Good comedies are rare, and it's unfortunate when they don't connect at the box office, but in recent years some of the funniest movies did not find an audience until home viewing. Perhaps it's because studios don't know how to sell comedies unless they star some ex-Saturday Night Live cast member, but many revered titles actually flopped in cineplexes on initial release Waiting for Guffman, This Is Spinal Tap, Top Secret, and The Princess Bride got lost in the box-office shuffle, found homes on VHS and cable, and only then developed cult followings. Such can be said of Robert Zemeckis' second feature film Used Cars (1980), which debuted the week after Airplane and floundered in the blockbuster's turbulence. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and John Milius, Used Cars is the sort of razor-sharp comedy most people hope to see when they buy tickets for the latest Farrelly Brothers-inspired gross-out. But while it can be tasteless, Used Cars is so blessedly no-holds-barred that every gag pays off. Kurt Russell stars as Rudy Russo, a "do anything for a sale" used-car huckster who works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), a kindly old man who believes a little more in honest salesmanship. Unfortunately, Luke's brother Roy Fuchs (Warden, again) doesn't, and with a competing dealership right across the street, Roy schemes to have Luke killed by causing the sickly man to have a stroke. After the untimely death, Rudy takes over the sales department and he's promised to never allow the business to fall into the bad brother's hands. After burying his boss on the lot, Rudy keeps the death a secret between him, his extremely superstitious fellow salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham), and the lot's mechanic Jim (Frank McRae). With Rudy in control, subtlety goes out the window in search of massive sales. After all, Rudy needs $10,000 to secure the job title he most lusts after: State Senator. But when his dead boss's daughter (Deborah Harmon) shows up, Rudy is caught in a tangle of lies even worse, she's totally hot, and he falls for her.
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There are some monster laughs in Used Cars; if anything over his career, Zemeckis has shown that he is a cinematic master of giving the audience a great set up and a pay off and then a second one, and a third one. Based around the shameless exploits of a bunch of used-car salesman (why hasn't anyone thought of doing this before or after?), Used Cars is the kind of film W. C. Fields would have made if he had done R-rated comedies. There is a welcome meanness and profanity to the movie; at some moments in the film the utterance of a four-letter words can elicit laughs. As the salesmen, both Graham and Russell pull out every stop to sell cars, from public nudity to pretending to kill a dog, and the audience quickly appreciates their hucksterisms, especially since we're not the rube on the buying end. Besides, anyone who's suckered by these guys deserves what they get. Zemeckis has always had an eye for supporting players, here it's a jackpot: Gerrit Graham was always a wonderful comic presence it's a shame he didn't make more films and his twitchy performance here is nothing short of brilliant, perfectly complemented by the comedically off-kilter McRae. And there's also David Lander and Michael McKean (aka Lenny and Squiggy), who arrive as tech wizards to set up illegally broadcast TV commercials (which are the comic highlights of the film), while Alfonso Arau, Joe Flaherty, Dub Taylor, and Al Lewis all add some funny, often outrageous bits. But at the heart of the film is Russell's perfectly pitched manic performance. As the honest liar Rudy, he beams confidence and slick cool without ever becoming sleazy. At the time Russell was just leaving his stretch of Disney movies, and he plays the part for broke, nailing the patois of the oily huckster, but with that perfectly innocent face that suggests he might have a smidge of integrity. As Zemeckis says on the DVD's audio commentary, it's a Frank Capra kind of film except the Jimmy Stewart character has no morals.
For fans, Used Cars thankfully has been released as a special edition in all but name. Columbia TriStar's disc presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with monaural DD 2.0 audio. The chief supplement is the commentary with Zemeckis, Russell and co-writer/producer Bob Gale, where they revel in the movie's failure and seem amused that they are asked to talk about the picture at all. Also included is vintage advertising, four minutes of outtakes, a five-minute Kurt Russell radio interview, eight radio spots, bonus trailers, and filmographies. Best of the bunch: a 30-second TV spot Kurt Russell did for the actual Mesa, Ariz. car dealership featured in the film. Keep-case.