Robert Altman is one film maker who rarely evokes a neutral response. He's too prickly, too individual, too stubborn, too ingeniously eccentric and caustically irreverent. And, of course, too talented.
All of those qualities are on view in "O.C. and Stiggs" (at the AMC 14 in Century City), and it's guaranteed to evoke a violently divided response. But, if you like Altman--especially his ensemble films of the '70s--"M.A.S.H.," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Nashville" and "A Wedding"--and, most especially, if you're fond of mad little sports like "Brewster McCloud" or "A Perfect Couple"--there's a lot to enjoy here.
The movie--about a pair of rebellious Scottsdale, Ariz., teenagers and their war with the reactionary insurance salesman, Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley)--carries a 1985 copyright and has been on the shelf till now. It's not hard to see why. Not only has Altman trampled on most of the traditions of the teen sex comedy, but his movie mounts one of the most sustained assaults on the mythos and values of the '80s that any recent American movie has managed.
Yet, it's not really gross or crude, in the usual teen-sex comedy manner. The satire is vicious, but Altman's handling is buoyant and worldly. The movie--photographed by Pierre Mignot--has a wistful, bright look, the camera gliding through crystalline air in landscapes illumined by great healthy dollops of Arizona sunshine.
Altman is often attacked for his allegedly misanthropic humor. And here, working from National Lampoon material--Ted Mann and Donald Cantrell's adaptation of Mann and Todd Carroll's comic series--he vents spleen on a number of delicious targets: sterile suburban homes, alcoholic housewives, survivalist bomb shelters, modern TV demagogues, used car dealerships, country clubs, swinging fashion entrepreneurs and pop philanthropy.
Altman shows us a Western desert city dominated by bad taste, hypocrisy, easy money and absurdity--less the real Scottsdale than a symbol of current widespread social cliches and postures. And he subjects it to a frontal attack by the title duo, teen guerrillas O. C. (Daniel H. Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neill Barry)--whose weapons are practical jokes and a horrific clunker of a car and whose allies are the city's winos and a pair of wild-eyed Vietnam vets (one played, perhaps inevitably, by Dennis Hopper). The cast, which also includes Melvin Van Peebles, Jon Cryer, Martin Mull, Ray Walston, Cynthia Nixon, Louis Nye and Tina Louise, is another crackerjack Altman ensemble.
We get the story in spurts, as a series of flashbacks, related over a long distance call to Africa, in the midst of the duo's sabotage of a lobster cookout. This structure has problems: Sloppy or abrupt transitions abound. But many of the individual scenes are as delightful as any Altman has made: an impromptu Fred-and-Ginger dance at a catastrophically misfired wedding, King Sunny Ade's invasion of "Cactus Flower" at the local dinner theater, Jane Curtin's endless hidden liquor supplies, a wino-philanthropist lawn party and Dennis Hopper swooping to the rescue in his Army helicopter to the strains of the "Ride of the Valkyries."
Not everything in "O.C. and Stiggs" (MPAA-rated R for nudity and language) works--and it's sure to annoy any audience usually annoyed with Altman's work. But its a movie of such daffy plenitude, such goofily appropriate decor (thanks to production designer Scott Bushnell) and such consistently rebellious high spirits, that you're glad it escaped from captivity. In movies, we tend to hear the same voices--endlessly repeated, endlessly mimicked. In this banal hubbub, it's refreshing to hear Altman again--with his tone of bemused sarcasm and scornful delight.