Picks and Pans Review: Cadillac Man

updated 05/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Robin Williams, Tim Robbins

It's clear from the opening credits that there's something original afoot. The sound track is playing "(Opportunity Knocks But Once) Snatch and Grab It," sung by the witty '40s blues singer Julia Lee. The screen is showing a panoramic view of a cemetery, and the camera zooms in on a smoking car that turns out to be the hearse in a long funeral procession—a long, stalled funeral procession.

Williams, the auto salesman of the title, happens by, and after offering to help (and promising the funeral director a deal on a new hearse), he debates the wisdom, not to say ethics, of trying to sell a new car to the obviously wealthy widow. Finally, deciding that people's opinion of car salesmen can't sink any lower, he offers the widow, played haughtily by Elaine Stritch, his condolences and his business card.

"You're trying to sell me a car, aren't you?" she says incredulously. Williams winces and nods, and she explodes: "You sleaze! You piece of scum!"

This is obviously not just another ordinary movie opening sequence, but this is not just another movie either. It's idiosyncratic and funny from start to finish, written, directed and acted with precise skill, brimming with scenes that display the best timing this side of Tony Gwynn. And yes, if you insist, it could probably leap tall omniplexes in a single bound as well.

In addition to being a compulsive salesman, Williams is a compulsive womanizer, and once these traits are established, writer Ken (Made in USA) Friedman and director Roger (No Way Out) Donaldson get to the business at hand. That is having Robbins (Bull Durham) invade the car dealership where his wife and Williams work; he takes the whole sales staff, as well as a few customers, hostage because he knows his wife is having an affair with one of the salesmen.

The rest of the film plays out the escalating hostage situation as SWAT teams surround the building, Robbins sprays occasional rounds from his automatic rifle out of nervousness and Williams and Robbins develop a strange, touching relationship.

The violence (and thus the comedy tone) is always on the verge of getting out of hand, but Donaldson and Friedman maintain the balance. The film's edgy unpredictability, in fact, becomes one reason it's so enjoyable.

Another one is the immense talent of Williams. Toned down so that he never slips into his stand-up shtick (at times you can almost hear him restraining himself from lapsing into one of his odd voices), Williams plays a real character this time, and it's a fascinating, complex character.

When Robbins calls his adulterous wife a "lying bitch-whore," Williams soothingly delivers the one-liner, "What kind of a foundation for a relationship is that, calling your wife a lying bitch-whore?" But in the middle of all this Williams is also dealing with the threat of losing his job, the fact that his ex-wife doesn't know where their teenage daughter is, and the string of lady friends to whom he finds it impossible to say no, Williams fits all this into one character, with room to spare for passing emotions.

Robbins, too, is resourceful as a confused man who's a real threat, good-hearted or not. And the supporting cast equals the quality of the leads. Pamela Reed is skeptical but still loving as Williams's ex. Fran (The Big Picture) Drescher and newcomer Lori Petty are distinctive as two of Williams's women, while Annabella (Internal Affairs) Sciorra lends a tough sexiness as Robbins's wife. Paul (Wall Street) Guilfoyle and Judith (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) Hoag as salespeople, Lauren (Blue Steel) Tom as a no-nonsense waitress and Anthony (Cookie) Powers as a cop add grace notes.

While the ending goes from odd and scary to odd and sentimental, that's all right. If you dig at it a little, you'll find this movie full of provocative ideas on the nature of truth and lying, on how we're all constantly selling ourselves in one way or another. But save that for later. First go enjoy Cadillac Man for the beautifully compact, uniquely entertaining package of insight and wit that it is. (R)

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