• Robin Williams Grunting
  • The Exposé of Cornelius Vanderbilt That Was Dying to Be Told Through a Comic Book Musical


Directed by A Drugged-Up Class Warrior With No Idea What He's Doing
"Robin, you're fooling no one. I can still see the coke in your nostrils. Did you and Bob sneak out behind the set again?"

Popeye: A Barnacle of the Dinghy of Film

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 man—it'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 horses—they'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 movie.

The Pitch:
See It For:

Robin shows Altman what he'll do if he keeps hoarding all the good coke for himself.