My favorite movie of all time is the 1980 Harold Ramis-directed comedy Caddyshack. It will take too long on this Sunday afternoon post to explain why in full; I will say that I watch it at least two, three times a year, that I've been trying to write about my love for the movie in that sort of high-meets-low culture way I admire in such essayists as Susan Sontag, Chuck Klosterman, and I daresay David Lehman. I wanted to finish the piece in time for my new book, but that was not meant to be.
One aspect of Caddyshack that has fascinated me, and one that has led to several blind alleys and writing blocks, is how to sum up the critical reception of the movie over the years. Like my favorite rock band, Queen, critics' reception to Caddyshack has softened--from denunciation, to strident ambivalence, to begrudging praise. Here's some examples over the years from the New York Times' on how their take on the Bill Murray-Chevy Chase vehicle has changed.
Exhibit 1, 1980: "Forgettable."
This is a passage from the late Vincent Canby's assessment of the state of cinema in 1980. In Caddyshack Studies, the phrases "amiable slob-comedy" and "immediately forgettable" turn up over and over again.
Canby does reflect the critical reception at the time. Variety's January 1, 1980 review writes calls this "vaguely likable" movie a "too-tame comedy [that]falls short of the mark." Roger Ebert, writing the same day, says Caddyshack "feels more like a movie that was written rather loosely, so that when shooting began there was freedom--too much freedom--for it to wander off in all directions in search of comic inspiration."
Exhibit 2, 1981" "Very Funny."
This 1981 profile of Rodney Dangerfield mentions Caddyshack as "very funny"--a rather generous assessment this early on in the movie's history. Is the tide turning already?
Exhibit 3, 1985: "Popcorn loneliness."
Maybe the tide turns back a year later. This piece, written by Esther B. Fein, sums up the conundrum I have had over the years when I recommend not only Caddyshack, but any comedy, for friends to rent at home.
Written early on in the VCR home rental era, the piece examines how watching a move alone at home, without other people in a theater, affects how one appreciates--or under-appreciates--a movie, especially a comedy, horror, or cult film. "You lose a lot on the box," one screenplay developer is quoted saying.
Exhibit 4, 1986: "Funny, original."
The New York Times' TV listing precis is a literary genre unto itself, part aphorism, part fragment, part haiku. And so to see this March 30, 1986 listing classify Caddyshack as "funny, original" means that either the listing-writer did not read the Canby assessment, or he or she thinks Chevy Chase's "I was born to lick your face" love song is as funny as I do.
Exhibit 5, 1988: "Irreverent."
There is no actual demolition derby in the movie--not unless you count the collision of the Judge and Al's boats.
Perhaps it's an indication of the movie's stature that the listing write has resorted to metaphor?