich Daddy plot is pretty much rehashed from
frickin' Popeye. As if all this isn't bizarre enough,
we have to deal with lines like, "I'm just a barnacle
on the dinghy of life" and goofy, BOING! sound effects.
This film has no tone. The set is too drab to entertain the
kids, but the film is too stupid to be taken seriously by
adults. The only person Popeye was made for is Robert
Altman, who obviously thinks this is brilliant. The rest of
us are baffled.
And it's not like the film is even technically well done.
Chairs fall apart before Popeye even hits bad guys with them.
When he throws the bad guys during a fight, they just kinda
jog across the set and roll into breakaway props. Poop Deck
Pappy gets tied up by Bluto and he doesn't even struggle.
The musical numbers sound like stoned polka. The actors don't
even lip synch the numbers; Altman just plays the music and
shows us the back of the performer. Paul L. Smith (Bluto)
growls his lines like a constipated grizzly. Wimpy uses Sweet
Pea to tell him the winners at the horse races, which aren't
even real horsesthey're plastic horses on sticks, like
at the county fair. In an example of typical Altman Misogyny®,
he keeps a bar maiden perched in a birdcage. And poor Robin
Williams grunts the whole movie from his spleen. I just don't
know what else to say. Yes, I do. Altman has a little too
much fun trapping his JAP Bitch Olive in a porthole while
an octopus tickles her crotch. Then Popeye does backflips
across the water. Don't ask. Making a movie out of the Popeye
character isn't a bad idea; it's a bad idea to hand a kids
movie over to a polemistic, drugged up artist who can't clear
up his glassy eyes long enough to see that he's making a silly,
cartoonish musical into a bitter left-wing rant that nobody
understands but him. And he doesn't even film it well. Popeye
makes professional wrestling look like a Jackie Chan