One of the oddest things about comedies of the ‘70s and ‘80s is just how plot-averse some of them are. Contrasted to modern major studio comedies, which at times are so slavishly devoted to conventional three-act plotting that it feels like you could cook one up using screenwriting Mad Libs to fill in a handful of blanks, films from that era were often happy to just take a funny premise, a funny person, ram them together, and see what happens.
The problem with this, of course, is that the end results of this throw-jokes-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks philosophy often doesn’t hold up to modern eyes. Sadly, there are a number of films that I enjoyed a lot as a teenager that I rewatched recently as an adult and found them fitfully funny but mostly meandering messes that struggled to hold my attention: Meatballs, Back to School, The Jerk. And, I’m sad to say, I have one more to add to that list: 1980’s Caddyshack.
I will admit that in many circles this is a somewhat sacrilegious statement. The film, though poorly received upon release, is still widely beloved—it’s #71 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 comedies, for example. But I wonder how many people who rate Caddyshack as one of the funniest of all time have actually watched it recently with a fresh set of eyes.
The plot of Caddyshack revolves around the posh Bushwood Country Club. Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) is a caddy for Ty (Chevy Chase), son of one of Bushwood’s founders but more of a zen golf master (he doesn’t even bother keeping score!) who imparts wisdom on young Danny. Ty has little time for the pomp and pompousness of members like Judge Smails (Ted Knight), an affluent windbag who Danny is kissing up to in the hopes of scoring a college scholarship available to the club’s caddies. The honorable judge is furious when crass schlub/real estate mogul Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield) steamrolls in with an endless stream of insults and jokes about buying the place. Eventually all of these threads come together in a round of 18 between Smails, Ty, and Czervik with a big, fat wager attached and Danny’s future (and maybe Bushwood’s?) hanging in the balance.
That sounds like a fairly tight through-line and even a tight thematic underpinning of old money vs. nouveau riche with a poor kid trapped in the middle, doesn’t it? One would assume that that was the main idea Brian Doyle-Murray brought to the table when he penned his first draft of the screenplay based on his younger days as a caddy at a ritzy country club. And yet by the time it reached the screen, following rewrites by the National Lampoon’s Animal House pairing of director Harold Ramis and producer Douglas Kenney, plus countless ad-libs, scenes added and written on the fly, and a final edit that infuriated Kenney so much that he slid into depression and substance abuse (he would die just a month after the film’s release), the original theme ends up little more than an afterthought. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that Caddyshack is scattershot—cocaine was “the fuel that kept the film running,” as one actor put it. And in places, man, does it show.
The end result of all that mish-mash is not one coherent movie, but four different movies rammed together and fighting for your attention, to mixed success. The first, and most successful, is the conflict between Czervik and Judge Smails. Rodney Dangerfield just barrels onto the screen, Rodney Dangerfielding it up as only Rodney Dangerfield can with a constant stream of one-liners and put-downs and an array of brightly colored contrasting plaid outfits as loud and boorish as he is. Dangerfield is played perfectly against Knight, who switches gears from smarm to apoplectic rage on a dime. The resulting fireworks aren’t exactly revolutionary, but they make for a ton of fun. Chase, though, seems to have wandered in from another film entirely. He can do wacky with the best of them and could have fit in well as the sarcastic counterpoint to Dangerfield’s more over-the-top gags, but his character and performance are both mostly muted and played on the dramatic side. Ty flits in and out of the movie on a whim, his story arc completely disconnected from the Czervik/Smails rivalry—so much so that when he gets dragged into their final faceoff, it feels totally arbitrary. (His romantic subplot feels even more tacked-on and unnecessary.) The shenanigans of Danny and the other mostly interchangeable caddies feel like an afterthought for much of the film until suddenly Danny takes over for a huge chunk of the film’s back half, with several plot threads that don’t go anywhere: a fight with a bullyish caddy, a hookup with his girlfriend Maggie O’Hooligan (Sarah Holcomb, sporting one of the least convincing Irish accents in recorded cinema) who may or may not be knocked up, and a roll in the sheets with Judge Smails’ niece (Cindy Morgan) whose name is, I kid you not, Lacey Underall. (Yeah, it’s that kinda movie). If the movie had stayed caddy-centric, there’s plenty of meat there for an interesting teen hijinks movie, a sort of Porky’s on the golf course. But in a movie with this many big personalities, Danny’s travails fail to keep your attention, grinding the movie to a halt and leaving you looking at your watch wondering how long until Dangerfield shows up again.
And finally, interlaced amongst all that, you have the fourth movie, and what Caddyshack is best remembered for: Bill Murray’s turn as Carl, the assistant groundskeeper, and his quest to capture an invasive gopher (played by a puppet). Murray’s performance is one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle stuff, with many of the film’s most memorable lines and moments. (The infamous Jaws parody scene where a candy bar in the pool is mistaken for a turd is rightfully remembered as a classic, but it wouldn’t be half as funny without Murray picking up the candy bar and taking a big bite out of it.) But as funny as he is, Caddyshack leans a little too hard on Carl until it teeters on the edge of too much of a good thing. Murray’s lines are reportedly all ad-libbed and it almost feels like the editor watched the reels of Murray’s riffing and thought “Hell, this guy’s hilarious, let’s just keep all of it.” Ironically, his epic gopher chase is the only conflict in the movie whose resolution is wholly satisfying.
All of this isn’t to say that Caddyshack is not a funny movie—it is! It’s frequently legitimately laugh-out-loud funny, with one-liners that are still as imminently quotable today as they were 40 years ago. But compare Caddyshack with Airplane!, which had come out just three weeks earlier, and also throws joke after joke after joke at the wall to see what sticks, and the latter is a much more successful overall movie because of its focus. Caddyshack isn’t a bad movie so much as it’s a missed opportunity, a collection of very funny gags scattered around a movie that can at times be unfunny, unfocused, and a little boring. Considering the stellar talent involved, one can’t help but wish for a movie that merited Caddyshack’s legendary status from beginning to end. | Jason Green
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