Twitter Plot Summary: Howard accidentally meets Judy and this sets off a chain of increasingly silly events.
It can be a difficult job getting screwball comedy right. There are several elements that need to coalesce in order for it to work, from solid jokes to solid performances and a story that makes sense despite the madness that ensues. What’s Up Doc? maintains all of this and more within its brief but consistently funny 90 minutes.
Ryan O’Neal is Howard, a man who happens to hold an almost nondescript plaid bag, a design that a vast number of other people in the vicinity also happen to have. Howard’s life is turned upside down by his chance meeting with Judy (played with gusto and an impish twinkle in her eye by Barbra Streisand), a catastrophic force who, despite being incredibly smart, is able to cause inadvertent destruction and mayhem wherever she goes.
She takes a shine to Howard who is due to be married to Madeline Khan’s Eunice. What follows is almost 90 minutes of pratfalls, silliness and confusion, but then in spite of the numerous plot strands it still makes perfect sense. It is easy to understand, however, why the judge at the end of the film has such a hard time of understanding the story – but then that’s because it’s recounted in a puzzling manner by the characters. Eventually all of the various elements come together for a rip-roaring finale through the streets of San Francisco where each of the parties wanting ownership of at least one of the bags, and nobody quite sure which is the one that has the correct contents. As comedic plots go, even we as the audience aren’t quite sure who has what.
The film is stocked with solid comedic talent. Madeline Khan makes her feature film debut and acts almost as if she’s been making comedy films for years, such is her comic timing. She also manages to find a perfect balance between being shrill without being irritating. She makes it easy to believe that Howard would want to find someone else, yet never becomes an unwanted burden to the audience.
There’s also another performance from Kenneth Mars led by one of his many funny accents, who plays a rival scientist obsessed with his own selfish goals. Of course, his and all of the other supporting performances are an able backup to the talents of Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, the latter demonstrating perhaps for the first time his comedic abilities. His deadpan delivery and general confusion is a delight. Streisand meanwhile looks like she’s having all kinds of fun and throws herself into the role, causing mayhem and puzzlement in every scene she’s in.
If What’s Up Doc? proves anything, other than the fact Peter Bogdanovich is an incredibly talented director, it’s that the screwball comedy genre isn’t relegated solely to the early years of cinema. There haven’t been a huge number of such films since the 1960s, but the ones that have been released in that time have been solid entertainment. What’s Up Doc? is a solid example of the genre, and remains a thoroughly enjoyable and exceedingly silly viewing each and every time.