Still Runs Good: As He Takes New York, Don’t Forget Robert Zemeckis’s Scrappy Start


Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk opened the New York Film Festival last week and also kicked off a full MoMA retrospective of his feature work, titled “What Lies Beneath: The Films of Robert Zemeckis.” One has to assume the museum at least considered calling it “We Don’t Need Roads,” being the most iconic line from a Zemeckis film not involving boxes of chocolates. But with all due respect to Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (and Forrest Gump, if you’re one of those people), had the MoMA been inclined to name the program after the director’s masterpiece, there would have been only one choice: “Trust Me,” from Used Cars.

Written by Zemeckis and his partner Bob Gale around the time they were working on Steven Spielberg’s underrated 1941, this 1980 comedy is the story of huckster auto salesman Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), who wants to become a state senator and collect that sweet, sweet graft. He needs $60,000 to buy the nomination from the party chairman, and is raising that money by any means necessary, including lying to customers, rolling back odometers, and interrupting broadcasts of football games and presidential speeches to run wholly inappropriate commercials, all while battling rival car dealer Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden).

Zemeckis has called Used Cars a story in the Capra tradition.

Zemeckis has called Used Cars a classic story in the Frank Capra tradition of a man chasing the American Dream — just one where the hero has no moral compass, and everyone around him is a liar. But we never stop rooting for him or his compatriots, or wondering why Russell’s scene-stealing co-star Gerrit Graham didn’t become a bigger comedy star.

With its swearing and toplessness, Used Cars was Zemeckis’s only R-rated film until the 2012 drama Flight. Gale has said that the raunchiness was an intentional turn after the financial failure of the pair’s first effort, the sweet-natured period piece I Wanna Hold Your Hand. (That one is also worth checking out, if only to see how early Zemeckis established his trademarks, including a tower-in-a-lightning-storm climax.) But unlike so many self-consciously raunchy movies, especially the wave that followed in the 1980s, Used Cars is very, very funny, boasting a sturdily structured script with no shortage of quotable lines, and becoming a rousing action movie in its final act.

But very few people saw it on the big screen the first time around, as Used Cars was poorly marketed and had the misfortune of being released on July 11, a week after the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker joint Airplane! (Harold Ramis’s Caddyshack was released two weeks later, making July 1980 the greatest month in film comedy history.) Russell has talked about reading a contemporaneous review that argued that Airplane! had twice as many laughs as Used Cars, but that Used Cars‘ laughs were twice as good. That math is still legit, as this scrappy ride holds its own not only against Airplane!, but anything in the Zemeckis oeuvre.

Used Cars

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Playing October 1 and 5, MoMA