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Putney Swope

Posted by martinteller on December 13, 2012

At a large advertising firm, the CEO dies in the middle of a board meeting.  A successor needs to be decided democratically.  Because the rules stipulate that no one can vote for himself, almost everyone votes for Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson, redubbed by director Robert Downey, Sr. because Johnson allegedly couldn’t remember his lines), the token black member, thinking that no one else would.  Swope takes power and replaces almost the entire staff — save for a token white — with blacks.  He puts out radical, subversive ads that bring in sacks of money.  But as we all know, power corrupts.

I really wanted to like this.  It’s a cult hit that I know a lot of people hold in high regard.  Downey’s got his heart in the right place, taking aim at consumerism, racial power structures, black militancy and corporate hypocrisy.  But man… it all fell so flat to me.  Satire lives and dies by the quality of its humor, and I found almost nothing here very funny.  The performances are amateurish, the timing is awkward, the jokes are too broad and obvious.  It’s all so scattershot, throwing whatever at the wall to see what sticks.  Very little sticks.

I didn’t laugh once.  I smiled once or twice at the occasional gag or semi-witty line.  The ads (the only parts of the film in color) are sometimes slightly amusing.  But even those tend to go on too long.  The movie deals a lot in repetition and callbacks, but the repeated bits aren’t funny the first, second or third time.  And too many of the jokes aim for an audaciousness that now feels dated.  Maybe in 1969 a commercial that ends with “No shit” was an example of bold parody, now it just seems quaint at best.  Kudos to Downey for trying to shake things up a bit, but I wasn’t very entertained or enlightened by this film.  Rating: Poor (45)


2 Responses to “Putney Swope”

  1. JamDenTel said

    As stupid as this film can be–and as dated–I actually really enjoy it, more than I usually enjoy 60s satire. Part of it might be the music, which I like quite a bit, or the go-for-broke absurdity of it–which nonetheless doesn’t descend into chaos. I definitely like its gritty, “underground” tone and the voice Downey gives to Putney (“Rockin’ the boat’s a DRAG!”).

    It’s far from great, but it amuses me in a weird, subtle way that draws me back to it now and then.

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