Koch Vision // 1980 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // September 23rd, 2005
A moonshine-swillin' romp in the swamp!
Two parts Dukes of Hazzard to one part Lil' Abner (with a generous dash of Hee Haw), Soggy Bottom U.S.A. is a cornpone, Louisiana-Saturday-night good time. If it never quite rises to the level of sophistication, who gives a frog's freckled butt? Not everything can be Noel Coward, but that's no reason to dismiss this little gem.
It's time for Soggy Bottom's annual raccoon hunt, and Sheriff Isum Gorch (Oscar winner Ben Johnson) has his eyes on the prize. But his dog may face some stiff competition when celebrity songstress and local legend Miss Dusty Wheeler (Ann Wedgeworth) flies into town with her prized pooch. But the coon hunt is the least of Isum's worries. You see, he may have his eyes on the prize, but Miss Dusty has her eyes on something else, much to the chagrin of Isum's lady friend, the spitfire hotel and cafe proprietress Molly (Lois Nettleton).
To complicate matters, the feds have also rolled in to crack down on all the moonshining (apparently a way of life in this neck of the woods), and the Sheriff's brother, Cottonmouth (Dub Taylor), is at the top of their hit list.
You'll know everything you need to know about this swamp-set comedy within the first eighteen minutes. Well, almost. By that point, you'll have seen a rusty American Hudson take out a whole row of storefronts, an airboat manned by Don Johnson total a pier, a pickup crash, and a mangy mutt break some major wind (and, just in case you, like my four-year-old son, didn't think once was enough, he'll do it twice more before the credits roll). Yes, this is unabashedly low-brow entertainment at its, um, lowest, but with a name like Soggy Bottom U.S.A, should you really expect otherwise?
Still, would I be hanged if I were to say that it works almost in spite of itself? Director Theodore J. Flicker, a veteran television director, has packed this cinematic kettle with the kind of uniquely Southern-fried delights that would send Jeff Foxworthy over the moon. You have coon hunts, gators snoozing in the middle of the town square (the townsfolk politely step around him so as not to disrupt his nap), and drunken brawls at town socials.
And yet...That's not what makes Soggy Bottom such a comfortable, irresistibly charming place to visit. No, credit for that goes to its cast of characters and a genuine sense of place (but not period, as it's never clear exactly when the story is set). With their homespun values and strong ties to community and family, these people feel lived in. You have men who love their women, their white lightning and their hound dogs, and not necessarily in that order. You have women whose unfettered devotion for those men runs deeper than the hollow. Soggy Bottom is populated by the kind of folk it just might do to run the river with, and a trip there is like a visit with old friends.
It's nice to see such warm characters used in the service of some pretty darn good -- if lightweight and occasionally hokey -- storytelling. Flicker deftly moves between four or five story threads (depending on how you count) before tying them neatly together for the silliest, most out-of-control chase scene this side of What's Up, Doc?. The most engaging story involves the love triangle between the sheriff, Molly, and Miss Dusty. Isum and Molly make a sweet pair, and it helps that Flicker is working with a cast of old pros and familiar faces. Johnson delivers another one of his patented good-ol'-boy performances, and he gives the film a quiet, much-needed center of gravity. Nettleton is a fine match for Johnson, playing a brassy broad with a heart of gold and a particular way with a large wooden spoon. The nicest surprise may be Wedgeworth, a native Texan who, with her swagger, drawl, and come-hither stare, has always specialized in a special brand of southern sensuality. What a pleasure to find a movie willing to lavish so much attention on three older, underrated actors.
Johnson, Nettleton, and Wedgeworth are the standouts, but veteran character actors Dub Taylor and Lane Smith (as devilishly greasy "Smilin' Jack") make a lasting impression in supporting roles. Rounding out the cast of loveable characters are Jacob Gorch (Don Johnson, back before he discovered hair gel and pastel shirts) and his main squeeze, the guitar-pickin' Sharlene (P.J. Soles, a real sweetheart here, but almost unrecognizable without her customary breast shots). Johnson (Don, not Ben) and Soles are featured on the DVD packaging, but their roles are secondary.
This is clearly a low-budget production, but one that's smart enough to take full advantage of its lush, evocative bayou locations (it was filmed in and around Marshall, Texas). As the camera weaves in between the lazy cypress trees, you can practically smell the honeysuckle and feel the warm, moist air on your skin. So it's a crying shame to see such a diamond in the rough get crapped upon in its DVD incarnation. Cropped to full screen, cinematographer George Bouillet's lovely compositions become cramped and suffocated. On top of that, the colors lack the richness and depth one expects, particularly during sunlit exterior shots, when the picture looks painfully washed out and faded. The entire film is marred by flecks, speckles and scratches. This is one of the saddest, shoddiest transfers I've come across in some time. The stereo soundtrack isn't as strong as one would like, and could have used some cleanup itself, but it is head and shoulders above the picture in terms of quality. The package includes no subtitles or extras.
True to its tag line, Soggy Bottom U.S.A. is a romp in the swamp for those so inclined. But with a hideous transfer, underwhelming audio, and zero extras, I'm afraid it's hardly worth even its bargain-basement price of $10. Surely such a well-meaning, harmless film deserves better.
Koch Vision is found guilty of abuse and ought to be taken to the woodshed with a switch, but the Soggy Bottom gang is free to head back to the bayou.
Review content copyright © 2005 Bryan Pope; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #20
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG