Monday, March 23, 2015
Maybe it's because I don't find the subjects of golf or groundskeeping particularly compelling in and of themselves, but I can't help but imagine that if you excise all the gags and non-sequiturs Caddyshack would be a terrible movie.
Take the bobbing O'Henry out of the pool, so to speak, and here's what you're left with: at a fancy-schmancy country club, where the rabble-rousing caddies tug the stiff upper lips of the wealthy patrons, one caddy, aided by a rebellious child of privilege, aspires to rise above his station. It's about as Shakespearean as plots come. That's the A story. The B story concerns the arrival of a gaudy, loquacious, disrespectful nouveau riche – who can't get no respect – to the club seemingly hellbent on enervating the status quo. In the C story, a groundskeeper with an unidentified affliction – possibly an adult version of Benjy from The Sound and the Fury – is tasked with tackling invasive vermin, ultimately emphasizing that any attempt to civilize the wilderness is quixotic.
Ostensibly we're meant to care whether or not the young caddy will abandon his class values in order to be accepted by the well-to-dos, but does anyone really care about what happens in Caddyshack? The famous last line of the movie, let loose by Rodney Dangerfield, sort of implies that even Caddyshack doesn't care what happens in Caddyshack. It's maybe one of the best lines in cinema history, right up there with "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.": "Hey everybody! We're all gonna get laid!"
Is it a problem that there are no stakes in this movie? Absolutely not; Caddyshack is great. But it's great on account of the dramatically irresponsible stuff. The jokes that add squat to the plot are what we remember, what we quote and describe. No one tries to recreate the tension of Danny's final putt, which is meant to be the climax of the movie. It's the chocolate bar loose in the pool or Bill Murray's "Cinderella Story" monologue that survive.
Dramatically-speaking, wacky comedies are odd ducks. On the whole, they observe the basic Aristotelian structure of desire, conflict, and resolution, but this observance is often hollow, like grace said habitually by diners who never give God a thought. Was anyone on the edge of their seat when Danny was taking that final put? Did anyone gasp when Maggie revealed that she may be pregnant? Did we stand up and cheer when the gopher emerged mostly unscathed from Carl's last stand? No. So why have a story if no one's really going to care about the outcome?
Comedic fidelity to conventional storytelling is at first blush confounding, especially when most comedies are no more than vehicles for jokes. Most contemporary mainstream comedies end up top-heavy, cramming their first 30 minutes with premise before spending an inordinate amount of time building to conclusions – Adam Sandler or Paul Rudd-types rushing to airports or realizing that family is the most important thing – that are nothing if not foregone. No one watches these movies to see love triumphing over immaturity, but rather to see the lead get an erection at an inopportune time or let food poisoning ruin a company picnic. Yet many comedies are stupidly devoted to the illusion of stakes and nearly all fail to make anyone – themselves included – care past the first third. Or else comedies will go the other way and wiggle out of the leash, becoming a melee of jokes that fail on account of not being connected to some structure.
Caddyshack is a classic, I think, because it figures out the formula by becoming a kind of meta-narrative. There are no real stakes in the movie, but it manages somehow to remain dramatically interesting. The power struggle presented in the story is between the anarchic caddies and the ordered club members, but the real power struggle in the movie – the reason we come back to the movie – is between the anarchy of comedy and the order of conventional narrative. Most contemporary comedy fail because they either lack or eschew this tension, becoming instead movies about the comedic anarchy being tamed and learning a lesson.
Caddyshack represents a sweet spot for screwball comedies, a stand out in an era of similar temperaments. It has an awareness and an intelligence – whether intentional or instinctual – that is disappearing from comedy. I know that as kids we dream of removing all the grain cereal from Lucky Charms and just eating the marshmallow charms. Of course we eat it for the candy, but it's hard to deny that there's something important about the boring cereal part that no one likes.
More importantly, though, is the assurance that we're all getting laid.