Survival of the Weakest

Originally published in August 1983 | Texas Monthly | written by James Wolcott

Like a golfer in a slump, director Michael Ritchie seems to have gone off his stroke. In The Candidate and (especially) Smile, Ritchie satirized the drives and foibles of his characters in a fond, glancing, sexy manner, tickling up laughs with a feathery flick. But with Semi-Tough, Ritchie's light touch began to thicken. Skipping over the jock-itch raunchiness of Dan Jenkins' football novel, Ritchie elected instead to make fun of self-realization movements (est, TM, rolfing) and their messianic leaders. While pop charlatans certainly deserve a decent drubbing, Ritchie's technique in Semi-Tough was so obvious and emphatic that amusement soon gave way to a dull, numbing buzz -- watching the movie was like having an earnest Phil Donahue rap you on the head with his microphone. Ritchie followed Semi-Tough with an adaptation of Peter Benchley's The Island, which he turned into a jolly, yahooing bloodbath. Barfing out kiddies and grown-ups alike, The Island expired without a whimper at the box office. With his new social-message comedy, The Survivors, starring Robin Williams and Walter Matthau, Michael Ritchie has returned to slipping whoopee cushions beneath the bottoms of smug gurus. Rude noises ensue, but the laughs are thin and scattered.

Written by Michael Leeson (who won an Emmy for his work on TV's Taxi), The Survivors begins in the unemployment line and ends up at a survivalist camp in the snows of Vermont. Donald Quinelle (Williams), who has been sacked from his corporate job, and Sonny Paluso (Matthau), whose gas station has gone up in smoke, meet at a diner after a long day of standing in the unemployment line squabbling with stone-hearted bureaucrats. Into the diner bursts a masked robber, played with a cool homicidal drawl by country singer Jerry Reed. He, too, was in the unemployment line, Sonny recognizes him, and when his robbery is foiled, he tries to erase these two squealers from the scene. Like Alan Arkin and Peter Falk in that comedy of mayhem The In-laws, Williams and Matthau career through most of The Survivors barking insults and dodging gunfire. But where The In-laws had a slapstick momentum, The Survivors chases its own tail and winds up dazed and exhausted in a swirl of settling dust.

For reasons never elucidated, Williams' Quinelle falls in love with soldier-of-fortune hardware -- he affectionately caresses a semiautomatic assault rifle -- and ships himself up to Vermont for a course in survivalist training. Acting as commandant at this camp is a neofascist named Wes Huntley (James Wainwright), who believes that the country will soon break into pieces and that only those with superior firepower will be able to sweep up the crumbs.

When Wes shows his pug-ugly face, The Survivors turns into a snowbound version of Semi-Tough, making sport of cant-spouting leaders and their followers. Despite Robin Williams' merry antics (he capers about like a debauched leprechaun) and Walter Matthau's no-nonsense simmer, the social satire in The Survivors is labored and stale -- so stale that it seems to come out of a time warp. The Survivors ends with Robin Williams discarding his clothes and walking around in the cold in his underwear, which is the sort of thing madcap heroes used to do back in the sixties, when everything seemed Catch-22 absurd. I knew The Survivors was going to go astray as soon as I saw its opening sequence, when a gray-haired secretary pulled a pistol out of her desk and said, "I hope you don't mind me saying this, Mr. Quinelle, but you're acting like an ungrateful turd." Trying to get laughs from having gray-haired ladies talk dirty is also a throwback to the counterculture era. What The Survivors shares with the movies of the sixties is the belief that America is flushing itself right down the tubes, the victim of fat, ruinous indulgence. That's a pretty desperate notion, and Michael Ritchie hasn't found a way to make the desperation funny or convincing in The Survivors. The movie dies long before Robin Williams strips down to his boxer shorts and toddles with little baby steps in the snow.

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