Click here 4 and a half stars

Brilliant
black comedy
from Carl Reiner

George Segal, Ruth Gordon
star in a hilarious tale
of a man driven mad
by his nutty mother

George Segal, Ruth Gordon

"Where's Poppa?"

Reviewed by John Orr

(Click on the images to see larger version and credits.)

"Where's Poppa?" is a film heightened by moments so surprising and funny that when I first saw it, tears from laughter actually squirted out of my eyes onto my glasses. More than once. My eyelids just couldn't deal with the flood, I was laughing so much and so often.

George Segal, Ruth Gordon

George Segal, Ruth Gordon

George Segal, Trish Van Devere
Trish Van Devere, George Segal, Ruth Gordon

Ron Leibman, Rae Allen

Directed by Carl Reiner — one of the 20th century's treasures of humor — and starring George Segal in one of his best performances, "Where's Poppa?" is a black comedy that works, in part, because of the brilliant and hilarious work of the great Ruth Gordon.

I saw it in the theater more than 30 years ago and have been frustrated since by poor quality VHS tapes in rental stores, some of which have an alternate ending that is too black for my taste. The original ending — the one I saw in the theater in 1970 — is funny and satisfying. The alternate I find off-putting, too much "black" and not enough "comedy."

But the MGM DVD is beautiful, a crisp and pretty print, and the main film has the original ending. The alternate ending can be seen if desired. The DVD also includes the original theatrical trailer and can be viewed in widescreen or pan-and-scan.

"Where's Poppa?" opens with an exhausted man — Segal — struggling to wake up from insufficient sleep and begin his day. He has to shake and pull to get his old dresser drawer open. The face he shaves in the mirror is haggard and unhappy. He puts on a gorilla suit, and walks down the hall.

As a gorilla, he enters a bedroom where a tiny old lady is curled up in sleep, jumps on her bed, and starts grunting and shouting like a gorilla.

The old lady wakes up, sees the terrifying vision — and socks him in the nutsack.

Boom! Down goes the gorilla, and the old lady is delighted. "Oh, Gordon!" she exults. "Always trying to cheer me up!"

The old lady is Ruth Gordon as, uh, Gordon's mother. She is, we quickly learn, no longer in full contact with reality.

"Where's Poppa?" she asks Gordon.

"Still dead," Gordon answers.

She has shrunk to a shadow of her former size, although Gordon still dresses her in her old, too-large party gowns for the day — a hilarious scene — before feeding her sugar-coated cereal with Pepsi for breakfast. That is, the Pepsi in the cereal, instead of milk. (Maybe it's her sugary diet that removed her compos mentis.)

He finally gets away to his law offices, where he spends time interviewing home-care nurses, desperately begging them to work for him, caring for his mother — instead of reviewing cases. But the word has gotten around — women have been bitten and otherwise terrified by the crazy old lady — and none of them are willing.

Finally, Trish Van Devere walks in, wearing a crisp nurses uniform that went out of style in Clara Barton's lifetime.

He immediately fantasizes her in a wedding gown. When he offers her the job — even after she's told him she has no references because all her patients died — she fantasizes him as a knight in shining armor, mounted on horseback right there in his office.

The story of her brief marriage is hilarious.

As are the subplots about Gordon's clients in court, one of which features Rob Reiner — director Carl's son — as a peace activist who'd taken direct action against a sociopathic Army guy.

And then there's Ron Leibman as Gordon's brother Sidney, who has to run across the park (Central, in New York? Maybe) when Gordon threatens to throw Momma out the window following a disatrous (and ridiculously funny) dinner with Van Devere.

Leibman is hilarious as a man who is the victim/plaything of muggers who attack him every time he runs across the park, and who reminds Gordon of their promise to Poppa, on his deathbed, to not put Momma in a home.

The laughter is in the details, and there are a zillion in this goofy movie, written by Robert Klane, from his novel, and directed with comic brilliance by Carl Reiner.

The film isn't rated but is not for children. They'd laugh at some of the slapstick, but there are jokes that are definitely at an adult (well, so to speak) level, including some involving sex and violence. It's true black comedy, and enormously hilarious. Recommended.

AT HOME OR AT A THEATER?

Good luck finding a good print of this film at a revival house!
Buy the DVD at Amazon.com.

See cast, credit and other details about "Where's Poppa?" at Internet Movie Data Base.