Olive Films // 1970 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // February 17th, 2011
Love it or leave it.
It's not usually good to judge things by their covers and here's a practical lesson in an old adage. Given a cast of Paul Newman (Slap Shot), Joanne Woodward (Philadelphia), and Anthony Perkins (Psycho) with a director in Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), WUSA should be a good movie, right? Well, don't be fooled. This is a terrible movie that has no right to be so bad; one of the clearest definitions of failure I've ever seen. How could this happen?
Drifting radio announcer Rheinhardt (Newman) arrives in New Orleans with the clothes on his back and an unpaid debt for a hundred bucks from a crooked priest. His good looks and golden voice aid him twice. First, he hooks up with Geraldine (Woodward), a part-time prostitute looking for a way out; then, he gets a job as a DJ with the local WUSA station, one of the most popular stations in the country and the epicenter of Neo-Facist thought in the States. He's generally left-leaning, but apolitical and happy to have a paycheck, so really has no problem spouting the hateful rhetoric required of the job. His words have terrible consequences, though, as racial tensions in the city start to mount and the only person he cares about loses faith in him.
Simply put, there's no excuse for the shoddy material on display here. It's impossible to forgive this level of ineptitude, especially from talent of this magnitude. Sure, actors and directors make bad movies all the time, but not this bad and not all at once. It's the perfect storm of terrible: badly acted, poorly written, completely senseless and, on top of it all, unrepentantly self-serious. What I thought would be an interesting and obscure political movie turns out to be an exercise in filmmaking failure.
WUSA is truly one of the least focused films I've ever seen. There are three distinct plots occurring and the only way they connect at all is because they're forced to in a seriously contrived ending. The characters make no sense, either on their own or in relation to each other, and their actions come out of nowhere. The further you get into it, the less sense it makes, but not in any kind of fun, wacky way. As confusing and eye-rolling as it all is, it's also completely boring, full of meandering political blather that is neither right nor left, just ridiculous.
The first question to ask is about Paul Newman's radio DJ. He identifies himself as a "communicator" and, based on how quickly he's able to land a gig at one of the nation's most popular stations, you have to assume he knows what he's doing. Why, then, do we meet him as he shows up at an AA church service and follow him while he picks up on random street girls. He's a drunk; that's clear from his ever present glass, but that's the only distinguishable character trait in him. Geraldine, the woman he picks up, is the supposed gold-hearted hooker, but she doesn't actually do anything, gold-hearted or not. In her final moments, she gives Newman something to look emotional about, but that's not much for how much screen time she has. Anthony Perkins is the most puzzling figure, playing a young surveyor who becomes disillusioned after learning the scam of his job. He's a good idealistic youth, but his anger doesn't cause him to quit and demonstrate. Instead, he takes arms for revenge against the people who hired him. His whole presence is pointless to the film, so him importance to the ending is baffling. Nobody seems to care at all how bored they look, they appear there for the paycheck and little else.
Olive Films is a new label on me, but if their mission statement is to sully the legends of dead celebrities, they've succeeded in their release of WUSA, and they look good doing it too. The transfer looks quite nice, with brilliant colors and solid black levels. There's some dust here and there, but a minimum of damage to the print makes the film very pleasant to look at, if completely unpleasant to watch. The mono sound is no more than you would expect, but it is clear enough and perfectly fine. Thankfully, no extras are here to keep me thinking about this stupid movie.
Author Theodore Sturgeon once said, "Ninety percent of everything is crap." One of the reasons that people so easily revere old media, whether that's music, movies, or whatever, is that percentage of garbage gets forgotten by history. The deeper you go into the catalog, the more crap comes out, and WUSA is the perfect example of this. There are a lot of very good reasons why this kind of drek deserves forgetting. For only the most die-hard of Joanne Woodward completists.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Olive Films
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13