What's new again: the films of Michael Ritchie | Bleader

What's new again: the films of Michael Ritchie


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One of Magic Mikes progenitors: Burt Reynolds in Ritchies Semi-Tough
  • One of Magic Mike's progenitors: Burt Reynolds in Ritchie's Semi-Tough
In my short review of Magic Mike, I posited that Steven Soderbergh had taken a cue from the 1970s comedies like The Bad News Bears in the movie’s sweet-and-sour tone. And what do you know, in a recent interview with MSN Movies, Soderbergh cites Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and The Last Detail as influences. I haven’t revisited either film in years (I really should), but since seeing Magic Mike, I’ve been spending time with the work of Bad News Bears director Michael Ritchie. As quintessentially “New Hollywood” as Ashby’s, Ritchie’s 70s films balance writerly conceits (many of their conflicts are clearly metaphors for U.S. society on the whole) with naturalistic performances and photography. They also meander between satirical comedy and character drama—a narrative design that’s all but inconceivable in today’s formula-driven Hollywood.

The films are also deeply cynical about American culture, namely its reverence towards success and competition. Many of them revolve around games or forms of competition presented as elaborate games: sports in Downhill Racer (1969), Bad News Bears (1976), Semi-Tough (1977), and Diggstown (1992); organized crime rivalries in Prime Cut (1972); politics in The Candidate (also 1972); a California beauty pageant in Smile (1975). Ritchie’s central theme—that the American dream is simply a game that produces more losers than winners—reflects a 60s drop-out mentality, as does his purposely casual aesthetic. But given the current economic situation and the widespread cynicism towards career politicians, Ritchie’s 70s work feels more relatable than many American movies currently in theaters. (Had Richard Linklater embarked on his Bad News Bears remake a few years later than he did, the film may have been a big hit.)

His humor has aged well too. A shrewd editor, Ritchie liked to cut to the next scene immediately after a punchline, so that the audience wasn’t quite sure what hit them. And if the jokes weren’t funny, as was often the case in Semi-Tough, he at least spared the audience from wading in the unfunniness. The satirical jabs come quickly, but unpredictably. In Smile, for instance, Ritchie presents the inane beauty pageant business in successions of short shots that spotlight the contestants at their most desperate or ignorant. (One of the running gags that hasn’t aged very well involves a Mexican-American girl who’s constantly trying to exploit her minority status to win favor with the judges; yet Ritchie generally takes care of her with a single damning line of dialogue and moves on.) Not every shot is laugh-out-loud funny. Overwhelming the sequences is a Frederick Wiseman-like sense of social organization, in which some people emerge as more inane than others.

Ritchie’s eye for social portrait matched his sensitivity to location. One of the enduring pleasures of Smile and Bad News Bears is that the films don’t feel like they were shot in California suburbs out of convenience—the films are as much about these places as they are about the characters. Bruce Dern’s naive, all-American car salesman in Smile has a distinctly Californian air in the way he defends adolescent triviality as a matter of principle and the way he ties every positive character trait back to virtues of entrepreneurship. And the sexual go-getters of Semi-Tough are made to seem like the organic byproducts of hedonistic Miami. (Soderbergh achieves something similar in Magic Mike, in that his film often comes across as a sexual-sociological survey of Tampa.) Prime Cut is another beast altogether, a film that depicts the dark underworld of rural Kansas with grisly and imaginative action sequences set in barns, a wheat field, and a county fair.

Lee Marvin and Sissy Spacek run from a deadly wheat thresher in Prime Cut
  • Lee Marvin and Sissy Spacek run from a deadly wheat thresher in Prime Cut
Apparently inspired by actual organized crime stories, Prime Cut represents one of the peaks of Ritchie’s cynicism. The film depicts a Kansas cattle rancher (Gene Hackman) who exploits his success to live beyond the law, running a sex slavery trade and overseeing a small army of hired thugs. It takes a royal badass from Chicago (Lee Marvin, as gloriously Lee Marvin-esque as he was in Point Blank) to finally bring him down. What astonishes about Prime Cut isn’t the ugliness of Hackman’s behavior, but the unassuming way that Ritchie presents it. Starting with the movie’s very first images—which show one of Hackman’s enemies being made into sausage—Ritchie advances a view of American society as inescapably corrupt. Rather than express outrage at the offenses of power, he moseys through them, appreciating where he can the colorful diversity of location and character that makes this country great in spite of everything.