Rustlers' Rhapsody

Director: Hugh Wilson             
Tom Berenger, G.W. Bailey, Marilu Henner

Roger Ebert has stated, on more than one occasion, that there are a great number of relatively unwatched movies that people would love if they just watched them, but that this same potential audience thinks it doesn't want to watch the movies' subject matter and the way it gets executed. While I do think that Ebert's feelings here are somewhat naive - does he really think the average Joe Sixpack would ever be enchanted by movies such as Last Year At Marienbad or Double Suicide? - I do agree that there are certainly a number of unknown movies that do have what it takes to capture an audience, but something is in the way that makes the potential audience reluctant to try it.

I admit I've experienced several times that feeling of thinking I didn't want to see a particular movie, one of those times being years ago when Rustlers' Rhapsody opened in theaters. It looked dumb to me - the uncomic Tom Berenger in a comedy? A comedy with a dumb-sounding title? Well... John Wayne cut an album! (Though The Duke never actually sung.)A comedy that felt it had to advertise itself with a lame-looking poster that seemed more appropriate for a drama? A comedy that was a WESTERN? (Yes, I must admit back then I hadn't yet learned how good the western genre was.) So I immediately dismissed the movie, and thought no more about it until several years later it popped up on TV one boring weekend afternoon. With nothing else to do I decided to take a look - at the very least it might be interesting in its awfulness, as I had already learned about movies. You can imagine my surprise when, just a few minutes in, I found myself laughing at the movie. It was even more surprising finding myself laughing throughout the remainder of the movie as well. Though I got a lot of laughs, I couldn't help but feel a little ashamed that my previous attitude had stopped me from getting such enjoyment for so long. Taking another look at the movie today, even with now seeing some problems with an eye now more observant and critical, I still wince a little thinking of that dumb dismissal I made so long ago.

Rustlers' Rhapsody isn't like western comedies such as Evil Roy Slade - it's a spoof of the western genre itself, though its specific target is those hokey singing-cowboy oaters of the '30s and '40s. The narrator (Bailey, of Police Academy fame) on the soundtrack introduces us to Rex O'Herlihan (Berenger), a golden age western hero akin to Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, who in the opening clip is doing the standard B western shtick of hearing a stagecoach under attack by masked bandits, and riding to the rescue. After talking nostalgically about O'Herlihan, the narrator wonders out loud, "Always made me kind of wonder what one of those B westerns would look like if they still made them today," and ZAP, O'Herlihan and the bandits are not only transported to a world of color and Dolby stereo, but a world where a group of bandits realize they can take on one pursuing man instead of fleeing from him, and as O'Herlihan finds out as he quickly turns tail and tries to jump and hide in a tree from his running horse, the good guy doesn't always make good decisions.

This setup - placing one of those pearl-toothed singing cowboys in a western environment that accurately recreates how uncouth and violent the real west was - is full of promise, one that most people could easily think of several good gags for in less than a minute. Strangely, after the subsequent opening credits, the movie completely throws away this setup in pursuit of something else - an omen of the comic execution to come. But before getting into that, a look at the plot coming from the new setup. In the town of Oakwood Estates, singing cowboy Rex O'Herlihan rides in on his trusty steed Wildfire, and immediately knows something is up. Peter (Bailey), the town's drunk, tries to fill him in on the situation, pointing out the key players ("Now over there is the sheriff, obviously a corrupt old coward who gets his orders from the Colonel.") But it turns out Rex already had a good idea of the situation - he tells the incredulous Peter that it's like this in every town he goes to! To prove it, Rex asks him, "Do you have [in this town] a very pretty but somehow asexual new schoolmarm? Is the editor of the paper a young idealist who hocked everything to buy his press?"

Yes, years before the notorious bomb The Last Action Hero was made, there "The Gap is thataway!"was a movie with a protagonist in a world where he is familiar with all of its conventions and clichés. The difference here, however, is that seeing this particular all-knowing hero knowing everyone's way of thinking and the outcome of every situation proves to be amusing instead of tiresome and lame. It does help that the particular genre being targeted here is more of a fresh target than other spoofed-to-death genres, like tough cops or slashers (see Viewer Discretion Advised for a typically lame example of the latter.) It certainly helps that the all-knowing protagonist in this particular instance is a likable one instead of being a loud and smarmy smartass who quickly gets on your nerves. Though you might share my same initial reaction to Tom Berenger being cast in the lead role of a comedy, upon seeing the movie it quickly becomes apparent that he's a good choice for this particular kind of comedy. A singing cowboy isn't funny to watch when he purposely acts funny - he is funny to watch because of the seriousness he constantly projects, especially when the particular situation he's in is hopelessly cornball to us in the audience. Having a brash funnyman like Jim Carrey in the role would be a disaster, and would make us want to strangle the hero. Berenger plays it more or less straight, and though his character is all-knowing, he is never sarcastic or or a braggart about it to anyone.

The casualness Berenger brings to expressing his character's knowledge and using it to his advantage not only endears us to him, it's also pretty amusing to watch someone so all-knowing having a kind of blasé attitude to it all. Berenger proves to also be game to give a straight face to the sillier aspects his character has to do - singing, for one thing - and his good attitude here makes us like and laugh at his O'Herlihan character even more.  But what really makes the movie laugh-out-loud funny many times is the way it makes fun of all the silliness and clichés found in singing cowboy westerns. Admittedly, it does go for the obvious at times - for example, most viewers will correctly guess ahead of time that O'Herlihan's flashy silk duds will inevitably provoke some varmint to crudely ask him what his sexual preference is. But aside from a few instances like that, the movie prefers to not only sink its knife into the hokum, but twists the blade a little so that under a new angle we see just how dumb it was to being with. When O'Herlihan is ready to leave town and whistles for Wildfire, the horse come running with a piece of railing still tied to it. When a varmint tells the pals standing behind him to shoot at this holier-than-thou stranger, that same varmint is the one who gets hit because - well, he's standing in front of them. And in the inevitable subsequent scene when the varmint's friends display their friend's dead body at the ranch of the evil Colonel (Andy Griffith!), the Colonel screams at them, not understanding why anyone would put a dead bleeding corpse on a valuable antique couch.

It's not just singing cowboy westerns that get spoofed here. After the Colonel gets frustrated by repeated failed attempts by his men to assassinate this do-gooder, he gets desperate enough to hire some spaghetti "My future descendent will sue the company for making these ill-fitting hats!"western cowboys (lead by European actor Fernando Rey, a star of several such movies.) Though Peter observes these bounty killers are macho enough to wear those long raincoats in 110-degree heat, even they find themselves dumbfounded against this impossibly clean do-gooder. Finally the Colonel concocts a very clever can't-miss plan, which consists of sending for... well, I won't spoil it for you. However, I will reveal that O'Herlihan's initial face-to-face confrontation with this foe is one of the funniest sequences I've seen for quite a while. It is so absurd in its idea, yet handled so straight-faced and almost casually that I couldn't stop laughing. The whole sequence could have been even funnier, had the movie not made the curious choice of previously giving us a sneak peek at  just who this adversary of O'Herlihan's was several minutes before they actually meet for the first time. When we find out who this person is and then have to wait for he and O'Herlihan to meet, we have already thought of the kind of gags that are coming, and as a result the actual confrontation lacks the full knock-out blow it would have had otherwise.

There are some other ways in which writer/director Hugh Wilson (Police Academy, Guarding Tess) makes miscalculations with the humor so that the movie is not as funny as it could have been. Don't get me wrong - there is still a lot to immensely enjoy here. I guess these few miscalculations just seem doubly disappointing compared to the material that really hits the bulls-eye, so much so that that I am puzzled as to why Wilson didn't see these particular things were seriously out of step with everything else. Some of these things do involve a few truly dumb and unfunny gags, such as an incredibly lame and unimaginative bit where O'Herlihan and Wildfire do some boring shenanigans to wiggle their way out of an ambush by the spaghetti western cowboys. Fortunately, there are few such moments totally devoid of humor like that one. Many of the problem come from the movie's leisurely and easy-going pace. Now, there is nothing automatically wrong with a movie that isn't in such a hurry to get going - in these Michael Bay days, it is actually kind of refreshing. The problem is that the movie is too leisurely and easy-going. Rustlers' Rhapsody is so laid-back that not long after O'Herlihan first enters Oakwood Estates, it quickly starts to forget that, though corny and predictable as those old westerns, they at least had a story, and one that moved along at a reasonable clip. The movie seems content just to make us laugh, and while that might not sound so bad, it really becomes a problem near the end. There, the movie desperately tries to wrap everything up in five minutes, and as a result becomes senselessly violent, as well as relying on deux ex machina so heavily that even Gene Autry would have rolled his eyes.

Even with such a rushed and abrupt ending, the movie still isn't able to wrap every "What do you mean, 'The possibilities are endless?'"issue that comes up during the running time. Some of these issues involve the secondary characters O'Herlihan comes across. During the course of the movie, there is the expected love triangle O'Herlihan finds himself in, with the Colonel's daughter (Sela Ward of Sisters) and the girl at the local saloon who makes a living by charging men to engage in conversation with her, played by Marlihu Henner (Taxi). Actually, the love triangle only comes up in one sequence (endless, but with a good punchline), and afterwards the whole idea of two women competing for O'Herlihan's affections is simply dropped and never brought up again. As well, the women themselves are mostly forgotten about from this point on. Another thing that gets dropped and never brought up again has to do with the character of the evil Colonel. In each of the Colonel's first few scenes, there is at least one hint that he might be gay (and yes, seeing the macho Andy Griffith doing things like speaking in an effeminate voice does provide amusement.) Then after several scenes of this, this curious side to the Colonel is suddenly forgotten about and never brought up again, even though he has a number of scenes left to appear in.

It's odd that Wilson didn't dig deeper into these and other characters and their situations in the movie to find more nuggets of comic gold. In the end, only Berenger and Bailey have their characters developed properly, so it is perhaps fortunate that Wilson not only has them in almost every scene in the movie, but that both actors are very funny in their roles. In fairness to Wilson, I should again point out that although he wrote a screenplay with a weak story and underdeveloped subplots and characters, at the same time he managed to write a screenplay that I feel has more than the minimum number of gags and zany situations to be considered funny. He also brings an extra touch to the movie with his direction; he faithfully replicates every angle, every outdoor location, every use of indoor sets exactly as these B westerns did it in the '30s and '40s. The time he also spends replicating the spaghetti western genre is also amazingly accurate. He obviously couldn't have succeeded in this replication if he didn't have an affection for westerns. In fact, there is such a strong feeling of likeability surrounding Rustlers' Rhapsody that by itself it makes it hard to resist despite its problems. The fact that the movie also happens to have quite a number of hilarious moments just increases this feeling. Though I must admit that even after all these years I still think the poster (replicated on the video box) is lame, as well as that title still being dumb - for one thing, there are no rustlers in the movie.

UPDATE: John Perkins sent in this information:

"The boring shenanigans with Rex and Wildfire are dressage (see Wikipedia), an Olympic sport.  For the bad guys, ranch hands who spend a great deal of their time riding horses, the clapping is quite the show of professional respect toward their opponent."

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See also: Evil Roy Slade, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu, Hysterical