What's Up, Doc?
Directed By: Peter Bogdonavich
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, Philip Roth, Sorrell Booke, Stefan Gierasch, Mabel Albertson, Liam Dunn
Studio: Warner Bros.
Film Length: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Subtitles: English SDH, German SDH, French, Spanish (Latin), Spanish (Castellano), Finnish, Greek, Norwegian, Portuguese
Release Date: August 10, 2010
The Film ****
In What's Up, Doc?, Ryan O'Neal plays uptight musicologist Dr. Howard Bannister who has traveled from Iowa to San Francisco, California in hopes of securing a prestigious award for his research into prehistoric man's musical relationship with "igneous Tambulu" rocks. His life, normally kept severely in order by his overbearingly prim fiance Eunice Burns (Kahn), is turned upside down when he crosses paths with chaotic free spirit Judy Maxwell (Streisand). Judy instigates an unsolicited courtship with Howard that begins with the destruction of a drugstore display, but progresses into some serious property damage once it is confounded with farcical circumstances involving a set of four matching carry-on bags owned by guests who coincidentally find themselves all on the seventeenth floor of the same hotel.
If one ever needed to point to a single film as an example of William Goldman's "Nobody knows anything" observation about Hollywood, What's Up, Doc? would be an excellent candidate. It attempts to resurrect a long dead genre, it makes almost no attempt to be in step with its times, it casts arguably the hottest leading man in Hollywood at the time as a bookish milquetoast, and, contrary to the theory that dying is easy and comedy is hard, it was by most accounts a happy set. The studio probably breathed a sigh of relief when Bogdonavich and cinematographer László Kovács agreed to shoot in color (which was not the case for Bogdonavich's previous and subsequent films). Despite what looked like an array of contrarian signs per the conventional wisdom, the film succeeds at almost everything it attempts to do.
Bogdonavich is well known as a student of the "old masters", and the jumping off point for "What's Up, Doc?" is clearly Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby which contains similarities in its basic plot, lead characters, and even a couple of specific gags. In his homage to the classic Hollywood comedies of the '30s and '40s, Bogdonavich wisely avoids doing a remake or a parody, and instead attempts to make a film with the exact same spirit and sensibilities as the comedies of Hawks, Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges, George Cukor, and their contemporaries. The climactic chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco even reaches back a bit further, being reminiscent of the kind of elaborately staged chases that were a staple of silent comedies.
When trying to counter the assertion that "They don't make them like they used to", one needs a pretty good idea about how "they used to". In the absence of a studio system, Bogdonavich managed to find a way to surround himself with extremely talented craftsmen for nearly all technical aspects of the production inclusive of Kovács, Production and Costume Designer Polly Platt, editor Verna Fields, and a stunt team that was so invaluable to the production that, for the first time ever in a Hollywood film, their names were included in the film's closing credits. The initial script developed by Bogdonavich with writers David Newman and Robert Benton was handed to Buck Henry who struck the perfect screwball tone with his re-write.
Also in keeping with the films to which it pays homage, What's Up, Doc? is filled from top to bottom with comedically gifted character actors. Madeline Kahn nearly steals the picture in her film debut, getting every ounce of comedy possible out of a wig and wardrobe so sublimely awful that they probably deserved supporting actor credits. Kenneth Mars and Austin Pendleton play characters no less ridiculous than Kahn's and are completely tuned into the madcap vibe of the piece inclusive of the physical comedy and overlapping dialog. Michael Murphy and Philip Roth both manage to squeeze laughs out of nearly wordless roles as two men contending for some classified documents. 71 year old Mabel Albertson and future "Boss Hogg" Sorrel Booke have perhaps the funniest bit of physical comedy in the whole enterprise when he attempts to use "his charm" to delay her from returning to her hotel suite.
All of the above elements are pulled together with a near perfect sense of timing and just enough restraint to make it all work. I swear there are not even a half dozen cream pies thrown throughout the entire film. Streisand and O'Neal are well cast as the opposite poles around which all of the electricity provided by the supporting cast moves in waves. In some ways, Bogdonavich even improves on the Bringing Up Baby model by never allowing O'Neal's character to completely surrender to the madcap insanity catalyzed by Streisand's anarchic free spirit. Another important lesson Bogdonavich learned from Hawks is that when you cast a "star", you use them in a way that audiences want to see. As such, a musical interlude is staged in which Barbra Streisand sings "As Time Goes By" while perched on and around a piano that is only slightly less gratuitous and just about as entertaining as the musical scene featuring Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. The very last scene in the movie quotes and deflates in rapid succession a signature line of dialog from O'Neal's star-making performance in Love Story.
The Video ****
The VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer of the film approximates its original theatrical aspect ratio by filling the entire 16:9 frame. It is about as perfect as I could hope the film will ever look on home video. Most of it looks very film-like with noticeable but always natural looking film grain, solid detail, natural range of contrast and color, no signs of visible film damage, and no signs of digital video artifacts. Select shots look a bit softer than others, but are still generally quite good. A slight degradation is noticeable during the opticals, but these tend to be limited to short crossfades. Even the opening credits look pristine since they were created in an appropriately old-fashioned "book with turning pages" style without the use of optical titles.
The Audio ***½
The film's original mono audio track is presented via a lossless DTS HD-MA 1.0 track. The track is dynamic with excellent fidelity and no excessive noise reduction artifacts. It basically sounds like a well mastered high quality magnetic track presented in convenient digital optical disc form. The three key musical moments ("You're the Top" solo opening credits, "You're the Top" duet closing credits, "As Time Goes By" piano scene) benefit the most from the lossless encoding. The film has no conventional underscore, but has a very subtly effective mix of dialog, effects, and source music. Alternate Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks are available in French, German, Spanish (Latin), and Spanish (Castellano)
The Extras **½
Extras consist of the following commentaries, promo, and trailer, all of which also accompanied the 2003 SD DVD release of the film:
Commentary from Peter Bogdonavich is a solid feature length screen specific commentary from Bogdonavich. He has a terrific memory for the production and shares plenty of information about the shoot such as locations, casting, and screenplay development as well as explanations of things like the ins and outs of editing to get a laugh at the right moment. A natural raconteur, he also shares various behind the scenes stories and is always entertaining when he slips into the voice of someone of whom he is recounting a discussion. He clearly is fond of the film and enjoyed the production immensely. This actually becomes amusing at one point where his rose-colored glasses recollections lead him to state that it is amazing that nobody was hurt during the climactic chase sequence. Mere seconds later he must correct himself by mentioning that someone broke a toe, and a few minutes after that, he mentions a stuntman who was knocked unconscious during a shot involving a car going into the water.
Selective Scene Commentary with Barbra Streisand (12:13) Features mostly screen specific comments from Streisand over the film's opening, her character intro, the "under the table" ballroom scene, two significant chunks of the climactic chase scene, and the film's final scene. Considering she is limited to just over 12 minutes of comments in total, a bit too much of it is given over to general observations along the lines of "this is funny". That being said, she does offer up a few tidbits about her experience making the film including some behind the scenes anecdotes and remembrances of her director and co-star. A lot of the trivia bits she points out are redundant with Bogdonavich's commentary, but she does offer some information about what it is like to be an actor working for him that comes from a perspective he could not provide.
Screwball Comedies ... Remember Them? (8:37) is a vintage featurette presented in windowboxed 4:3 video that includes behind the scenes footage from the shooting of the hotel ballroom, mansion party, and San Francisco street chase sequences along with some narration and semi-candid comments from participants on-set.
Theatrical Trailer (3:46) is a unique promotional spot presented in 16:9 video that mixes film clips with a lot of the same behind the scenes footage from the ...Remember Them? promo accompanied by an amusing mock-serious baritone voiceover. The most amusing unique piece of behind the scenes footage is towards the end where clips from the sequence where Barbra Streisand sings As Time Goes By on and around a piano with Ryan O'Neal is intercut with a run-through of the scene with Bogdonavich substituted for Streisand.
The disc is enclosed in a standard "Elite" Blu-ray case with no inserts..
What's Up, Doc? is an improbably successful revival of the screwball comedy genre three decades after the fact. It captures Director Peter Bogdonavich and lead actors Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal at their career peaks and features a remarkable comedic supporting cast. It is presented on Blu-ray with an outstanding film-like transfer and a very high fidelity lossless mono soundtrack. Extras are carried over from the previous DVD release and include a very informative full-length commentary from Bogdonavich, a brief commentary on select scenes from Streisand, a vintage featurette, and the film's theatrical trailer.