Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1982)

4. Eating Raoul 

In an odd way, “Eating Raoul” was Paul Bartel’s break-out movie. It wasn’t his first success, critically or financially, but it seems to be the first time people starting paying attention to him as a director. It was certainly his breakout film as a comedy director. He wasn’t making anymore race car movies after this. It shows off his wit as a screenwriter and his ability to make a competent film under the restraints of a tiny budget.

One of Paul Bartel’s strengths as a filmmaker was how he could make movies with sick, perverse subject matters while not making them feel sleazy or gross. His interests in so-called sexual deviants seemed to be, not exploitative, but rather humanistic. Let’s point and have a ribald laugh at human foibles, at the silliness we go through to get off. That chuckling exploration of the seedier parts of the human mind provides the movie with not only its primary theme but its comedic spirit.

The movie begins with a short info-log detailing the depravity that exists in (then) modern Hollywood. Even the morals of stand-up people degrade over time in such an environment and the line between food and sex has blurred. This stands in sharp contract to the lives of our main characters, Paul and Mary Bland, played by the director himself and his favorite actress Mary Woronov. (No points for guessing who plays who.) The Blands live an almost fifties-sitcom style existence and joyously declare themselves squares. They even sleep in separate beds. How at odds they are with this world is illustrated immediately, with nurse Mary being sexually propositioned by a patient and wine-snob Paul being robbed at gunpoint. The married couples’ dream of opening a country kitchen restaurant is in peril from rising apartment rent and sudden unemployment. And their peace-of-mind is threatened by the riotous swingers party next door. It isn’t long before the two strike upon an idea that solves both of their problems, especially once they realize those swingers type have a lot of free, petty cash on them…

Despite devising a scam that resolves around frying-pan-murder and catering to strangers’ increasingly cartoonish sexual fantasies, the Blands maintain their sense of smug moral superiority. After all, they’re ridding the world of the kind of people no one will miss and it’s all for a good reason. A wrench is thrown into their solid plan by the appearance of Raoul, a locksmith and small-time thief. He quickly figures out their con and agrees to help them, for a price of course. Paul is immediately suspicious of Raoul but Mary is intrigued by him. With the help of some heroism and marijuana, Raoul seduces Mary and unleashes her latent sexual desires, starting a torrid affair between the two. This, naturally, complicates things. Because there’s no such thing as a simple plan in the movies.

All of this adds up to what is the director’s most consistently hilarious film. The laughs come steadily from the opening minutes up until the end. There’s a lot of sharp one-liners here and funny scenarios. Paul is an asexual wine nerd and that stiffness gets him in trouble over and over again. The scene where he wanders into a sex toy shop and has to put up with an especially pushy and loud-mouthed salesman, played by John “Jambi the Genie” Paragon, is a highlight.

Notable one-liners include reluctance over cooking in the same frying pan they use to kill people and Mary inquiring about the price for wall handcuff installation. Once we find out what goes in, the overly cheery Doggie King dog food commercial is made even funny. One of the film’s best reoccurring gags resolves around Doris the Dominatrix, played by the very funny Susan Saiger, who’s part-time job doesn’t seem to interrupt her regular life as a busy house-mom very much.

Of course, most of the laughs come from just how absurd many of the desired sexual fantasies turn out to be. You’ve got Nazis and pirates and full body Minnie Mouse costumes and a midget dressed up as a cowboy riding a Great Dane. I think one of those things has got to make somebody laugh. This all climaxes with a scene at a swinger’s party featuring an actor I thought was just making fun of the Real Don Steele, but turned out to be the actual Don Steele. What I’m saying is the movie’s pretty funny.

Obviously, there are limitations. The tiny budget is apparent more then a few times, especially when you notice that most of the movie takes place on one set. A scene featuring Ed Beagly Jr. as a Vietnam vet with a hippie fetish quickly turns ugly and really stands out as the movie’s sole unpleasant moment. In the middle section of the film, the focus of the story shifts to the love affair between Mary and Raoul. This ends up derailing the central plot a little, especially the extended bit when Paul sends Doris the Dominatrix in various guises in an attempt to unnerve the guy.

Bartel and Woronov both give good performance, both very funny, but a few times their tone falters a bit. I wonder if either actor had any problem getting inside of the brain of such totally square people. Finally, the ending of the movie winds up being a bit anticlimactic since it, firstly, takes place completely off-screen and, secondly, it’s right there in the title.

A beloved cult classic, “Eating Raoul” is the filmmaker’s signature work. Considering he wrote, produced, and starred in it, it’s tempting to say it's the most Bartel-like of anything he did. It’s an extremely funny black comedy and I highly recommend it to anyone with an even slightly twisted sense of humor. [Grade: B+]

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