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Where's Poppa?
Remind Me
,Where's Poppa?

Where's Poppa?

When it opened in 1970, Where's Poppa? was promoted as an over-the-top explosion of in-your-face humor – the kind of picture where the big kissing scene showed 74-year-old Ruth Gordon smooching the backside of 36-year-old George Segal, and the posters proclaimed, "The tush scene alone is worth the price of admission." The film became something of a cult classic – you may have seen it as Going Ape, its alternate title – and for me it contains one of Gordon's best performances, topped only by her Oscar®-winning work in Rosemary's Baby, released two years earlier. Viewed today, its extremely dark comedy looks darker than ever, painting a funny-peculiar portrait of New York at a time when the city was teetering on the brink of disaster in real life.

Segal plays Gordon Hocheiser, a frazzled Manhattan lawyer who lives with his demented old mother. She drives him so crazy that he starts the movie by putting on a gorilla costume and trying to frighten her to death; when that doesn't work he tries reasoning with her, but you can't get very far with someone who keeps asking "Where's Poppa?" when Poppa's been deceased for years. Gordon can't put Momma in a rest home because he promised Poppa that he wouldn't, but every nurse he hires to care for her promptly quits. He finally catches a break when a young nurse named Louise applies for the job. It's love at first sight between Gordon and her – until she meets Mrs. Hocheiser, who's on her worst behavior, ranting and raving and falling asleep with her face in the mashed potatoes. Desperate to salvage his new love affair, Gordon begs for help from his brother Sidney, who shows up at Gordon's apartment naked because Central Park muggers stole his clothes on the way over. I won't summarize the rest of the story, which is so off-the-wall wacko that you wouldn't believe me if you haven't already seen the picture.

The phrase "politically incorrect" wasn't fashionable back in 1970, and it's just as well, because Where's Poppa? is off the charts in that department. Here's a partial tally: making fun of senile dementia; a monologue about a pervert's wedding night; a dad who stops his wife's nagging by starting to strangle their little boy; a jive-talking gang of African-American muggers; an attempted rape of a policeman in drag; a slum-like nursing home get the idea. What's wrong with this picture? Nothing at all if really, really awful taste is your idea of entertainment heaven.

Looking beyond the question of whether it's hilarious fun or just a string of sick jokes, Where's Poppa? is fascinating as a movie time machine. New York was entering a long and steep decline as the 1970s began – infrastructure was crumbling, city services were deteriorating, financial crisis was looming, crime was soaring. Instead of ignoring these enormous problems, Where's Poppa? fights them off by laughing in their face. Of course it's offensive to have African-American actors play every hoodlum in the story, but exaggerating a stereotype can sometimes unmask its absurdity and drain away its power. It's also offensive to use dementia for laughs, but in her own weird way Mrs. Hocheiser is the most charming character in the story, much more appealing than her self-centered sons and the ditzy nurse who's clueless when it comes to actually nursing. And there's real political punch in a courtroom scene where Gordon defends a war protester who assaulted a military officer; just when you think the dignified officer will win in a walk, he turns out to be as belligerent and bloodthirsty as the protester claimed. This is pungent even now, and in 1970, with the Vietnam war still raging, it was dynamite.

Where's Poppa? is based on an eponymous novel by Robert Klane, who earned a WGA Award nomination for his adapted screenplay. But many good touches, such as the movie's constantly varying pace, come from director Carl Reiner, a long-life comedy specialist. Reiner has made a number of interestingly off-kilter pictures, including Oh, God! (1977), starring George Burns as the title character, and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), starring Steve Martin and a lot of film-noir excerpts; in the 1960s he also devised The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the all-time-great TV sitcoms. In the cast, Gordon is great and so is Segal, who starred in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and California Split (1974) during the same phase of his career. Also present are Ron Leibman as Gordon's brother, Rob Reiner and Vincent Gardenia as two of Gordon's clients, Paul Sorvino as the proprietor of an old folks' home, and Trish Van Devere as nurse Louise, her first major role.

Reviews of Where's Poppa? have been mixed. Time critic Stefan Kanfer noted the Freudian implications of a story about a mother who keeps flummoxing her son's sex life: "From Oedipus complex it [is] an easy plunge to Oedipus simple," he wrote, "bottoming out in pop-psych idiocy like Where's Poppa?," a movie that "is but a single joke, and the punch line is the commonplace twelve-letter obscenity." Roger Greenspun was more upbeat in the New York Times, saying the film profits from "an exceptionally viable mixture of local jokes and black comedy" and becomes "desperately funny" at times. Variety said that while the screenplay is "very close to tragedy," the movie gets laughs because Reiner and the others "work from the firm conviction that everyone, at least everyone living in New York City, is insane." But closest to the mark was Roger Ebert, who compared the picture with The Producers (1968) and credited it with "a certain kind of humor that rises below vulgarity." Mrs. Hocheiser herself couldn't have put it better.

Director: Carl Reiner
Producers: Jerry Tokofsky, Marvin Worth
Screenplay: Robert Klane, based on his novel
Cinematographer: Jack Priestley
Film Editing: Bud Molin, Chic Ciccolini
Art Direction: Warren Clymer
Music: Jack Elliott, with songs by Norman Gimbel and Jack Elliott
With: George Segal (Gordon Hocheiser), Ruth Gordon (Mrs. Hocheiser), Ron Leibman (Sidney Hocheiser), Barnard Hughes (Colonel Hendriks), Vincent Gardenia (Coach Williams), Trish Van Devere (Louise Callan), Rae Allen (Gladys Hocheiser), Rob Reiner (Roger), Paul Sorvino (Owner of "Gus & Grace's Home"), William Le Massena (Judge), Michael McGuire (Army Lawyer), Martha Greenhouse (Owner of "Happytime Farms"), Israel Lang (Muthafucka), Garrett Morris (Garrett), Arnold Williams (Arnold), Buddy Butler (Buddy), Joe Keyes, Jr. (Gang Leader), Jane Hoffman (First Job Applicant), Alice Drummond (Woman in Elevator), Jack Manning (Lawyer for Memphis Maulers), John Gilliar (Policeman in Courthouse), Bill Adams (unidentified), Edward Brooks (Sheldon Hocheiser), Helen Martin (Second Job Applicant), Tom Atkins (Policeman in Apartment), Florence Tarlow (Miss Morgiani), Rehn Scofield (Bailiff), April Geleta (Taxi Lady), W. Benson Terry (Cab Driver), Vic Ramos (unidentified), John McCurry (Policeman in Jail Cell), Fuddles (Shoeshine Man)

by David Sterritt