Fifty Bucks Never Killed Anybody – Why “Used Cars” is a Classic Caper Comedy

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Kurt Russell headlined a cast of top-shelf character actors in Used Cars, a criminally underrated caper comedy from an era rich in great movie comedies.  Director Robert Zemeckis has been quoted as saying he’s glad he’s outgrown the film.  Is he nuts?

Zemeckis’ groundbreaking work in digital and special effects for movies like the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away and The Polar Express is well established.  He’s been critically and commercially rewarded for creating iconic and accessible entertainment that appeals to the entire family.  Still, I would argue that Zemeckis (along with co-writer Bob Gale) has never been funnier than with this unabashedly raunchy, totally hysterical and completely without digital effects comedic masterpiece.

Used Cars centers around twin brothers Roy L. and Luke Fuchs (played by the late, great character actor Jack Warden, who would only sign on if they offered him both roles) who run competing used car lots on opposite sides of a busy Arizona highway.  Luke’s business is struggling, and after he’s killed off by his disreputable twin, it’s up to hotshot salesman Rudy Russo (Russell) to concoct a caper to hide Luke’s death, keep the lot from falling into the hands of the ruthless Roy L., and save it for Luke’s long-estranged daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon).

The studio was encouraged by positive test screenings and pushed up the original release date, throwing Used Cars into theatres without advance publicity and in direct competition with a tiny little comedy called Airplane, where it was soundly thrashed at the box office.  It wasn’t until the movie premiered on HBO that it found it’s audience, where it’s been ever since.

HERE’S WHY IT’S A GREAT CAPER COMEDY:

IT GIVES YOU PERMISSION TO CHEER FOR HORRIBLE PEOPLE – With the exception of Luke (who dies early on) his daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) and Toby the dog, the other characters are horrible people.  They bait and switch the unsuspecting public, seduce customers on the lot, jam Presidential satellite broadcasts, rip off the local high school by paying off the Driver’s Ed teacher, buy hot cars with bad paint jobs and hope it doesn’t rain and finally, they bury their dead boss on the car lot and lie to everyone about it.  Despite all that, I still want these irresponsible band of misfit operators to win.

KURT RUSSELL – Despite himself, Rudy Russo is a good guy.  He’s a classic underdog with big goals; a fast-talking con-man more interested in his bumper sticker than the cars he puts it on.  It’s no surprise that this smooth talker wants to be a politician. Rudy does what he has to do to achieve his dreams, even if it means bribing his way into office with money earned by using strippers and pirated television broadcasts to sell substandard cars to gullible consumers.   

Rudy might behave badly, but it’s hard to hate Kurt Russell.  Even when he does this:

Here’s what I love about this scene: not only does Rudy lead the poor rube through heavy traffic chasing a lousy ten bucks, he sells him the car whose door the man dented with his own head, has a bumper that falls off when he leaves the car lot, and then takes the man’s shoes as part of the deal!

THE LITTERING – I despise littering, but legitimately love the fact that everyone intentionally litters in this movie.  It’s a small, barely noticeable character trait that says so much about the kind of people they are.

THE SWEARINGYeah, I get it.  Robert Zemeckis can be funny without his characters having to swear.  But when they do swear, it’s hysterical. Jack Warner throwing down f-bombs is classic.  Then a slow burn followed by swearing?   

Apparently, the studio sent along a memo during production to let Zemeckis know there was too much swearing, which, if you’ve seen what they left in, makes you wonder what they cut out.

PRACTICAL EFFECTSThe movie filmed in Mesa, Arizona, and the city gave the filmmakers considerable leeway which, if you know anything at all about filmmakers, is a horrible idea.  The filmmakers, of course, took full advantage and fortunately managed not to kill anyone, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The scene where Jeff (Gerritt Graham) shoots up the cars in Roy’s lot?  It was done with live ammunition (the obvious exception being the shot to Jim’s (Frank McRae) chest.  I think.)

According to the DVD commentary on the film, the stunt they were most worried about involved kicking in the screen of the live television, an act so dangerous the stuntman was grounded with rubber underwear to avoid electrocution.  What did you do at work today?

JIM THE MECHANIC – Some of the best lines in the movie come from former NFL player and longtime character actor Frank McRae.  The size of a small pickup truck, Jim is kept away from the public for a reason, so when he’s consigned to help out the sales department, he does this:

When protesters show up to protest their business practices?  It’s Jim to the rescue.

Jim talks like he can’t hear himself speaking, likely from of all the years working with power tools without hearing protection.  McRae’s delivery is riotous. This is a man you want on your side.

TOBY THE DOG

A great way for a filmmaker to elicit sympathy from the audience is to give them a dog to humanize them.  Make it a smart dog, like they did with Toby, who is every bit a part of the team at New Deal Used Cars and it makes for some brilliantly funny scenes.  If you take time to think about it, it’s wrong on so many levels, but you have to admire the genius and level of commitment that it takes to pull this off.

My other favorite Toby scene is when Roy trespasses on Luke’s lot and discovers the Edsel where Luke’s body is, buried in a pit.  Toby chases Roy off, then goes to warn the others. The first one he finds is a sleeping Jim, passed out on the floor of the garage.  He does his best by licking Jim’s face, but Jim doesn’t stir, forcing Toby to take it to the next level.

REAL CAR CHASES, REAL CAR CRASHES

I have a personal preference for watching real cars in car chase scenes and crashes.  As a viewer, I like to put myself in the position of the person I’m watching onscreen.  Car chase scenes like you find in movies like Bullitt (1968) or The French Connection (1971) might actually happen.  With the right training and experience, I might possibly be able to drive like this.  But there’s no way in hell I’m ever driving like Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious movies.  For me, it’s not the same level of emotional involvement.    Real people smashing up real cars because they’re trying to get something done?  That’s all me, and it was Used Cars.

NOTABLE SUPPORTING CAST

Every good caper comedy has a ragtag band of misfits, and the casting department really nailed it on this one.  The supporting cast for this movie is so solid and filled with outstanding character actors.  Gerrit Graham plays the manic, sleazy Jeff, a man who always walks a precarious line, and has superstitions about his superstitions.  When Luke dies, Jeff becomes both the conscience and the sole source of reason for the group, which isn’t saying much considering his level of participation in their illegal activities. 

Pittsburgh native and SCTV veteran  Joe Flaherty played Sam Slaton, right-hand man and head flunkie for Roy L. Fuchs, in a role that was originally planned for an overbooked John Candy.

Carnegie Mellon University graduates Michael McKean and David L. Lander, at this time best known for their roles as Lenny and Squiggy on “Laverne and Shirley” played technological geniuses and dedicated sociopaths Freddie and Eddie.

Alfonso Arau – The acclaimed film director of such movies as “Like Water for Chocolate” and “A Walk in the Clouds” plays a questionable car seller who can’t stop grabbing his nuts.

Betty Thomas – This future “Hill Street Blues” regular and film director really worked her way up.  Here, she was a stripper dancing on top of one of the cars. Makes you wonder what happened to the others?

Dick Miller is credited as “Man in Bed”.  This one probably won’t make his career highlight reel.

Wendie Jo Sperber and Marc McClure got wider recognition with “Back to the Future”, but here they were two of the high school student drivers enlisted to help get a “mile” of cars to the New Deal Used Car lot in time.

Grandpa Al Lewis played “Judge Harrison” with a little “Munsters” nod thrown in there with the guillotine on his desk.

BEST JOKE / BEST PUNCHLINE

Fifty bucks never killed anyone.  That’s all I’ll say.

My favorite punchline of the movie is delivered by none other than then-President Jimmy Carter, which is perfectly timed to the end of the illegal satellite interruption of the Presidential Address.

A lot of movies, especially comedies that I liked when I was twelve years old, don’t age well.  They’re very much stuck in their times. Used Cars focused on the people, and found the humor in the universal truths about those people that we all share.  

The satire is sharp.  The script and performances are still as piss-your-pants funny as they were when I first saw it.  That’s why I continue to watch it. It was produced by some guy named Steven Spielberg.  Keep an eye out for this guy.  He’s going places.

WHERE TO GET IT

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Too often people dismiss movies like this.  They cite the crudity, the language, and the base humor.  I’ve watched Forrest Gump once.  What Lies Beneath, once.  Cast Away, once.  I’ve seen Used Cars over fifty times.

“And that’s all I have to say about that.”

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