“You don’t put your mother in a home: she’s got a home; this is her home.”
When a lawyer (George Segal) living with his senile mother (Ruth Gordon) falls in love with a beautiful young nurse (Trish Van Devere), he tells his married brother (Ron Leibman) he’s determined not to let anything get in the way of his new romance — including their troublesome mother.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Black Comedy
- Carl Reiner Films
- Elderly People
- George Segal Films
- Grown Children
- Living Nightmare
- Ruth Gordon Films
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this black comedy by “director Carl Reiner and screenwriter Robert Klane (working from his own novel)” is “a litmus test for viewers that will expose one’s taste for comedy and tolerance for tastelessness.” He suggests you see this film “with an audience rather than alone at home on a cassette” (ah, the ’80s!) given that “one’s laughter is enhanced by the realization that all those around you… are being subjected to the same embarrassing material” (“collective embarrassment can be fun”). He notes that this “haywire world we are presented is unforgettable: Cabbies pick up men in gorilla suits rather than perfectly dressed black ladies. Coaches snatch 10-year-old kids without their parents’ permission… Female prostitutes turn out to be male cops in drag — [and] the one on whom Leibman is forced by a gang to perform a deviant act gets a crush on him (which is reason enough for viewers to have a negative response).” Indeed, “the craziness in the apartment Segal and Gordon share is merely a reflection on the surrounding world.”
Peary points out that “even those turned off by the humor will enjoy the standout performances” by Gordon — who plays Mrs. Hocheiser as someone with “no redeeming qualities” — and Segal, who “gives a remarkable impression of a man who is on his last legs.” He notes that because “both Gordon and Segal were given much freedom”, they “gave performances that are comedic gems”, and he argues that “for them alone, this film is worth seeing.” Equally memorable, however, are Leibman as Segal’s impossibly put-upon brother, and Van Devere (in her film debut) as a traumatized young divorcee clearly willing to wear her heart on her sleeve. I was both deeply discomfited and pleasantly surprised by how boldly this (highly politically incorrect) film stays its course as a movie determined to offend in as many ways as possible — while also providing plenty of uncomfortable laughter. The most distressing sequences involve the depiction of Central Park as “a veritable jungle… ruled by uncivilized ‘tribes’ (black gangs)”; while meant to simply be part of the collective satire, these hit especially hard and may stretch your tolerance.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- George Segal as Gordon
- Ruth Gordon as Mrs. Hocheiser
- Ron Leibman as Sidney
- Trish Van Devere as Louise
- Many darkly amusing sequences
Yes, as a cult favorite.
One thought on “Where’s Poppa? (1970)”
A tentative once-must, with reservations. In 1987, Danny DeVito’s ‘Throw Momma from the Train’ took this idea and developed it more successfully by making the mother much more of an actual nightmare (which is a better pay-off for the comedy) but director Reiner does get points for stretching himself and for a certain amount of unbridled outrageousness. I think some of the jokes are genuinely funny, but this isn’t a favorite (and I normally love this kind of black comedy).
By the time Reiner branched out into directing films, he had been writing mild comedy for so long (largely by way of ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’) that it’s understandable that he would want to take on something more daring. His first directorial efforts (‘Enter Laughing’, ‘The Comic’) were still rather mild so ‘Where’s Poppa?’ may have seemed just the thing to pull out all the stops. It didn’t do well at the box office… which is, no doubt, why Reiner followed up with something ‘safe’ again (‘Oh, God!’ – which was a hit).
But Reiner’s best work was yet-to-come. *Bizarrely*, two of Reiner’s best films with Steve Martin (‘The Jerk’ and the absolutely brilliant ‘The Man with Two Brains’) somehow did not make into Peary’s film fanatic guide.