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The White Elephant Blogathon: The Survivors

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The White Elephant Blogathon: <em>The Survivors</em>

[This is a submission to the White Elephant Blogathon called by Silly Hats Only.]

The Survivors starts off rather well. Michael Ritchie’s 1983 comedy opens with a wide shot of New York’s financial district, as the camera pans slowly to reveal the various skyscrapers—including, obviously, the two towers—under a dull grey sky. Randy Newman’s 1974 recording of Huey Long and Castro Carazo’s “Every Man A King” accompanies the visuals; and its cheerful chorus nicely contrasts with a line of parked station wagons as mid-level executive Donald Quinelle (Robin Williams) arrives at work. Not very subtle, sure, but pleasant enough.

Then Donald gets sacked by a parrot, which was when I poured myself a large glass of whiskey. It would be the first of many.

My estimation of Robin Williams and his oeuvre, such as it is, differs from the generally accepted view that the broader his humor the less palatable the film, and, consequently, that he’s far more successful when he tones down his routine. That’s because when Williams decides to Act instead of go with his gut and explode on screen, an untenable bathos takes over his craft—this is true in the worst of his “serious” films (say, What Dreams May Come) as well as his best (say, Good Will Hunting). Whatever dramatic chops he might have, they’re unable to burst out of the pericarp-like image of Williams as first and foremost a funny-man. In his comedies, on the other hand, Williams manages to bring a pinch of truth in the middle of over-the-top formula, elevating drivel to the level of, if not art, then serviceable Hollywood fare, an underrated yet commendable achievement. And in The Survivors, too, Robin Williams shows a knack for finding the repressed insanity of the everyman.

But The Survivors is not simply a showcase for Robin Williams’ wacky antics. In contrast to his Donald is Walter Matthau’s Sonny Paluso, a grizzled, frustrated, and lonely Korean War vet, whose gas station is blown to smithereens thanks to Donald’s absent-mindedness. The two strangers find themselves at the unemployment office, get turned down, and finally meet each other during a hold-up at a diner. Donald fumbles his way into getting shot in the arm, as Sonny disarms and unmasks the robber (Jerry Reed). Admonished by the local news for being a hot-head, Donald goes on television, and gives away his and Sonny’s identities, which leads to Reed’s Jack Locke hunting them down (it turns out he’s a high-falutin’ contract-killer who was slumming it with robberies due to the downturn).

Jack pays Sonny a visit to murder him and his teenage daughter (Kristen Vigard), but is thwarted by Donald, who, with Sonny, takes the would-be assassin to the police station. The episode prompts Donald to reassess his life—he first buys a semi-automatic machine-gun with all the trimmings (including a bayonet, which is a nice touch), and then heads off to Vermont to join a group of survivalists. Soon, Jack is out of jail, finds Sonny again, and makes a deal with him—if he convinces Donald to keep quiet, Sonny will let them both live. When Sonny goes upstate, he doesn’t so much convince Donald as inspire him to go off on a tirade against Jack on the phone, which prompts the latter to make the trip to the woods to finish what he started. So, about an hour and a bit into it, the film, finally, starts.

Working from Michael J. Leeson and Jonathan Reynolds’s script, Ritchie weaves a confused tale that lacks purpose and identity. The initial “tragedy brings disparate people together” motif is, if slightly clichéd, always welcome; and the initial shot of the World Trade Centre towers reinforces it, albeit, obviously, unknowingly. But this is not developed into any sort of cohesive whole. When Williams intones, halfway through, that Matthau’s character is his best friend, it comes across as rudimentary character beat rather than genuine emotion.

Similarly, the film’s zeitgeist-grabbing fear of economic downturn never truly registers today. They knew then that the economy wasn’t as bad as The Great Depression, but we know now that it also wasn’t as lethargic as The Great Recession. As he arrives at the survivalist ranch, Matthau observes about the man running it (as a business, by fees and donations) that “the economy’s in the toilet, but he’s making a bundle.” It’s trite and obvious, and has absolutely none of the impact it desires today.

A sort of confusion permeates The Survivors: its look at the recently naturalized immigrants at the unemployment office verges on racism, but a later scene where the survivalists are instructed to shoot at the boomboxes of cardboard cutouts of black men is so out-there that the film’s satirical intentions crystalize. Similarly, it is at first unclear whether this is a damnation or celebration of the sort of Randian rage, perhaps best described in a quote wrongly attributed to George Orwell, that “(w)e sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” But then the film hastily throws out that the camp’s owner is also the proprietor of a hot dog franchise, and we rest easy. This ambiguity is welcome—it plays with the expectations of the audience, and one is never quite sure what it is that one is being preached. In fact, this would be the greatest asset of a tighter film.

And a tighter film this could have been. Certainly, the leads give it their all. Williams has the right mixture of pathos and anger: if not the quintessential Reaganite, he is the dedicated wage-slave nonetheless. His desire to reinvent his identity has as much to do with physical trauma as a psychological need to assert himself in the face of forces (mostly economic) that he cannot control. Similarly, Matthau, who always had a great line in innerved indifference, plays Sonny as a seen-it-all workhorse: when someone dismisses that Korea was not a big war, he is less than diffident: “It was to me.” An easy reading would be to pit them as a latter-day odd couple (like less intense versions of William “D-Fens” Foster and Walter Schmidt) but this would not be fair.They complement each other fully: Sonny is the reserved yin to Donald’s repressed yang. By the end of the film, which, albeit half-baked, is nonetheless beautiful in its own way, Sonny starts to strip in the middle of the snowy wilderness, but Donald hands him his coat. “Are you nuts? You’ll freeze to death,” says Sonny. “That’s OK; we’ll freeze together.”

But the film’s not finished. As the two start making their way back to the car, Donald asks “It’s been a strange winter, hasn’t it?” “Not really,” says Sonny. It might have been the four whiskeys I had, but there were tears in my eyes.

There are three films here. One explores the baby-boomer in defence of his right to self-identity and self-emancipation. The other is about the gap between this attitude and the previous generation’s “this, too, shall pass” worldview. In the third one, Robin Williams makes fart noises with his mouth. That the film tries to be all these things at once, that it so egregiously lacks focus, is why it eventually misses all three points. A failure, then, but a respectable one.

Ali Arikan is the author of Cerebral Mastication. Follow his updates on Twitter.