"LOUD, REAL LOUD. IT HAS TO GENERATE A TERRIFYINGLY LOUD SEISMIC FIELD OF NOISE"
O.C. And Stiggs is a truly bizarre entry in Robert Altman’s canon, a teen comedy that fucks with every expectation you have of the genre. Perhaps in line with that, it isn’t particularly funny either. It is however, full of biting, very angry satire.
It rages against mid-80s middle America in a way that only an elder statesman of film like Robert Altman could manage. After cutting his teeth on westerns and James Dean teen movies, Altman had ridden high in the 70’s Hollywood revival where upstarts like Spielberg, Lucas and Scorcese had been making some genuinely important films, with deep messages and societal commentary.
While these few may have produced some insightful and genuine portrayals of life as an American kid, they’d birthed a teen comedy sub-genre that presented an anodised, dismayingly formulaic picture of dimwit horny teens.
We’re all familiar with the formula by now. Get the girl, get the car, settle down in a large house in the suburbs. Families were dysfunctional, but in an adorable way, and teen love was for keeps.
You can see how that would piss someone off.
So Altman makes a cult movie about two teenagers who hate everything that stands for. The ultimate teen comedy satire. (and back in the 80s, satire meant ruthlessly mocking things, rather than playing out identical scenes and adding in fart noises a la ‘Date Movie’).
What makes O.C and Stiggs stand out is Altman’s incredible direction slamming headlong into the lowest of the lowbrow humour that National Lampoon could cobble together at the time.
The plot itself is fluff. Two teenagers plot revenge on the ratfink owner of a local insurance company. “Stars” Daniel Jenkins and Neill Barry were never going to set the world on fire, lacking the likeableness or the comedy timing to really carry off the characters, who are poorly drawn sketches hung on ‘wacky’ voices for the most part.
Oh yes, the wacky voices. It’s worth spending a moment to mention the near endless parade of Bugs Bunny-esque impressions that flood through the entire film. Every tic, squawk and comedy falsetto you can possibly imagine is in here, almost constantly.
There’s also a surfeit of zaniness that doesn’t help. Every scene requires a different costume and random happenings that do nothing to advance the plot abound.
You can see why this movie isn’t well-liked. It does all it can to put you off watching it. Our ‘heroes’ are, to be frank, bullies. Just a bit too self-satisfied with their increasingly adventurous pranks. Other players are cartoons. Too shallow and one-dimensional for you to really care about them.
And this is why it’s such a great cult movie. Because this movie… doesn’t like you either.
Every frame is filled with loathing. The dialogue is built around being nasty. At one point the guys pick up some girls. Who are referred to directly as ‘The Sluts’. It’s appallingly misanthropic, but it’s done specifically to satirise the relegation of women to sex objects in teen comedies.
Likewise, the pranks themselves are… fucking weird. For some reason a surprise concert by Sunny Ade is meant to piss off the film’s villain. It’s as though Altman is deliberately taking low brow jokes and tropes and yelling ‘THIS ISN’T FUNNY, MORONS!’ at the audience.
At one point, OC & Stiggs follow their school principle and his (presumably) gay lover around, taunting them with innuendo. The principle himself is quite likeable and reasonable though. Because the jokes aren’t meant to make us laugh, they’re designed to make us realise that every movie that ever used a gay couple for easy laughs is fucking awful.
Oh, and the reason for taunting the insurance salesman? It’s because he cancelled O.C’s grandfather’s insurance.
So the grandfather is going to die.
That’s not funny either, and it’s not supposed to be.
It forms a core of rotten anger that completely changes the way you view O.C’s character in the third act. He may be rebelling, but it’s not because he’s bored. It’s because he’s really, really angry. It fills the film with vitriol, and makes you understand why the hell two kids would stoop to driving a monster truck through a funeral.
From a purely technical perspective, it’s also full of some lovely direction (as you’d expect), with chaotic crowd scenes and overlapping dialogue filling out some incredible framing. There’s an interesting use of radio noise as background noise that adds to a feeling of messiness. It’s tough to understand what’s going on a lot of the time, and when you can hear, the characters are shrill and unlikable.
Ultimately there’s no core message to this movie, and it suffers from a see-sawing tone, but it’s a vicious look at Reaganite America, with Altman’s anger at a morally decrepit society filling the screen. It’s a tough watch, and it’s not what you’d call ‘good’, but if you can view it from a distance, this is a crappy teen movie that offers up extra layers every time you see it.