A bumbling mix-up can be the cornerstone of a wild and hilarious comedy. That extreme spiral from a slight inconvenience to a disastrous series of events that will impact the lives of these hapless protagonists is an integral piece of the humour within What’s Up Doc?. From its immediately jolly tones and listing away its ensemble cast, the tone of Peter Bogdanovich’s piece here is unremittingly optimistic and happy. Audiences cannot escape the feel-good inspirations within. These upbeat tones are at the forefront of this story, one that is spelt out to the audience with a few nice notes of effective, old-age storytelling. Bumbling characters tearing blazers and getting themselves into wordy, problematic encounters. It’s a lovely and formidable series of events that is easy to swallow, and easier still to engage with.
“Once upon a time,” this tale opens with. It works well enough. Bogdanovich’s tale is a light bit of screwball hilarity that takes many of its twists from the mix-up at the heart of its story. Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) is a delightful addition to this cast of crazed characters. He feels like a sane voice, yet is quite remarkable and unique in of himself. He does not dismantle the prototypes of the leading man but opposes the idea that they should be likeable through a quality of heart. O’Neal instead plays up the weaknesses his character inherits, because it is with these weaknesses that the bond and chemistry between himself and Barbra Streisand are made apparent. Quiet and agreeable, it is not until he is torn away from his plaid bag that the notes of romance and comedy make themselves broader and acknowledgeable.
But it is what we do not acknowledge that best suits this feature. Little sight gags are the best part of What’s Up Doc?. A pizzeria owner twirling dough into the air, with it never coming down from the roof. It is expected, but that is part of the charm. Timing is the mainstay of this Bogdanovich feature. He knows that his audience knows the punchline already, so the timing of it, the unexpected nature of his comedy and when it occurs, is the gag. A recurring gag for Judy Maxwell (Streisand) sees her wandering through traffic as though she expects them to stop for her. It is her adaptability in the face of sharp dialogue that renders an audience incapacitated by laughter. That is the beauty found within the chemistry of O’Neal and Streisand, the two are exceptionally charming together and make up most of the finest moments within What’s Up Doc?.
Those fine moments display similar characteristics the whole way through. Bogdanovich adapts a light touch for this feature, one that brings about not just delightful screwball moments, but a sudden meeting between a musicologist and a troublemaker is a delightful gift for a genre that had long left its phase of commercial viability. What’s Up Doc? is a revitalisation of the screwball genre, which for one (or many) reasons, died off in the face of smarter comedies. But there is an inherent genius to Bogdanovich and his craft here, primarily from who he has cast, how they perform, and the impact they have on such a marvellously tongue-in-cheek script.