Directed By: Robert Altman
Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston
Tag line: "Blow me down! It's comink for Chrustmas!"
Trivia: The Sweethaven set that was built for this film still exists, and it is now a popular tourist attraction known as Popeye Village
“When I was training for Popeye, I thought: this is it, this is my Superman, and it’s gonna go through the f*ckin’ roof! I also had that dream of getting up to thank the Academy. After the first day on Popeye, I thought: well, maybe this isn’t it; and I finally wound up going: Oh, God, when is it gonna be over?”
The above quote was provided by Robin Williams, a few years after he played the title character in Popeye, a 1980 musical / comedy directed by Robert Altman. I remember going to see Popeye with my friends when it was released, and like Mr. Williams, I wasn’t blown away by the experience. In fact, it was the first time I ever fell asleep in a movie theater.
Inspired in part by the 1930’s animated cartoon Popeye the Sailor, the film opens with Popeye (Williams) arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven, where he hopes to find his beloved “Pappy”, who he hasn’t seen in over 30 years. After paying almost $2.00 in taxes (including a $0.17 “New in Town” tax) to the Taxman ( Donald Moffat), Popeye makes his way to a boarding house owned by Cole Oyl (MacIntyre Dixon) and his wife Nana (Roberta Maxwell), who rent him their last available room. Along with two other boarders: Mr. Geezil (Richard Libertini) and Mr. Wimpy (Paul Dooley), both of the Oyls’ adult children, Castor (Donovan Scott) and Olive (Shelley Duvall), also live in the house (which can get a bit crazy around dinner time).
But Olive probably won’t be at home much longer, because she’s engaged to be married to Bluto (Paul L. Smith), a brute of a man who rules over Sweethaven whenever the elusive Commodore (who nobody has ever seen) is too busy to do so. The night of her engagement party, however, Olive gets cold feet and decides to run away. After bumping into Popeye (literally) out on the dock, the two go for a stroll, and when they stop to take a short break, a cloaked figure sneaks in from the shadows and replaces Olive’s basket with another that looks exactly like it. To their surprise, Popeye and Olive find a baby tucked safely inside this new basket, with a note attached asking Popeye to raise the child. Thrilled at the prospect of becoming a “mudder”, Popeye names the little tyke Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt) and, along with Olive, returns to the boarding house. Of course, Bluto is none too pleased to see his fiance with both another man and a new baby. After throwing a temper tantrum, Bluto dumps Olive, and the next day sends the Taxman around to charge the Oyls “quadruple tax”. When they can’t afford to pay it, the majority of their house (including walls and windows) is repossessed.
Will the Oyls find the money to pay their taxes? Will Popeye ever track down his Pappy? And, more importantly, will Popeye and Olive fall in love with each other? Before the movie is over, all of these questions (and more besides) will be answered.
Fortunately, this time around, I was able to keep my eyes open for the duration of Popeye, and to be honest, it’s not the total disaster I remember it being. First and foremost, I was impressed with the film’s main set piece: the town of Sweethaven, which, with its decaying buildings and steep hills, had a style all its own. Much like he did with the town featured in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman had Sweethaven built from the ground up, and, apparently, the entire set is not only still standing on the island of Malta (where the movie was shot), but it’s also become a popular tourist attraction. In addition, the casting, from the major roles to the background players, was just about perfect. Williams does more than simply impersonate Popeye; he breathes life into the character, taking what had been a cartoon personality and transforming him into a living, breathing individual As for Shelley Duvall, she was born to play Olive Oyl, and made the most of the opportunity; while Paul L. Smith, with his imposing physique and intimidating sneer, gave the film a villain you love to despise.
Yet, despite its strengths, Popeye is a flawed motion picture. For one, the characters (especially Popeye) never shut the hell up, and the constant barrage of dialogue had me begging for mercy well before the film was over (I understand the ‘30s cartoons did this same thing, but at least those were only 7 minutes long. To stretch the incessant mumbling out over almost two hours qualifies as a form of torture). Also, aside from Shelley Duvall’s rendition of "He Needs Me," I felt most of the film’s music was flat (and, to be fair, my enjoyment of "He Needs Me" may have more to do with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love than it does this movie).
More than a few people have said that Popeye was Robert Altman’s worst film, but I disagree (I’m guessing they never saw O.C. and Stiggs. I don’t use the word “hate” often, but I hated O.C. and Stiggs). Still, I have to admit that, coming from the man who gave us MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Short Cuts, The Player, and Gosford Park, Popeye stands out like a sore thumb. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not a good one either.