Scavenger Hunt (1979)

*. They don’t make them like this any more.
*. That said, at the time it wasn’t that far out of the mainstream. The great progenitor was It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), or more distantly Hellzapoppin’ (1941). Later films that were somewhat similar include The Cannonball Run (1981) and Brewster’s Millions (1985).
*. Even the language that we use to describe such movies has dropped out of common parlance. Who uses words like “madcap,” “zany,” or “screwball” to describe films, even when they’re appropriate? When was the last time you saw a movie that was a pure farce? As director Michael Schultz notes on his commentary, there’s “no subtlety in this kind of humour.” Richard Benjamin based his character on Wile E. Coyote because he thought that was all there was to the part. It is, Schultz admits, a “kind of humour that isn’t done much today.”
*. As Schultz also points out, it actually wasn’t that popular at the time either. Scavenger Hunt failed at the box office, as did Spielberg’s 1941 the same year (a film Schultz sees as comparable). It was also savaged by critics, then and now.
*. Nevertheless, Scavenger Hunt has gone on to attract a modest following. I think this is something that needs to be explained.

*. I begin with the observation that it isn’t funny. I mean it isn’t funny at all. The plot is just a line to run a series of gag sketches on, not one of which is even worth a smile. As befits this style of broad humour most of it just degenerates into characters shouting and screaming at each other. There’s a robbery that goes wrong because the one dummy didn’t cut eye holes in his brown paper bag mask. Another scene involves Richard Benjamin being unable to knock over a pyramid of milk cans at a carnival. There’s a running gag that involves stealing ostriches from the San Diego zoo that only made me feel sorry for the poor birds.
*. The sketches are all so bad I came up with my own contest, trying to decide who was the least funny character in the star-studded cast. I’m tempted to say the French maid Babbette (Stepanie Farracy), but I was ultimately convinced that the dim-witted Marvin Dummitz (Richard Mulligan) had to take the prize. I just dreaded every time he appeared on screen.

*. Some of the bits are so bizarre and random I couldn’t even understand them. What did Richard Benjamin run off to do at the carnival? Was he going to steal the kid’s stuffed bear? It feels like something was cut. Tony Randall being caught on the boat leaving harbour was the result of his trying to get a life preserver. I think. Just why Mulligan kept trying to get himself run over totally escaped me. How was that going to help him get the grill of the Rolls?
*. There are also the usual crude bits that have not aged well. Fat people can’t stop eating. There’s a Japanese gardener who keeps parking his truck right in the middle of the road and then goes full samurai when people have to drive around him.
*. Having said all this, I don’t hate Scavenger Hunt. It’s a totally terrible movie, but I can sort of understand the charm it holds for some people. I think the secret to that charm is nostalgia.
*. The nostalgia is for a style of humour that we can still miss even when it isn’t done very well. It’s also nostalgia for a bunch of actors who were big forty years ago but are probably unknown to many people today. James Coco? Was he the poor man’s or the rich man’s Dom DeLuise? I can’t even remember.
*. And I suppose it’s not all bad. Richard Masur is so annoying as Georgie that he’s actually kind of good, and his antagonism toward Benjamin’s character is a nice psychological observation (the adult baby hostile to a man seeking to steal his mommy away from him). Avery Schreiber as the Zookeeper gets a smile for spraying his lines in everyone’s face. Tony Randall’s poor old dad is sympathetic.
*. I was also impressed by the stunt man doubling for Masur in the car chase. How he stayed mounted on that rocking horse going around the turns or bouncing down a hill was pretty damn impressive.

*. I think, however, that the comment I often hear made about how this is a more family-oriented movie (a “fun family film” in Schultz’s summary) misses the mark somewhat. There is some bad language used, and some parts can be quite cruel. Just like, I would add, Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges were often cruel in their slapstick.
*. I found it interesting that Richard Benjamin remarks on how “clean” the humour is compared to the “language and toilet stuff” being made today. Did he forget the toilet scene here? In any event, I think it’s just that our tolerance for these things has advanced so far that this film only seems tame. In 1979 that toilet gag might have been risqué.
*. So it’s a time capsule from 1979. Have you ever seen the news reports about time capsules being opened? It usually turns out they’re full of junk. Scavenger Hunt is a collection of junk from 1979. Today it’s a curiosity that doesn’t work at all as comedy but nevertheless has a kind of period charm or pleasantness. Sort of like a beach movie from the 1950s. Most comedies that aren’t funny are painful to watch, but that’s not the feeling I had watching Scavenger Hunt. It’s more a sense of wonder that anything this hopeless ever got made.
*. I’d say it was a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t. Instead, what interest it has is only what it has managed to accrue over the years.

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