Movie: It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

About a decade ago, I finally managed to finish James Joyce’s Ulysses after three prior, aborted attempts.  This may seem an odd comparison, but I have had a similar relationship with It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, I kept starting this 2 ½ hour comedy numerous times, and repeatedly bailed after a half hour or so.

That’s right: a 2 ½ hour comedy.  I believe a movie can be any length, but that the length should be appropriate for the plot.  While drama, horror, action and sci-fi all can easily warrant a movie that long or longer, comedy has the curious effect of being greatly diminished the longer it goes on.  In the same way one of the Lord Of The Rings films could not be 90 minutes, a comedy should usually not exceed 90 minutes.

This is the problem inherent in this film.  That, and it also isn’t very funny, and that is coming from somebody who is the easiest laugh I know.  I may have smiled quite a bit while watching this movie, and even had an occasional chuckle, but not once did I laugh out loud.  I actually laughed several times during John Landis’s The Stupids.  Yes, The Stupids, for crissakes.

In same way the movie is bloated by the runtime, it is filled beyond the saturation point with comic actors.  Just think of one from the 1960 or earlier, and there’s a fair chance they have at least a cameo here.  In fact, despite the length, here is a picture with so many performers that the majority have barely enough screen time to have any kind of character development.  For example, there’s a shot of the Three Stooges as firemen aaaaaaand…they don’t do anything.  It’s just, “Oh, hey, there’s the Three Stooges!”

There’s another reason why I found Mad x4 World to be only amusing, at best. Even the funniest moments here happen almost spontaneously, without any buildup. Compare this to the setups in Rat Race, a movie directly influenced by this one but which proceeds to better it in almost every regard. There, an almost Rube Goldberg scenario has a long setup that starts with two chumps trying to bring down an airport control tower using a jeep-based wench, only to have them frantically scaling that same tower to keep from getting run over by their own vehicle. The long buildup makes the payoff that much better. In a similar scene here, a guy falls out of an airport control tower and ends up dangling from a microphone cable. That’s it–that’s the entire joke.

The plot, if you don’t know already, concerns various parties racing to buried treasure, the location of which was revealed by Jimmy Durante as he lays dying.  Probably the funniest gag in this whole thing is when he literally kicks the bucket.  This happens about 10-15 minutes in the movie so, if you didn’t find that funny, you can probably bail at this point.

Spencer Tracy is ostensibly the star here, but I suspect that is only because he seems to have the most screen time. But what’s odd is he is largely confined to a police station where he and other officers act as a type of greek chorus to the proceedings. They provide exposition and some material to bridge scenes. To my irritation, they often seem to have access to information I don’t see how they could have.

Some of that information concerns a couple who have trapped themselves in the basement of a hardware store. Given the couple did not activate a burglar alarm, it doesn’t seem possible the police could know about their struggle. Still, the hardware store has one of the better set pieces, and Sid Ceasar demonstrates remarkable physical exertion when trying to break out.

I think this movie works best if one doesn’t treat it as a comedy, but more as an action movie.  Many of the set pieces are still jaw-dropping, such as an airplane flying through a billboard before eventually crashing into the all-windows wall of an airport restaurant.

If this movie has had an influence, I fear it is largely a bad one, as I suspect this is where John Landis (again) may have found inspiration for movies like The Blue Brothers, where loud, multiple crashes are somehow supposed to equal hilarity.

If anything, I just hope it doesn’t inspire anybody to make any more 2 1/2 hour long comedies.

Dir: Stanley Kramer

Starring, um, everybody?

Watched on blu-ray