Private Picture

Originally published on December 29, 1980 | New York Magazine | written by David Denby

At the beginning of Popeye, our hero (Robin Williams), the grizzled swabby with the heroic forearms, rows into the rickety harbor town Sweethaven and encounters a man trying to pick up his hat. Bending over, the fellow reaches for the hat and inadvertently kicks it away, reaches and kicks it away, over and over. It's hardly an original routine (as I recall, the rubber-boned comedian Ben Blue used to do something like it), but it serves as a perfect motif for the whole movie. If Popeye is about anything at all, it's about grouchiness and frustration -- odd subjects for a big-budget movie based on one of the most popular comic strips in the world. Working on a large scale for the first time, Robert Altman has made a crankily personal movie, every bit as individual as a small Altman picture like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us.

For his perseverance and pride, Altman deserves some sort of credit -- a muted cheer, perhaps. I can't say I really enjoyed Popeye. Of all the directors who have made live-action cartoon movies, Altman is the first to have created a consistently stylized sense of movement, but he still hasn't licked the basic problem of involving us emotionally with people who are not people. Popeye offers a sad paradox: Altman's unique temperament clearly accounts for what is fresh and distinctive in this movie (compared with Superman or Flash Gordon, it's a fountain of originality), yet his characteristic style and rhythm also make the material remote and slightly boring. By the end, I was exhausted from the effort of trying to bring the movie a little closer.

Altman and his scenarist, Jules Feiffer, have drawn on the wonderfully seedy, drabbletailed cast of characters first created by cartoonist E. C. Segar for his "Thimble Theatre" in 1919 (Popeye himself was added in 1929). The sublime Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall), petulant, put-upon, screechy maiden of Sweethaven, is courted by the huge, heavy-breathing Bluto (Paul L. Smith) but falls into Popeye's forearms. Clenching a corncob pipe in one corner of his mouth while muttering savagely from the other, Robin Williams is the most sweetly irascible of lovers (and if we could understand more than half of his mutterings we might enjoy him even more). Popeye and Olive Oyl raise the foundling babe Swee'pea while Popeye searches for his long-lost father (Ray Walston), but the "plot" is hardly the dramatic or emotional center of the movie. Just as in his smaller projects, Altman fuzzes the story -- buries it, in fact, in the peripheral goings-on.

Altman puts us in a physical world in which everything is askew, in which shabby, disconsolate people bicker, fight, and get in one another's way. E. C. Segar's cartoon figures were based on music-hall types; Altman and Feiffer exaggerate the music-hall dowdiness for a tone of melancholy futility and clumsiness. The men are often fat, with scraggly mustaches, little round heads sitting atop balloon bodies, and hanks of hair sticking out beneath bowler hats. As played by Shelley Duvall, Olive Oyl is a starched, perpendicular lady with flattened face and pointy bun who rocks upward on her construction boots, moaning, "Oh, Oh! OH!" Duvall's petulance becomes wearying, but what is she to do? In this movie she can't become a person.

Movement is perilous in Sweethaven. A drink is as likely to wind up over a man's shoulder as in his mouth, and people are forever tripping, collapsing, or spinning so fast they drill holes in the floor with their feet. Limbs jerk suddenly outward like semaphores, and whole bodies flip down streets hands over feet, or fly across town as if shot from a cannon. In brief, Altman has achieved with real bodies the crazily buckled and sprung physical life of comic strips and animated cartoons. But most of this movement isn't funny. It's peculiar, and often sad -- a vision of life as spastic confusion.

Most directors organize their scenes around a dramatic center -- one or two characters, a single large physical movement. But Altman's scenes are like large, moving paintings, full of activity, in which the minor player in the corner, muttering to himself or doing something bizarre with his body, is just as important as the lead actor in the middle of the shot. This is the famous Altman "texture" -- the weave of overlapping dialogue and physical bustle that makes his work so rich and, at times, so frustrating to watch. In Popeye it doesn't work. Most of the group scenes feel cramped and fussy, because there's too much going on in them. At times I felt lost -- I literally didn't know what to look at in Altman's fretful, jumpy compositions. For kids, the movie may be baffling -- very little in the way of story and emotion is given to them directly.

In the musical numbers (written by Harry Nilsson), Shelley Duvall and Robin Williams, with their thin, wandering non-singer's voices, establish a vocal style of bedraggled plaintiveness that is rather pleasing. But the staging of the numbers is so crabbed and essentially anti-lyrical that the material never takes off. Watching this movie, I couldn't shake the feeling that Altman had devised intricate bits of business for his large stock company in order to keep them occupied but had never asked himself how any of it would work for the audience. The movie is personal all right, but it's not very expressive. It sits there on the screen in joyless, eccentric pride, a long, long way from us.

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