Friday, April 01, 2011

White Elephant Blogathon 2011: My Review of Caveman (Carl Gottlieb, 1981)

When I learned that I would be reviewing Caveman this year’s White Elephant Blogathon, I was relieved to draw a movie that I could actually watch with my fiancée and kid, unlike so many movies I’ve reviewed in the past. Yet at the same time, I was a little conflicted about the movie itself. I knew that I had seen it as a child, but I was hard-pressed to remember much about it, aside from the phrase “zug-zug,” which seems to be Caveman’s best-known bit. Moreover, I was a little uneasy about reviewing a movie of such modest ambition, since while it would be an easy sit, there isn’t a whole lot of meat on the movie to which one can apply critical insight, much less write something of interest to more than a handful of people.

Caveman, directed by Carl Gottlieb, is a lowbrow comedy, and it aspires to be nothing more than that. There’s a well-worn critical adage that it’s impossible to debate comedy and eroticism, since one’s tastes for both are subjective. This goes double for a movie like Caveman. While one can appreciate some forms of comedy without necessarily finding them funny- hell, Jacques Tati’s films are so intricately engineered that one is too busy marveling at the direction to laugh- the truth is that a movie like Caveman has little to offer but guffaws. So in the end, if Caveman is funny to you, it works, and if it’s not, it doesn’t. What can I say? It worked for me.

Much of this is because it’s so unashamedly silly. From beginning to end, Caveman takes the low road comedy-wise, but the tone is so good-naturedly goofy that it’s infectious. Leading man Ringo Starr has little to do but mug for the camera, but he does it well and lets his hangdog charm do the rest. And the rest of the cast is just as committed, especially Dennis Quaid as Starr’s none-too-bright sidekick, who ends up taking even more abuse than the hero.

Of course, your mileage may vary depending on your taste for slapstick and barn-door-broad gags. Caveman is full of gags aimed at the average grade-school-aged boy, which may be why it’s becoming one of my son’s favorites. It’s the kind of movie in which the heroes, having just discovered fire, fend off an enemy by burning his butt. It contains multiple appearances by a most clever dinosaur who not only howls at the moon at night but also crows like a rooster at dawn. And would you be surprised if I told you that there’s a scene in which Starr, Quaid, and company track through a big pile of dinosaur poop? I didn’t think so.

Then again, Caveman is so sincere about its desire to little more than silly fun that it’s aged surprisingly well. I recently bemoaned to a friend of mine that silliness is in short supply in contemporary comedies, which are so set on being smart and hip that they can’t quite commit to the jokes. Compare Caveman to 2009’s misbegotten Year One and you’ll see the difference- while Year One is just as full of lowbrow gags and egregious contractions of history as Caveman (if not more so), it never musters up the nerve to go all the way with its comedy, and consequently feels less like a movie than a tossed-off sketch by the Apatow Company All-Stars. At least when Caveman unleashes a dumb joke- which, let’s face it, is pretty frequently- you get the sense than it means it.

Now, I don’t want to oversell the merits of Caveman. It’s not a great movie, and much of my affection for it comes from how much it feels like the product of a bygone era in comedy. But I’ll be honest- it’s a hard movie to dislike. For one thing, it lacks many of the more mean-spirited impulses that usually characterize slapstick. As a result, the movie is surprisingly gentle in tone, making it (with a few minor exceptions) pretty solid family viewing, complete with a fun impromptu musical number around a campfire. Also, the stop-motion dinosaurs are a lot of fun- strangely, the unsophisticated animation gives them more character than a more technically proficient rendering, allowing them to come off less as photorealistic dinos than overgrown house pets. And somehow, thirty years ago, Gottlieb got away with making a “dumb” comedy in which 99% of the dialogue was delivered in a nonsensical invented language, and without subtitles to boot. Is there any way this could happen in today’s Hollywood climate? Not a chance.


Erich Kuersten said...

Endearing! I wish I'd known about these white elephantsh... hic! Ringo Starr is the definitive example... and Barbara Bach is a chthonic mirakle

Stacia said...

Caveman! I hadn't thought about this film in years, and it's actually a little comforting to realize that the long-forgotten memory of Ringo Starr mugging for the camera in the trailer was accurate.

Kza said...

This was one of my favorite movies as a kid -- I was 9 at the time, and saw it in the theater and at least a couple more on cable. I caught up with it a few years ago, dreading. God, I still loved it. Stupid as hell, but love love love.

My favorite part is still the ice cave ogre and the half-frozen Quaid. And I was surprised to discover that Young Shelley Long was quite the cutie.

Caroline said...

This one actually sounds really cute! Thanks for giving it a good write-up. I'm glad your son liked it.