30th ANNIVERSARY RANT
Rant by Steven Lewis
Happy 30th, “Caddyshack”. This is the scrappy, low-brow comedy that could – the baby brother of “Animal House” (same writers, same sardonic National Lampoon sensibility, same SNL tie-in amongst the cast) which failed, in its own day, to reach the same heights in either popularity or cultural impact. Flash-forward thirty years though, and “Caddyshack”‘s stature has grown to the point where it now stands alone as the undisputed master of the raunch-comedy – the standard bearer by which all others are judged.
So it’s got that going for it. Which is nice.
There’s no way to talk about this movie without quoting it. “Be the ball”. “Cinderella story”. Billy Beru. A license to kill varmints. Now I know why lions eat their young. “You’re lean, mean, and I bet you’re not too far in between”. All these catch-phrases, and more, dance within the comedic stew that is “Caddyshack”. The movie offers the pleasure of watching several different comic sensibilities at work: Chevy Chase’s suave, deadpan obliviousness; the rat-tat-tat old-timey standup rhythms of Rodney Dangerfield; the unctuous slow-burn of Ted Knight; and of course Bill Murray, who is practically a sub-genre of comedy all by himself. Each of these guys is at the top of his game here, and the film doles them out in equal doses, judiciously timed so as to give us plenty of moments to savor, while never so long as to ever make any of them wear out their welcome. Arguably, each of the characters they play is rich enough in comic potential to sustain a whole movie, but it is doubtful whether it could possibly be as memorable as this one: in the case of “Caddyshack”, it is really the MIXTURE of them all which is the star, far moreso than any single character (or animatronic rodent!)
It’s certainly not the caddies, that’s for sure. And just think about that for a minute, why don’t you: the movie has got “caddy” right in the title, and yet everyone in the picture who actually holds that position is either blanded out or relegated to the background. Poor Danny Noonan: the story is ostensibly all about him and his coming of age, yet no fan of this movie ever quotes him or offers any positive memories of his character. He is an annoyance to be sat through on the way to the comic fireworks provided by the brilliant quartet detailed above.
That’s not how it was originally supposed to be. The film was conceived by writers Doug Kenney and Brian Doyle-Murray as a satirical examination of country club mores and hypocrisy, as seen through the eyes of the working-class caddies who toiled there. There was more than a bit of personal observation involved, as both men had worked at private clubs and experienced first hand the smarminess and condescension of the hoity-toity crowd they serviced. The script they wrote, in collaboration with director Harold Ramis, stayed true to this vision and approach: it was an unabashed “teen” flick, focusing primarily upon the caddies and their struggles, hijinks and personality conflicts – with the adult characters serving primarily as satirical backdrop and straw men. But when those “adult” characters turned out to be played by Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight and Bill Murray, the original shooting script went out the window and the Caddyshack we know today was largely improvised into existence.
And as I’ve said (and as everyone knows) those guys are all hilarious, and make the film a joy to watch. But the absence of any kind of strong throughline does leave the film feeling a bit aimless. And the process of taking a satirical framework and then populating it with characters we’re meant to love does lead to some jarring disconnects. For instance, Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb character is presented as the ultimate Mr. Cool: with his Zen-inflected, wiseass attitutde, he is meant to be the polar opposite of the smug and supercilious Bushwood crowd. But, after all, he is a MEMBER of Bushwood! Why so, if he thinks they’re all assholes? And by the way, he becomes quite the asshole himself at the end of the movie, when his game goes awry against Judge Smails. Same thing with Dangerfield’s Al Czervik: we’re meant to laugh at his antics – and we do – but how is his brand of loud-mouthed vulgarity and his consumerism-run-amok sense of entitlement any more palatable than Smails and his cronies? (The caddies, in fact, seem to be largely annoyed by him, not entranced – though those are reactions that never get explored.) And Carl Spackler? Don’t even go there. It is only Bill Murray’s gonzo brilliance that keeps this “chasing a gopher” subplot from being one of the dumbest in the entire history of movies. (Don’t believe me? Check out “Caddyshack II”.)
Obviously, I’m of two minds about this picture. I celebrate it as it stands, and on its 30th anniversary give it its full cinematic salute. However, I have to openly wonder, in these remake and reboot happy times which we live, why no one has ever thought to go back, uncover that original shooting script and do it straight – thus giving us the opportunity to see the “Caddyshack” that its creators initially intended. It may not be great, after all. But it very well may be, and in any case would stand as an interesting complement to the “classic” version of the film we know so well – particularly as that film is in no danger of going away or being upstaged.
Cast someone like Michael Cera (or his cinematic cousin Jesse Eisenberg) in the Danny Noonan role, and truly let the film revolve around him. Develop the snarky camaraderie that exists amongst the caddies – and how that may be informed by their seemingly go-nowhere, dead-end lives. How Danny’s quest to go to college (a desire he himself seems conflicted about) sets him at loggerheads with his more working-class colleagues (particularly the rough-hewn D’Annunzio, who seems to especially have it in for Noonan). Maybe do something different with the Lacey Underall character (a terrible name anyway, even for a comedy, which deserves changing): instead of making her the film’s de facto slut, maybe she’s simply Smails’ pampered yet disaffected niece, who finds herself unaccountably drawn into the relaxed, friendly and hard-partying world of the caddies (much to her uncle’s consternation, of course). Danny could experience with her a sweet summer romance, rather than just a wild romp in the sack (which, what the hell, he could also experience too – this would STILL be a teenage raunch comedy, after all!)
Which is the point, really. I’m not saying let’s cut the (golf) balls off “Caddyshack”, turn it into some kind of coming-of-age melodrama. Nor am I suggesting we get rid of the inestimable Mr.’s Webb, Czervik and Smails – they’d still have their place, and their parts to play. I’m just saying we’ve had 30 years now of laughing at the antics of the grownups (and we’ll no doubt have countless more) – let’s turn this film back to the kids, and see what they can do with it. So come on, Mr. Ramis: instead of wasting your time trying to come up with the next generation of Ghostbusters (something everyone THINKS they wanna see, but which would most likely be a disaster) why don’t you go back to a script that already exists somewhere, way back in your closet, and mine it for everything you passed over the first time around?
Who knows? Maybe 30 years from now, we’ll have yet another classic anniversary to be celebrating. And wouldn’t that be the biggest Cinderella story of all?
“Caddyshack” is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and (on some delivery systems) streaming.