THE SUMMER OF 1990: CADILLAC MAN

Meanwhile, the same weekend as Bird on a Wire

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The Movie: Cadillac Man

The Director: Roger Donaldson (No Way Out)

The Stars: Robin Williams, Tim Robbins, Pamela Reed, Fran Drescher

Release Date: May 18, 1990

Box Office: $27,627,310

“You know what you are? You’re an ass-half. Takes two of you to make an ass whole.”

Robin Williams’ legacy speaks for itself. One of the conclusions I’ve drawn from his career, however, is that the roles that drew off both his edge and pathos were the ones that resonated the most. A film like Flubber or Jumanji would require an elastic personality, but not the sheer force of forlornness Robin was capable of.

Dead Poets’ Society and Good Morning, Vietnam had managed to get both sides of the comedy/tragedy mask right to the point of an Oscar nomination and led both to huge hits commercially. Moreover, director Roger Donaldson was riding high off the questionable success story that is Cocktail. Cadillac Man, Robin’s direct follow-up to Dead Poets’, landed on May 18, 1990, a week before the summer “officially” kicked off on the holiday weekend as it usually did 25 years ago. Its box office take was a fraction of the films that surged him to the A-list, and it’s pretty understandable why.

Orion—one of the most ubiquitous and powerfully courageous studios of the era—marketed Cadillac Man quite transparently. Robin was sold as a sleazy womanizer whose passion for moving Caddies in Queens gets thwarted by a hostage takeover by jilted lover Tim Robbins, his bug eyes and AK-47. Some took the plunge. Others wanted the inspiration, the feeling-good part. A generation out, it’s lost in translation.

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Seeing why Cadillac Man found more attraction as a rental and pay-cable staple is very understandable. Surface-level glances at Joey O’Brien (Williams) seems to show he’s miscast for the part, especially as Ken Friedman’s screenplay certainly called for something darker. Al Pacino was attached to the role before him, clearly a reversed straightforward homage to being the hostile party in Dog Day Afternoon. Imagining Danny DeVito schmoozing unwitting Japanese and Russian customers, or Michael Keaton—riding high off of going demented as Beetlejuice and Batman—sporting that mustache and talking 60 miles per minute to negotiate his life—feels more in line what they set out to make.

Cadillac Man, nevertheless, is unquestionably one of the most underrated films and performances Robin Williams ever offered. That magic shoots up in the opening scene, where notices a hearse break down as he cruises in his convertible. Instead of offering grievances and a sensible way to find help for the Jewish mourners (led by an irate Elaine Stritch), he refuses to—he immediately drums up a way to swindle a commission off of them and gets tossed aside.

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Woe is Joey, and he needs redemption. He’s trying to win his ex-wife (Pamela Reed) over again, but he’s too sidetracked by three simultaneous affairs with Fran Drescher, whose husband is a mob boss that Joey owes money to, aspiring artist Lori Petty, and dealership receptionist Annabella Sciorra. The latter is a problem point, as she’s married, and her husband Larry (Tim Robbins) crashes the lot’s big weekend sale armed with C4 and an AK-47. Oh, and Joey has to sell 12 cars or he’s fired.

Very few characters in Cadillac Man are sympathetic—they’re mean-spirited, vain, and make terrible decisions. For one, Joey is an absolutely deplorable person. He’s a personal and professional deadbeat who brags about his issues and supposed flaws to the audience, an opportunist who will try to push a luxury vehicle on anyone he crosses paths with right until the end. That’s not to mention the priorities on his libido—for the love of god, he has wild, nightly sex with The Nanny and still shows up at his ex-wife’s house to win her and their daughter over.

Williams pulls off something rather miraculous as Joey. He has all the traits of the kind of man who crashes and burns in a midlife crisis, but upon meeting Larry and realizing the incestuous bickering of his cohorts in the workplace, he realizes he just might be sane enough to save the day. Precisely, that’s how you see the warmth in Joey, that despite his poor judgment he has the charisma to solve problems and, like the salesman he is, negotiate.

The supporting cast is remarkable as well. The women in Cadillac Man are terrific—Reed’s harried former spouse is arguably the only character without a shoulder chip. Drescher is hilariously obnoxious and Lori Petty kickstarts that divine quirk she carried throughout the decade.

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Tim Robbins is the scene-commander, however. He was high off playing a stupid hothead in Bull Durham and he repeats that here as Larry. Larry is the kind of criminal who fashions himself after the movies he’s seen, empowering himself by idle threats yet making faulty decisions with his vengeance. Whereas your normal deranged psycho wouldn’t give a shit about food, he allows his captives to take refuge at the Chinese restaurant across the street and give them opportunity to cross paths with the police.

There’s a sense of violence and danger that could have made Cadillac Man a straightforward thriller, something Donaldson has and had experience with on films like No Way Out and Species. The direction is confused because comedy is not his forte, leaving Williams’ improv skills and the eccentricity of its cast to carry the weight. Orion definitely wanted this to be the Ruthless People of 1990. They did their job, but audiences wanted their lead to inspire them and make them laugh. It’s too dark to be an outright comedy, too light to create a real threat—but it works gangbusters and deserves something of a cult following beyond “Oh, I saw that a long time ago.”

Maybe if Kino Lorber, Olive Films, or Shout! Factory can get it on a Blu-ray. I’d buy it.

Cadillac Man is not available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon, nor is Netflix streaming it or renting the DVD. However, it is airing on MGM HD at 12:05 am on Tuesday, May 26. That’s May 27 on your cable guide, but I consider midnight to still be part of my day. Set your DVR’s accordingly.

Alternately, grab the DVD on Amazon!

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