Another final example of a film that just could not play today, a film that probably wouldn’t even make it past the script reading stage, Where’s Poppa? easily rivals The Jerk as Carl Reiner’s greatest cinematic achievement. With it’s staggered pace and it’s taboo jokes Where’s Poppa? tells a similar story of a man trapped with his off-kilter mother, but in this film the laughs come by design.
The film starts from a slow boil. Lingering on the sleepy-eyed morning routine of Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) the lackadaisical build-up culminates in Gordon dressing up in a gorilla suit and attempting to scare Momma (Ruth Gordon) to death. The gag does not work and Gordon’s mother lives to see another day. But, the mood has been set.
For the duration of the film we learn what sort of conditions could drive a grown man to try and kill his own mother. Genuinely sweet, but as batty as they come, Gordon’s mother has been ruining his life. Sworn to take care of her until the day she dies, Gordon desperately searches for a nurse who can tolerate his mother, give him some rest and allow him to save his fledging law career. When nurse Louis (Trish Van Devere) comes walking through his office doors Gordon not only thinks he’s found the perfect person to take care of Momma, but also the perfect woman to fall in love with. Now, all Gordon has to do is make sure that Momma doesn’t drive Louis from his life.
From the first glimpse of the gorilla suit to the alternate ending that hadn’t been seen for years the humor is obviously anarchic, but unlike the humor of say the Marx brothers, the humor in Where’s Poppa? paces itself. Not feeling the need to smack the audience over the head with line after line of chuckle inducing humor, the film let’s the pressure build until a joke finally erupts with great power. One or two simple lines can cause side splitting burst of laughter. Where’s Poppa? greatly proves that quality is greater than quantity, but it is never for lack of humor.
Having seen the film multiple times I can boastfully say that each time around I pick up on something new. A small gag here, a particular expression there, the humor is multi-layered and allows for repeated viewing long after one knows the outcome of the story. This time around I picked up on a floor creak. A small sound gag, in Gordon’s law office, this creak appears whenever a character stepped on particular part of the floor. Small and subtle, the jokes provided a new laugh. This creaking floorboard is probably one of the tamest bits in the film. Most of the humor is off-beat, dark, and taboo. Making light of things such as murder, parental murder at that, muggings, and even rape makes Where’s Poppa? sound like a rather vial film.
On paper, computer screen, or where ever you may read a mere description of Where’s Poppa? the affect is lost. The humor has to be delivered by the craftsmen that helped make the film. Author Robert Klane who wrote the book and the screenplay can be held accountable for most of the absurd premises tossed about, but without the timing of director Carl Reiner and the cast the film would fall hollow and flat, something desperately attempting to shock. Besides the restraint of Geroge Segal’s humor and the nuttiness of Ruth Gordon the film boasts the comedic talents of Ron Liebman (Zorro – The Gay Blade, Garden State), Garrett Morris (Saturday Night Live, The Stuff ), Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas, Cruising), and the director’s son Rob Reiner. Many of the characters play into stereotypes – Jewish, Afro-American, Italian, even radical war protestor. The decision to have characters knowingly play towards stereotypes can come as a jolt for those more used to seeing politically correct comedies that do their best to dilute such portrayals. I can wholly understand why the humor may smack some in the face and leave them a bit bewildered. Still, most folks I have ever shown this film to end up laughing. It’s a guilty laugh, one knows you probably shouldn’t laugh at certain things, but when the delivery of the jokes is this good, it’s hard not to laugh.
Due to its absurd nature Where’s Poppa? takes everything to an extreme. Going in such a direction frees it from some criticism. It’s hard to take the film seriously when it does not take itself that seriously. Never is the film attempting to offend or harm anyone, but rather examine the taboos we have placed on our humor and see what happens when you run right over them. Today, no sane studio would ever green-light a project like this, but in retrospect Where’s Poppa? looks back to a time when a daring director could use comedy to explore the social pulse, without grandstanding or waving about an idealistic message. Where’s Poppa? is a screwed up film, but its also the product of a screwed up world.
As for the alternate ending, which can now be seen thanks to the DVD extras, it is still so disturbing, though almost expected, that one doesn’t know if you should get mad at the filmmakers for shooting it or mad at yourself for thinking that the film would go there.