Thursday, February 07, 2013


Based on E.C. Segar’s comic strip, Popeye is the story about a sailor with big forearms who fights off against foes while helping a skinny woman known as Olive Oyl. Directed by Robert Altman and screenplay by Jules Feiffer from a screen story by Altman, the film is a live-action take on the famed comic strip character that was later popularized as a cartoon as Robin Williams plays the titular role. Also starring Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul L. Smith, Paul Dooley, and Richard Libertini. Popeye is a funny yet whimsical comedy-musical from Robert Altman.

The film is the story about a sailor named Popeye with big forearms who arrives to the port city of Sweethaven looking for his father. There, he befriends a young skinny woman known as Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) who was supposed to be engaged to a bullish captain named Bluto (Paul L. Smith) who runs the town in the name of the mysterious commodore. When he and Olive find an abandoned baby they name Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt), their love for another starts to grow much to Bluto’s dismay until he learns that Swee’Pea can predict the future in the hopes to get a mysterious treasure and rule the town. It’s a premise that is simple yet the presentation in its screenplay by Jules Feiffer is anything but due to the fact that a lot happens in the story.

The screenplay is an origin story of sorts of how Popeye meets Olive Oyl and becomes a local hero in Sweethaven as he arrives as an outsider. Popeye becomes the one guy who can not only stand up for the people but also Bluto who has taken control of the town. Bluto is a brutish individual who is very mean and destructive as he feels like he can do whatever he wants while he watches the whole town from his boat. In Popeye, Bluto realizes there is someone who can be a challenge as they also fight for the heart of Olive Oyl. Olive is someone who wants to have a good life as she thinks marrying Bluto would do that. Once Popeye arrives, she realizes here is someone who can offer her something more and with a child in tow. Even as Popeye hopes to do right for this baby as he is still looking for his father that he hadn’t seen since the age of 2.

Robert Altman’s direction is definitely full of amazing imagery from the way he presents the port town of Sweethaven with wide camera shots to some of the intimate moments that occurs throughout the film. Yet, it is filled with lots of improvisation that he is known for as it is a huge ensemble piece with lots of overlapping dialogue. The sense of improvisation does create a looseness in the film in terms of the comedy that happens where there is a lot going on in the background. Even as it involves some of the film’s minor characters who often look around or are part of the scene.

Since the film is also a musical, it’s an element where Altman seems to have a bit of difficulty in finding that looseness in the musical performances. Though there are a few moments where Altman can get something special there, it does put the film into some silly places. Notably in the film’s climax in the final confrontation between Popeye and Bluto that would involve an octopus that looks very fake. Despite the flaws that it has, the film is still an engaging and entertaining film from Robert Altman.

Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno does excellent work with the film‘s very colorful cinematography to capture the beauty of Sweethaven for many of its day and nighttime exterior scenes. Editors John W. Holmes and David A. Simmons do nice work with the editing as it‘s mostly straightforward in its presentation to play out the humor and musical numbers. Production designer Wolf Kroeger and set decorator Jack Stephens do amazing work with the set pieces from the look of the Sweethaven town to the floating boxing ring and boats in the film.

Costume designer Scott Bushnell does terrific work with the costumes from the sailor uniform of Popeye to the clothes that Olive Oyl wears. Sound editor Sam Gemette does wonderful work with the sound to capture the overlapping dialogue and raucous atmosphere of the big crowd scenes. The film’s music by Harry Nilsson, with additional work by Tom Pierson, is a major highlight of the film for the songs that are used to convey the sense of adventure and atmosphere of the film that includes a major highlight in the upbeat ballad He Needs Me that Olive Oyl sings.

The film’s ensemble cast is incredible as it features some notable small appearances from Klaus Voorman as a band leader, Van Dykes Park as the band pianist, Bill Irwin as the eccentric Ham Gravy, Dennis Franz as a bully Popeye beats up, Peter Bray as the boxer Oxblood Oxheart, Linda Hunt as Oxblood’s mother, and Donald Moffat as the taxman who annoys the town by making them pay taxes every minute. Other memorable small roles include Wesley Ivan Hurt as the baby Swee’Pea, Richard Libertini as the Oyl family friend George W. Geezil, MacIntyre Dixon and Roberta Maxwell as Olive’s parents, and Donovan Scott as Olive Oyl’s brother Castor. Paul Dooley is very funny as the burger-loving Wimpy who is willing to do anything to get a burger. Ray Walston is excellent as the mysterious Poopdeck Pappy who shares the same characteristics as Popeye.

Paul L. Smith is terrific as Bluto who is the big bully of Sweethaven who hopes to strike it rich and gain total control while being threatened by Popeye. Shelley Duvall is great as Olive Oyl as she not only captures her strange physicality but also her unique personality as she also has wonderful chemistry with the lead in Robin Williams. Williams is wonderful in his first leading role as Popeye the Sailor Man where Williams get to display a lot of charisma into the role in which he is funny but also energetic though it doesn’t reach the heights of his other great performances in the years to come.

While it is kind of a mess of a film, Popeye is still a fun film to watch from Robert Altman thanks to the leading performances of Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall as well as Harry Nilsson’s music. While it’s a film that is considered to be minor Altman, it still has some of the elements that he’s known for that does make the film a bit above most ensemble-based pieces. Fans of the Popeye cartoons and comic strip will see this film as a faithful piece to the story despite flaws it has. In the end, Popeye is a very good film from Robert Altman.

Robert Altman Films: (The Delinquents) - (The James Dean Story) - Countdown (1968 film) - (That Cold Day in the Park) - M.A.S.H. - Brewster McCloud - McCabe & Mrs. Miller - (Images) - The Long Goodbye - Thieves Like Us - California Split - Nashville - Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson - 3 Women - (A Wedding) - (Quintet) - (A Perfect Couple (HealtH) - (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) - (Streamers) - (Secret Honor) - (O.C. and Stiggs) - Fool for Love - (Beyond Therapy) - (Aria-Les Boreades) - (Tanner ‘88) - (Vincent & Theo) - The Player - Short Cuts - Pret-a-Porter - (Kansas City) - (The Gingerbread Man) - Cookie’s Fortune - Dr. T & the Women - Gosford Park - The Company (2003 film) - (Tanner on Tanner) - A Prairie Home Companion

© thevoid99 2013

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