Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Wacky 60's satire on advertising, social customs, and race relations; it's fun to see as a novelty, but it hasn't aged all that well. In the boardroom of a high-powered Manhattan ad agency, an old tattooed geezer who is a sought-after motivational speaker tells the assembled ad men that the consumer's desire for beer is all about masculine insecurity, or "pee-pee-dickey," as he succinctly puts it. The men start tossing out slogans like, "Make it big with Harvey's Beer" and "Have a big proud head." Putney Swope, the token black ad guy, argues that they should drop their war toy accounts, but the others argue that without toy guns, little boys will have to suppress their destructive urges and they'll all become gay. (Later, there's mention of a Junior Miss Firethrower made by the Audie Murphy Toy Co.) The elderly boss drops dead during a meeting and they vote in Swope as the new boss, each assuming that no one else would vote for him. He fires the white guys (except for one token), hires all African-Americans (men and women), changes the name of the agency to Truth and Soul, and sets all the old-fashioned ad campaigns on their ears. (The most amusing parts of black and white film are the TV ads, presented in color and often quite R-rated.)

From here, coherent plotting is mostly tossed out the window and the movie becomes an episodic series of satiric setpieces; some work, some don't. The President of the United States is a Germanic-sounding dwarf who gets Swope into bed with him and his wife for a 3-way. Swope berates and demeans his clients and makes them pay in huge bags of cash, but they stick with him. The agency forces all delivery people and messengers to use the freight elevator, leading to a big meltdown on the part of one fed-up guy. There is a climax of sorts involving millions of dollars in cash going up in flames, but it feels like the filmmaker, Robert Downey Sr., just ran out of steam. There are no likable characters; we even lose any empathy for the increasingly erratic Swope after a while—and it doesn’t help that the actor, Arnold Johnson, is dubbed by Downey in a forced-sounding gravelly voice. Out of a huge cast, few actors get more than a handful of lines. Allen Garfield (the crazy country-singer's husband in NASHVILLE) is one of the ad guys in the opening scene; Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch) is a crazy security guy named The Arab; I also liked George Morgan as the white token, called Mr. Token in the credits (pictured above with Johnson). This is OK as a period piece, but too scattershot and incoherent to be effective as satire. [TCM]

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