Friday, March 21, 2008

Where's Poppa: The Courtroom Scene

the original times' review from 1970
Sometimes you settle for half a loaf. In movie comedy, even a quarter of a loaf will pass for a feast. So if "Where's Poppa?" which opened yesterday at the Coronet Theater, doesn't succeed all the time, or even most of the time, it succeeds often enough, if only by energy and will, to satisfy a taste for comedy that has not had much nourishment this season. And occasionally, when invention, which is in long supply, and execution, which isn't always, get properly together, "Where's Poppa?" becomes a desperately funny film.
The situation will seem familiar enough to post-Oedipal America. George Segal plays a small-time New York lawyer, a dutiful son who lives at home with his ancient mother (Ruth Gordon), whom he would dearly love to dump forever into an old people's home. If he can't do that (and his father's dying request says he can't), he would like to scare her to death. And if he can't do that, and he can't because she is unscarable, he is almost willing to drop her fragile body from an apartment window—so that the mess she would make on the sidewalk below might at least signal an end to the mess she is making of his life.
To speed her on her way, or to get her out of the way, he hires for her a wish-fulfillment nurse (Trish Van Devere), with whom he immediately falls in love—I mean, within the first 10 seconds—and whose lovely presence moves Segal, and the film, to the resolution toward which he, and it, had been tending. The resolution itself is nothing much, and I gather that at this stage the story has been monkeyed with—or at least cut short of a few final indignities.
But for most of its length "Where's Poppa?" deals with an exceptionably viable mixture of local jokes and black comedy that works as well as it does because everybody in the film possesses either enough good humor or outrageous imagination to promote his own worldview.
A kind of benign individualism applies to everybody (except Miss Gordon)—even down to a cheery troop of black youths lounging in Central Park, so they can mug all passers-by, except young women, whom they rape.
All the performances, except that of Miss Gordon, who continues to play old age without conviction, are pretty good. But Trish Van Devere, whom I had never heard of, proves a commedienne of a complexity, precision and gentleness exactly to balance the broad cruelties of "Where's Poppa?" Carl Reiner's direction also balances those cruelties, and he is absolutely at his best with such magical absurdities as the first meeting between George Segal and Miss Van Devere.
Like most New York comedy, "Where's Poppa?" means to score points in its incidental treatment of how we live. But unlike most such comedy, it actually scores a few — as when on Central Park West a Negro lady hails a cab, which almost stops but then drives on to pick up instead a wildly gesticulating giant gorilla.

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