Barbara Bugs and Bags herself a Bumbling Ryan
"What's Up, Doc?" is not only a crazy movie but also a crazy good one as Peter Bogdanovich takes everything which was so good about screwball comedies from the 30s and brings them together in one wonderful movie. It's as if Bogdanovich has spent time working though all the great screwball comedies and then taking all the best bits and magnificently combining them into this one outrageous comedy. So we get the strong female character, the hapless bloke caught in the middle, inept thieves and a case of stolen documents all of which combine with a dollop of confusion as 4 identical bags get switched around over and over again. But this isn't Bogdanovich just copying or imitating the likes of Howard Hawks as he gives it all his own stamp and most significantly such energy that "What's Up, Doc?" is not stop entertainment, getting crazier and crazier the longer it goes on and at just 94 minutes it crams a hell of a lot in without ever becoming over crowded.
Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal - Love Story) and Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn - Blazing Saddles) are in San Francisco to compete for the Larrabee award but Howard seems a little distracted and even more so when he meets Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand), a freeloader who takes a liking to him and sets about winning him over. At the same time there is a woman with a bag full of jewellery and a man with a bag full of stolen documents. And it gets messy when their bags, all identical plaid overnight bags get mixed up at the hotel they are staying in causing major confusion and trouble especially when you have an agent after the top secret papers and some thieves after the jewels with poor Howard and Judy caught in the middle.
The storyline to "What's Up, Doc?" well actually storylines is classic screwball comedy with the set up being 4 people staying at the same hotel all with the same plaid bag. And with one bag containing top secret documents the other with another enough jewellery to fill a jewellers there are also people who want to get them. So all of this builds to the bags getting accidentally switched around and around to the point that you don't know whose got whose bag, all you know is they probably don't have their own. And of course all of this confusion over bags will come to ahead in a classic screwball way as we get bad guys with guns in possession of the wrong bag and then a crazy chase scene.
And all of this bag confusion plays nicely for the second storyline which sees pleasant chancer Judy Maxwell trying to seduce the hapless Howard in her own special way by forcing herself into his life. And of course this leads to more confusion as Howard's nagging partner Eunice becomes suspicious of it all. It's crazy, in fact both storylines are more than crazy and go from being amusingly convoluted to outrageously convoluted but it is all so brilliant.
What makes it all so brilliant is that everything about the movie is funny be it the characters or the situations and it bombs along at such a pace that every single minute is packed with not one laugh but multiple. It's like a Howard Hawks movie on speed as we fly through one gag after another and no matter how daft they are, as in the scene where all the players end up in the same hotel room, every single gag is funny. And it has to be said that a movie which is not stop comedy that there is not one single gag which isn't funny. Even in the rare slow moment such as what could have been a rather strange musical number as Barbara Streisand sings "As Time Goes By" whilst Ryan O'Neal plays piano there is still humour as she gets up close and almost on top of him. As such director Peter Bogdanovich deserves so much credit, not only for coming up with the story but making every single second of it work.
What is ironic is that I would have said that the casting of Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neal as the main characters would be a mistake, before watching they sounded like a weakness but they are a huge reason why "What's Up, Doc?" works so well. O'Neal is just marvellous as the weak minded Howard who not only has to put up with the nagging Eunice but then also the amusingly manipulative Judy. He gets it spot on from being head in the clouds when it comes to his research into the musicality of prehistoric rocks through to the exasperation of having his life turned upside down by Judy. And O'Neal works so well with Streisand who is just as impressive as she not only delivers instant likeability as the cheeky freeloader but fires off every snappy one liner with such dead pan believability. Watching O'Neal and Streisand together is electric and whilst you could say that the romantic chemistry is slightly lacking the comic timing between them is spot on.
O'Neal and Streisand are so brilliant together that whilst not a single person puts in a bad performance the likes of Madeline Kahn as Eunice Burns, Austin Pendleton as Frederick Larrabee and Sorrell Booke as Harry end up being over shadowed.
What this all boils down to is that "What's Up, Doc?" is a crazily good movie which sprints along delivering everything which is so good about screwball comedies. It is non stop humour and there is not a single gag which isn't funny even when the storyline intentionally becomes outrageously convoluted. And with O'Neal and Streisand working so brilliantly together it's a pure joy to watch even now almost 40 years after it was released.