After Ronald Regan scored a dominating win and a second term in office, there had to be some kind of numbness that was felt by those who knew Reagan was an intellectual lightweight but yet somehow, almost despite himself, remained vastly popular. What, they thought, can’t people see, or, more scarily, do they even care? It was probably the latter for Reagan hustled in a kind of hyper-capitalism that ran on credit and deregulation which forced everything to continue to be “bigger and better.” And while this excited those consumers who could afford to see the middle class take a squeeze, it also caused more and more people to fall through the cracks and stumble into the margins where they no longer became part of society but part of a conversation that had some kind of re-beautification scheme baked into it so those people could be further marginalized and forgotten.
Somehow and someway, Robert Altman decided to put all of this and other sundry sentiments of anti-Reaganism into a big screen adaptation of the summer adventures of a couple of teenage characters who had graced the pages of National Lampoon throughout the early eighties. The result was 1985’s O.C. and Stiggs, a film that sat on the shelves until 1987 and one that is generally considered Altman’s worst effort by people who, I suppose, have never heard of or seen Beyond Therapy or A Perfect Couple. While it’s never going to be confused with top-shelf Robert Altman, O.C. and Stiggs remains a delightfully sly film with more on its mind than most of its teen-sex brethren. And, honestly, who gives a flying fuck if Altman forgot to add the sex when he’s having such a gas using his ONE major studio film of the 80’s to gleefully torch the foundation of what every decent American should despise? Altman deserved a medal, not jeers and castigation, for this move.
The plot of O.C. and Stiggs is pretty episodic and random; it’s basically a recounting of the crazy summer that our two characters had as their senior year lurks on the horizon. For O.C. (Daniel Jenkins), it’s a bittersweet memory as he will soon be moving to Arkansas for his final year of high school as the grandfather he has been living with has had his retirement insurance cancelled and is going to have to stay in a nursing home. For Stiggs (Neill Barry), it was just another summer where he can torture the wealthy Schwab family and upend societal convention if only for the attention that he is not getting in his own dysfunctional and overcrowded home.
As much as Popeye was to some extent just McCabe & Mrs. Miller reconfigured for kids, O.C. and Stiggs is basically “I Was a Teenage Hawkeye and Trapper John” where all of the pranks, jokes, and misdeeds have been rerouted from military authority and are now at the expense of the Schwabs, a clan of nouveau riche straights whose patriarch (Paul Dooley) is the insurance king in a community where the words loud, bigoted, tacky, gaudy would be appropriate descriptors. Altman’s rendering of Scottsdale, Arizona, makes it look like the new American frontier; a community of inhabitants in a place not meant to be inhabited, replete with artificial wave pools and other stupid attractions. It’s a baking, sweltering enclave that is an absolute hell, 100% Barry Goldwater territory; the exact type of place where Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), Nashville’s third-party presidential candidate, is making a bid for the U.S. Senate ten years after the events of that film.
So it’s a teen sex comedy where the sex is substituted with a giant rod up the ass of the shallow crassness, racial cruelty, and the individualistic, selfish pursuits that had run amok in the back nine of the Reagan Era. And wherever Reaganism failed, O.C. and Stiggs exploits. The homeless, Vietnam vets, decorum, capitalism, and silly charities all get a full inspection as the characters of O.C. and Stiggs are the perpetual progressive irritants in a dead suburbia becoming even more zombiefied. Wherever society decides to stagnate to the detriment of some, the two are there to make sure everyone’s boats are lifted.
So does this really sound like a teen sex comedy at all? The film’s connection to National Lampoon is crucial given M*A*S*H’s contribution to what Roger Ebert used to call the “slob comedy” which was made famous with 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House. So this is Altman closing a chapter by bringing it full circle with a certain poignancy and sadness. Unlike other similar films of the day, both O.C. and Stiggs have deep grievances that have some emotional truth. O.C. is hurt by the Schwab Insurance Company which has cancelled his grandfather’s retirement insurance and Stiggs is damaged by a philandering father and a sense of being completely unseen in a busy cacophony of a family (very reminiscent of The Boy’s situation in That Cold Day in the Park). These are kids whose adventures are more stimulated by what their elders have wreaked than it is about chasing girls. “What you boys need is some pussy,” says Melvin Van Peebles’s Wino Bob, in a jive on Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback persona. He knows what it’s like to want to put your foot in the Man’s ass and here are two white kids who have some shared enemies and who want to do just that. But there is a wistfulness to Bob’s sentiment as it’s just too bad that change is left to the young who are the only ones with the energy to do anything when they should be asked little more than to go out and enjoy their lives.
With some nice references to Apocalypse Now, The Pink Panther, The Last Picture Show, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,Altman hasn’t been this referential since Brewster McCloud, itself referenced in O.C. and Stiggs via the jokey vanity plates and a very pointed scene dealing with a lot of bird shit. Additionally the inclusion of King Sunny Adae and his African Beats sets the film apart as one of the commercial aims of films like this was to pack the film with as many hot new artists as possible if only to create a separate revenue stream for the concurrently released soundtrack album. Here, the music of King Sunny Adae acts as pure joy and a great equalizer, one of the few things that seems to bring joy to everyone who hears it. And special mention has to be given to both Jane Curtain, who nails her role as the perpetually soused matriarch of the Schwab family (every member of which being too oblivious to notice is also a nice touch), and the radiant Cynthia Nixon, object of O.C.’s desire.
Of course, not everything in the film works like gangbusters. Sometimes the film has a difficult time mixing Altman’s style with the kind of two handed teen comedy that the movie sort-of kind-of wants to be. Sometimes it’s at ill at ease with itself and there are moments where Altman makes big miscalculations as to what the audience will find amusing by throwing unnecessary and goofy sound effects onto the soundtrack. Additionally, the film also shows the tell tale signs of over-editing; like the shapeless story was given the slightest bit of a plot only in the editing room leaving even more of this film on the editing room floor.
But considering the states of both Altman’s career and the subgenre he was inverting with O.C. & Stiggs, there is far more to celebrate here than to dismiss and the film’s continued life as a punchline thanks to people who should know better is borderline irresponsible. For all of the things Altman called out as a threat to our society in Nashville have brought in a return on their investment ten years later thus beginning the slow, poisonous crawl to our sorry state today. This is no better realized than in the character of Pat Coletti (the always incredible Martin Mull), a lazy and affable millionaire whose geographical proximity to the Schwabs makes him their almost polar opposite. Rich, insulated, and bored, Coletti’s brand of capitalism is an open, creative, and almost lax approach to making money which proves to be more inclusive and has a more balanced entrepreneurial spirit. So if O.C. And Stiggs is the final word in the slob comedy and not at all a teen sex comedy, Coletti and all of the adult characters represent the bitter end of the first half of their lives. While they’re all victims of Reaganism, they’re all choosing their own specific misery as they sink into inert middle-age, a place where most people no longer know how to grow but only know how to expand. And the choices they make speak volumes about their characters.
While Paul Dooley’s racist, conspiracy theory, doomsday prepper character looks like a first step toward MAGA right in the red, white, and blue middle of Reagan’s America, a retrospective view of O.C. and Stiggs shows how shockingly on the nose Altman was about all of it and how, perhaps, some of the criticism was from people who just didn’t want to believe it. I suppose if you had your head in the sand, this film would look incredibly silly. But, gosh, all of those American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” signs papering cookie-cutter stucco homes that magically popped up in the middle of the Arizona desert to get away from… something? I’d say that, despite the inherent silliness in a so-called teen sex comedy being “Exhibit A” to prove a larger point, MAGA was less a phenomenon that sprung forth in 2016 and that it was there all along.
“This is real!” O.C. screams at Dennis Hopper during the film’s climax as the former is handed a grenade to be used to get out of Schwab’s doomsday room.
“Everything gets to be sooner or later,” Hopper replies.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain