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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

COLD TURKEY -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

I don't remember exactly what year they showed Norman Lear's 1971 comedy COLD TURKEY (Olive Films) on television, but I do remember how intriguing and funny I found the premise as a kid.
I still do, only now I (a) understand more of the jokes, and (b) know exactly what it's like to be addicted to cigarettes and then quit smoking, as the title indicates, "cold turkey."

The ramshackle little town of Eagle Rock, Iowa will soon know, too.  They've been chosen by a major tobacco company to stop smoking for thirty days--every single smoker in town, which is a considerable number--at which point the sorely cash-strapped burg will receive a whopping 25 million dollars and perhaps qualify for a lucrative missile plant to be built there.

The catch is that the tobacco company only wants the publicity and has no intention of shelling out the cash.  To that end, their weaselly PR guy, nicely played by that master of the deadpan Bob Newhart, pulls every underhanded trick in the book to make sure that someone in town will light up before midnight on that final day.

That's the set-up, and rest assured that the maestro of caustic, cynical comedy in the 70s, Norman Lear (creator of such TV classics as "All in the Family", "The Jeffersons", "Maude", "Sanford and Son", "Good Times", and "One Day at a Time") will milk this promising premise for every joke, sight gag, outrage, and bathos-drenched moment from beginning to end.

Once things get started, COLD TURKEY piles on the gags and twisted situations non-stop and doesn't let up, hovering on the edges of total farce while zinging it all with strokes of bitter reality.  Smokers will empathize with the frantic citizens' panic for a smoke and desperate attempts to somehow light up or at least quell their overwhelming urge to.

The town becomes a free-for-all of chaotic acting out of violence and frustration at first, until gradually many citizens begin to see a light, and a substantial paycheck, at the end of the tunnel.  Still, there are the nicotine-crazed holdouts such as Dr. Proctor (Bernard Hughes), who holds an operating room hostage until someone gives him a light. 

Then there's Dick Van Dyke's staid, sternly moral Reverend Brooks, a fascinating character whose flaws--he's vain and self-righteous--threaten to work themselves out as he becomes aware of how greedy and materialistic the town is becoming due to fame and notoriety.  His blandly obedient wife, played by Pippa Scott (THE SEARCHERS), is suffocated in their relationship and will have the only positive character arc in the film.

Meanwhile, Graham Jarvis (of Lear's classic "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman") is fine heading his self-appointed police squad of smoking narcs who operate a roadblock searching for smokable contraband, as are harried cig addict Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker of "All in the Family"), frantic mayor Vincent Gardenia (also of "All in the Family"), hypnotist/guru Paul Benedict ("The Jeffersons"), and a cast brimming with other familiar comedy talents including Sudie Bond, Judith Lowery, Edward Everett Horton, and M. Emmett Walsh.  

Future "Newhart" co-star Tom Poston (I loved him as a kid) is the upper-class town drunk who absolutely must smoke when he drinks ("The booze bone's connected to the smoke bone").  The great comedy team of Bob and Ray pop up throughout the story as caricatures of various respected newsmen of the time such as Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, as the media circus infesting the town intensifies. 

Indulging himself in rich satire of rural midwestern types and their ways (and filming on location in Iowa with actual locals as extras), Lear gives the film the pace of a vintage screwball comedy and stages it all with exhilarating creativity, easily handling crowd scenes dotted with MAD Magazine-style comedy vignettes as well as the more intimately complex character exchanges. 

There's a constant anticipatory suspense throughout it all, as we wonder if Eagle Rock will make the deadline (a last-minute scheme by Newhart's character is brilliantly devious) and if any of its citizens, especially Dick Van Dyke's morally-conflicted pastor, will learn anything from the experience.

Not as much a black comedy as it is thoroughly nicotine-stained, COLD TURKEY is the sort of frenetically-silly laughfest that's based on an exaggerated reality which makes much of it strike home for the viewer. It's bracketed by Randy Newman's wistfully melancholy little hymn, "He Gives Us All His Love", emphasizing the acrid, bittersweet comedy cloud billowing around us like a raw burst of second-hand smoke. 

Buy it from Olive Films

Rated: PG-13
Subtitles: English (optional)
Video: 1:85:1 aspect ratio; color
Runtime: 102 minutes
Extras: none


1 comment:

antoniod said...

COLD TURKEY was first shown on TV in 1975 or '76, and by that time many of the film's players had gone on to even greater fame as sitcom stars, so ABC promoted it as an "All-Star" film!