Altman’s legion of cinephile fans have all but written Popeye off as another charred remnant of the auteur’s spectacular burnout at the close of the ‘70s—virtually indistinguishable from Health, A Wedding and Quintet (all equally underrated films). But Popeye is in need of a serious critical rediscovery, because virtually every one of Altman’s signature hallmarks—that teeming sense of community gathering habits, concern for social inequalities, and fondness for earnest, country-fried comic bits—are very much alive in the film. Anyone new to Altman is likely to be put off by the film’s unique worldview. Known for building American communities from the bottom up, the director took a well-established slice of Americana and seemingly refused to distance himself through irony or radical departures (like having Popeye on the front lines in the Korean War, for example). Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl trip and mumble their way through exaggerated love-triangles just like they did in the original serial comics and short films. But if you strip away the film’s loyalty to its source material, it’s not difficult to see that, in many ways, Popeye is Altman’s comic spin on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, even substituting McCabe‘s whore house with a floating gambling house and brothel. Like Warren Beatty’s John McCabe, Robin Williams’s Popeye has a habit of vocalizing his inner dialogues.
For a movie often dismissed as kiddie fare, there are a surprising number of Altman concepts that are likely to fly right over the heads of youngins. The town of Sweethaven, where Popeye lands in search of his Pap, is cheerfully oblivious to the fact that they are in a state of severe economic and social oppression. Bluto represents the strong arm of the law (the beanpole constable jumps out of windows whenever the man-mountain enters the room) and the noodly taxman represents its sticky fingers. Both work for a shadowy dictatorial menace known as the Commodore. “Next to Wimpy, I hate him best,” the Topol-like Mr. Geezil privately bellows. The hints of a far more menacing political situation undercut most of the jokes. Wimpy’s immortal “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” sounds like it’s coming from a man blissfully ignorant of his severe dependency on credit currency. To kids, he’s a hamburgler. To adults, he’s the recently laid-off neighbor. Also, most kids probably can’t grasp what Olive Oyl’s arpeggio-ridden ballad to Bluto’s “large” qualities is really about. Altman directs the complex web of social interactions with a frame that’s both inclusive and prying. And the actors he collected and dropped in Malta’s simulated community help evoke an atmosphere that is genial yet guarded. Shelly Duvall couldn’t possibly have played Olive Oyl badly. And to watch Williams’s sweet interpretation of the hyperviolent original character here is to mourn what we lost when he bamboozled his way into the hearts of Oscar prognositcators looking for an easy dark horse with roles in films like Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar.