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Used Cars (Robert Zemeckis) 1980


    Early on in Robert Zemeckis’ cult comedy Used Cars there’s a small moment that’s so bilious and crass that it probably sets your hopes too high, considering what's to follow. As sleazy used car salesman Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) is about to die of a very real heart attack, a customer who thinks he is faking the infirmity to extort money from him desperately waves a wad of cash in front of his face, hoping to get him to stop. Without missing a beat, Luke snatches the money, as he’s dying. It’s an entirely despicable moment morally, since we don’t feel even a smidgeon of sympathy for the old man, but it’s the funniest thing, by far, that the movie has to offer. Unfortunately, most of Zemeckis’ other attempts to create an immoral cast of characters really only results in the audience being stuck for two hours with a group of people that they hate. Satire works best when it uses a ruthless, take-no-prisoners approach, but Zemeckis keeps melding his viciousness to thoroughly unwelcome and sappy sentimentality, and the two end up canceling each other out totally. By the time this movie ends, not only will the audience think the characters are low-down cheats, but also that they’re a bunch of overly drippy heels. No matter what Zemeckis tries, we can’t hate these people and feel sorry for them at the same time.


    The intermittent jokes that float to the surface of this pond full of scum are telegraphed obviously, so far in advance that they hardly seem worth the time invested in getting to them. It’s also apparent that the film’s screenwriters didn’t have much to say about their protagonists. They’re plainly sleazy, but not as sleazy as the corrupt politicians in the film (or worse yet, the film seems to say, the customers that buy their cars). The movie remains entirely noncommittal about them until it decides they are underdogs and expects us to rally behind them. The last act’s courtroom battle is a horribly conceived wrap-up to these shenanigans. Instead of escalating until the end of the film, the level of the comedy tops off midway, and the remaining screen time is passed by showing a parade of overly used car clichés (a car stalls leaving the driver in danger, a car chase heads off road to avoid a roadblock, etc…) that put the clunkers in the movie to shame. None of the cast is able to make this material come alive (who could?). Most of your sympathy ends up being directed toward the actors themselves instead of the characters that they play. Used Cars is so lame that it doesn't even let the gearheads in the audience fetishize the cars themselves, since they're mostly junkers. The romantic subplot between two of the humans, like nearly everything else here, is a total lemon.


* 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman