That no-good cowpoke Judge Patrick Bromley reviews the second funniest western of all time.
He brought the West law, order…and good clothes!
Rustler's Rhapsody is a comedically postmodern spoof of old B-grade Westerns, starring Tom Berenger. The film was made in 1985, before Westerns were made cool again. Before postmodernism was made cool. Before Tom Berenger…well, two outta three ain't bad.
Facts of the Case
Tom Berenger (Platoon, Major League) stars as Rex O'Herlihan, the "Singing Cowboy," who drifts from town to town seeing to it that all is right with the world and sticking up for the little guy. Upon riding into the generic western town of Oakwood Estates, he encounters Peter (G.W. Bailey, Police Academy, Mannequin), the town drunk; Miss Tracy (Marilu Henner, Taxi), the hooker with a heart of gold; the corrupt Colonel Ticonderoga (Andy Griffith, in an inspired bit of casting) and his virginal young daughter (Sela Ward, The Fugitive, 54). When the Colonel brings in a new Good Guy (who just may be good-er than Rex), he's forced to question whether or not he's got what it takes to be hero—and if he's still the best-dressed cowboy in town.
From the opening narration by G.W. Bailey ("Proctorrr!"), we are set up to know that the main gag of Rustler's Rhapsody is that it is self-aware; like Wes Craven's Scream, it knowingly mocks its conventions while still embracing them. It's a concept for which Scream got a great deal of credit more than ten years later—amazing what a little box office will do for you.
That same narration, set to a window-boxed black-and-white sequence, introduces a premise that the film doesn't really deliver on. It presents a typical Rex O'Herlihan scenario—he's in pursuit of three outlaws on horseback—then asks, "What if one of those B-Westerns were made today?" At this point, the film expands to its full aspect ratio (1.85:1) and switches to color as the three outlaws stop—presumably realizing there are three of them and only one of him—turn around, and give chase right back to Rex. The bit here suggests that the old rules don't apply today, and that the characters are smarter than the Western conventions. The rest of the film, though, doesn't follow suit; from then on, it clings to all of its clichés—exploiting them, but never turning them upside down. I did, however, find the overtly explanatory narration amusing; maybe the filmmakers didn't think audiences would get the joke unless it was spelled out. Nowadays (again, in the age of hip postmodern cinema), we can see a film like Far From Heaven or Down With Love and not really need to be told what they're doing.
The film is cheerfully anachronistic—sometimes too heavy-handedly so. At a certain point in the film, we get that modern ideology doesn't fit into the time period (like the prostitute who charges $600 for dirty talk, despite the fact that an acre of land only costs a few dollars)—the characters don't need to keep pointing that out. And when the film ushers in a host of stock spaghetti-Western villains ("They all got to wear those great raincoats…trouble was, you could hardly understand anything they said!"), we forgive it—they don't belong to the specific genre or time period the film is spoofing, but so what? It's a funny bit. What I couldn't quite reconcile, though, was the fact that every bit of violence—from guys being shot to a guy falling through a window—is filmed in operatic slow-motion. Presumably, this is a nod to Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch, but it's a stylistic lift—not a content reference. It messes with the tone of the picture, at times making it feel more like typical '80s Rambo fare than any Western that came before it.
As goofy as some of the film's casting is, for the most part it ends up being surprisingly effective. While Tom Berenger is hardly the first guy I would call on to carry a straight-up comedy, his inherent squareness lends itself nicely to the role—not to mention the sight of him in embroidered satin and eyeliner is funny in and of itself. It's great to see Andy Griffith playing against type (in more ways than one—you should probably see it yourself). Even Sela Ward is funny, and I don't believe I've seen her do comedy before—unless you count Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, which isn't so much "funny-ha-ha" as it is "funny-soul-crushing," you know? The movie does seem to relish a bit too much on the presence of Pat Wayne (John's boy) as Bob Barber, the "other good guy," with far too many shots lingering in close-up for no good reason other than that the film is in love with its own stunt casting.
So, what am I saying? That Rustler's Rhapsody is not a perfect film? Well, that's no surprise for a film that showcases Tom Berenger in white satin and spurs (actually…no, never mind). Comedies don't need to be perfect films, they just need to be funny—and Rustler's Rhapsody is. Writer/director Hugh Wilson, who has made some dumb comedies I've liked (Police Academy, the Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast From the Past) and some I've hated (The First Wives Club, the Brendan Fraser vehicle Dudley Do-Right), fills the screen with gags at all times. He wisely takes the Brooks/Zucker approach to comedy, basically throwing as much as he can at the wall and seeing what sticks—some of it does, some of it doesn't. What does is usually hilarious, like when Rex distracts a murderous posse by making his horse perform a tap dance. Other jokes are quieter and require more of a familiarity with Westerns, such as when we see Rex composing a letter to his mom asking for "$1,000 for supplies" (finally answering the question "How do these wandering hero types make a living?"). Or an even better one, where a goon misses a shot at Rex and Andy Griffith's ambiguously gay (you really do have to see it) Colonel screams, "How could you miss?" The goon, in kind, turns to the Colonel and gives three or four very specific, very logical reasons why he missed. Maybe you had to be there.
Paramount's release of the film comes frills-free. The image (it's anamorphic) is disappointing, showing a good deal of grain and source artifact and not making the most of the costume and production designs' vibrant color palette. The audio is only a marginal improvement; there's both a 5.1 and 2.0 audio track (both offered only in English), but I really couldn't say that one is a great deal better than the other. Ultimately, the 5.1 probably offers a richer composition, but hardly ranks alongside the best audio tracks out there.
Blazing Saddles might be the funniest Western ever made, but Rustler's Rhapsody is probably second (American Outlaws would be third, but that's neither here nor there). It's a nifty little throwback to the 1980s, when comedies didn't cater solely to teenagers and Ben Stiller fans.
Rustler's Rhapsody is found Not Guilty, free to wander off into the sunset and sing a ramblin' tune on the gee-tar. Now let's all have a large glass of warm gin served with a human hair in it.
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