“Putney Swope” (1969)
In “Putney Swope”, a Madison Avenue advertising agency is subject to an unexpected power shift when a new Chairman of the Board is hastily chosen, after his predecessor collapses during a company meeting. That the new Chairman is announced as having been elected by mistake (each of the board members voted for him thinking no one else would) is a convenient comedy set-up, but more importantly (to the film’s purpose), the fellow is the only black man in the company, Putney Swope. From this premise, director Robert Downey, Sr. offers a satire of advertising, capitalism, racism, sexism and probably a dozen more -isms, all of which are presented with the indelicate touch of a wrecking ball.
In Downey’s universe, everyone is depicted as either a one-dimensional stereotype or a freakish buffoon (often both), a misanthropic view which he is unable to quantify as a legitimate comic perspective, but which he obviously finds hysterical. Subtlety doesn’t rate a qualifying seat at his satiric table, which would be irrelevant if the film delivered on a certain level of humor, but, though the film is sated with what are presented as sharp observations, they miss the mark with a consistency of failure that is embarrassing to watch. The jokes are unfunny enough, but it is the crude execution of every scene which makes the material feel doubly desperate, every line is forced, bluntly italicized to be admired for what Downey clearly feels is militant bravura, but the film fails (actually, does not even attempt) to establishing any coherent point-of-view. The movie feels unfinished, as if any material that would bring any coherence to film is still laying on the editing floor. For a filmmaker like Downey, whose kamikazee approach to humor is wielded as a counterculture truncheon, the success of the comedy is in the cultural bullying of the audience. Films such as “Putney Swope” announce their comic truth to the audience with the force of a slap to the face, but it is a supremely arrogant pose (the movie dares you to not like it, lest you be identified as an Establishment lackey); one that is reflected in every frame of the film. It professes anger and outrage, but without a cause. It is social activism as an empty temper tantrum.
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