It could arguably be the most underrated movie ever made. Robert Altman’s Popeye, released in 1980, was widely panned upon its opening and still to this day is seen by many as one of the great filmmaker’s lesser works and one that, just in general, seems rather odd (at best) or simply bad (at worst). But it’s none of this. Altman’s Popeye is one of the director’s most enjoyable pictures and, as some of the more recent Internet comments point out, this film is far from bad and has in time perhaps gained much deserved popular appeal.
That said though, it’s easy to see why Popeye opened in such a pessimistic way. First, you had Altman’s output in the previous decade to contend with. Altman, like Coppola, Scorsese and De Palma, saw some of his best films come out in the 1970s: MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Images (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), 3 Women (1977) and A Wedding (1978), just to name a few. How do you compete with that kind of cinematic quality? How does a filmmaker maintain that kind of exceptional productivity? Unfortunately for Altman, this was indeed a tough act to follow, and Popeye was not the kind of movie audiences were expecting from this iconoclastic director (ironically, I think Popeye was seen as too unusual and too unclassifiable, even by though who appreciated Altman for being just that).
Related to this, and also as related to the fate of Scorsese and company, Altman was a filmmaker working against the newly accepted and anticipated norm of Hollywood. This was now the cinema of Jaws (1975), of Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman (1978), and Moonraker (1979). These were big budget action films driven by special effects and predictable characters in a convoluted plot. Now these films certainly have their merits, and many of this type are undoubtedly quite good, but this was a harsh climate for the likes of Robert Altman, for whom things only got worse in the 1980s, when production of these movies grew and grew in size and scope (and cost) and Altman went in the opposite direction.
In any event, amidst this is Popeye, with a mumbling one-eye-closed Robin Williams in the titular role and Altman regular Shelley Duvall in the part she was born to play (indeed it is her best performance), as Olive Oyl. The plot is simple, like one of its source comics. Popeye arrives in a dilapidated seaside town called Sweet Haven – the production design and set decoration of this place, done by Wolf Kroeger and Jack Stephen, respectively, is one of the most astonishing of the film’s features. There he meets the hamburger loving Wimpy (Paul Doooley), among the town’s other eccentric but likable inhabitants. He has arrived just prior to the wedding between Bluto (Paul L. Smith) and Olive. While Bluto may have his qualities (one of which Olive rather naughtily sings about), the relationship seems far from idyllic. After Popeye and Olive become friendlier, their association is only accentuated by the sudden arrival of abandoned baby Swee'pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt - Robert Altman's grandson). All bets are off on the marriage. Of course, Bluto’s not happy about this, and after learning of Swee'pea’s uncanny clairvoyance he manages to kidnap the baby. Added to this storyline is the reveal of Popeye’s long lost father, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston).
Popeye is directed and acted like a live-action cartoon, and as such several sequences are obviously exaggerated and preposterous. Similarly, the characters are erratic and unorthodox in the extreme and certain scenes become at times simply bizarre. These qualities are not negatives though; in fact, they’re what gives Popeye much of its charm, its delightful playfulness. It’s just a goofy, fun movie. It’s over-the-top and amusingly absurd, but it’s extremely likable and fascinating and Williams’ nearly inaudible one-liners are frequently hilarious.
It’s also a musical of sorts, a Robert Altman musical. Altman, known for his innovative use of sound (overlapping dialogue especially), here also experiments with the conventions of the genre. The songs – music and lyrics by Harry Nilsson – float in and out of certain sequences, many without the clear breaks in narrative that you see in other musicals. There’s not always a obvious indication saying, “Ok, now we have a musical break.” Sometimes we simply hear the music start, the characters sing, and then they just go about their business. Sometimes the music plays for an exceptionally long time and the characters carry on like normal, with their regular dialogue taking on a musical quality, mixed with the actual lyrics. Many of the songs are very good: "I Yam What I Yam," "Sweethaven," and "Sail with Me" are among the most catchy and pleasant. The highlight for me though is Duvall signing "He Needs Me." It’s simply a great song, one that counts among its admirers Paul Thomas Anderson, who used the tune in his 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love, and Duvall does a wonderful job with it. There’s a lot of heart in Popeye, and you certainly see it here.
As mentioned, Popeye’s poor reception would signal the beginning of some tumultuous, though nonetheless productive, times for Robert Altman. After more than a decade of lower-key film and television work, work that is still noteworthy, Altman would burst back onto the Hollywood scene with a film that, oddly enough, sharply jabbed the superficial and ridiculous mechanics of Hollywood itself, The Player, in 1992. From there it was on-again, off-again for Altman. For every recognized masterpiece like Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001), he had comparatively lackluster films like Prêt-à-Porter (1994) and The Gingerbread Man (1998). And in the middle of these poles were solidly entertaining pictures like Dr T and the Women (2000).
Altman’s final film would be one of his better recent productions. A Prairie Home Companion was released June 9, 2006. Robert Altman, one of the greatest and most original of American filmmakers, passed away Nov. 20 of the same year, at the age of 81.