"There have been movies about big earthquakes. There have been movies about big boats sinking…movies about big buildings burning…movies about big German balloons bursting. And now, a movie about…the Big Bus!"
The bus is big. Really big. This is, like, the mother of all buses. We're talking orca bus here. I mean big, man.
Facts of the Case
It's America's Bicentennial, and as an all-out display of American ingenuity, Kitty Baxter (Stockard Channing, still two years away from stardom as Rizzo in Grease and two decades away from becoming the First Lady on The West Wing) and her physicist father (Harold Gould, the dapper Kid Twist in The Sting) unveil the Cyclops, a titanic nuclear-powered limousine-on-Miracle-Gro capable of making a nonstop run from New York City to Denver. (Why Denver? I don't know. Just go with the flow.) Coyote Bus Lines (its mascot is a real live coyote) signs on to sponsor and promote the gargantuan two-story vehicle (equipped with swimming pool, bowling alley, formal dining room, and cocktail lounge) as the flagship of its fleet.
But someone's gotta drive the doggoned thing, and unfortunately the only two guys trained for the task have just been blasted out of commission in a saboteur attack masterminded by a madman in an iron lung (José Ferrer, the screen's greatest Cyrano de Bergerac slumming here) and carried out by his hapless brother Alex (Stuart Margolin, James Garner's shifty sidekick Angel in The Rockford Files). Kitty knows just who to call in to pinch-hit—her former lover Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna, worst remembered as nymphet Michelle Johnson's philandering dad in Blame It On Rio). Dan's a legend in the bus-driving trade because of the infamous Mt. Diablo incident, in which Dan may or may not have survived in a stranded rig by consuming the flesh of his 110 frozen passengers (he cops to eating one foot, but no more). Kitty finds Dan monologuing in front of his father's headstone at the local cemetery and recruits him and his newfound barroom-brawling chum Shoulders O'Brien (John Beck, the original Rollerball, TV's Dallas)—so nicknamed because blackout spells cause him to drive on the shoulders of the road—to pilot the Cyclops across the Continental Divide.
The Big Bus (I mentioned it was big, right?) sets off on its cross-country maiden voyage loaded up with a motley collection of Love Boat castoffs:
• An obnoxious priest who's lost his faith (Rene Auberjonois, Odo
from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine);
As one might suppose in a spoof of disaster flicks, the Cyclops and its human cargo encounter one bizarre mishap after another as they barrel along America's interstates. The bickering crew back at Mission Control (headed up by Ned Beatty—who, thankfully, does not squeal like a pig—and Dr. Johnny Fever from WKRP) try to help them negotiate the obstacles. Will the Big Bus make it to Denver? Will the hormonal divorcees reunite? Will someone shoot the piano player? Will Dan and Kitty hook up once more, or will he just eat her foot? Will someone please slap that old lady?
Fans of the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker oeuvre (Airplane!, Top Secret!, Police Squad! and its Naked Gun film spinoffs) may be startled to learn that The Big Bus, which shares a strikingly similar comedic tone to those works, actually predates the first ZAZ collaboration (The Kentucky Fried Movie) by a year. It's not quite as polished—or as funny—as the best of ZAZ, but it's pretty amusing in its own right. Comedy is, of course, brutally subjective—Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey sell millions of movie tickets, but not to this reviewer—but if you enjoy the throw-every-gag-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks school of film farce, you'll likely find that The Big Bus offers your kind of transportation to euphoria. I didn't fall on the living room floor clutching my ribcage, but I chuckled quite a bit, and laughed out loud in quite a few spots. What more can one ask, really?
Veteran TV director James Frawley has the pedigree for this type of goofy send-up—among his lengthy litany of directing credits are 32 episodes of The Monkees, plus The Muppet Movie. Likewise the writing/producing team of Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman, who previously collaborated on the Gene Wilder-Donald Sutherland Corsican Brothers farce, Start the Revolution Without Me. The Big Bus weaves a wealth of comedy influences together, but never forgets what it's about: a parody of the likes of Airport, Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure. It attacks all of its targets obliquely; that is, it doesn't steal many bits directly from those early 1970s disaster pictures, but rather satirizes that whole genre and style of moviemaking. The jokes are painted in with watercolors, not troweled on with cement.
If there's a weakness in the set-up, it may be that it all plays a little too straight. What gives the ZAZ films their magic is their use of familiar actors better known for serious roles—Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves—and encouraging them to push their comedic chops to an unanticipated level. Most of the cast of The Big Bus are comic actors, or at least are actors for whom comedy isn't entirely a new deal. Because we've seen these folks being humorous in other venues, it's not unexpected (and therefore not as viscerally hilarious) to see them in comic situations here. The cast is uniformly capable—I liked Stockard Channing's work, the byplay between the console jockeys portrayed by Ned Beatty and Howard Hesseman is funny, and most of the smaller roles (particularly Sally Kellerman's and Lynn Redgrave's) are nicely done—but I just wanted a bit more expansion of the laughter envelope. Joseph Bologna is the one weak link. He's nondescript and stiff in the lead role. But everyone around him is sufficiently good that we hardly notice.
My one complaint about the script is that the story just ends. I expected a more definitive—and over-the-top—resolution for my investment of time and from the goodwill the film had built up along the way. Maybe the last couple of pages fell out of Frawley's binder and he just shot what he had. The movie simply feels unfinished, in my view.
For a catalog title from 25 years ago, The Big Bus shows creditably on DVD. The anamorphic transfer is crisp and vibrant. Most of the picture problems aren't digital, but rather are damage artifacts from the source print. The first few minutes of the film don't hold much promise—quite a collection of speckles, scratches and some serious grain—but things clear up nicely after the first chapter stop and through the remainder of the movie. (This happens often in the DVD world, I've noticed. You'd think it would make more sense to shower TLC on the beginning of the film, while it's still making its first impressions on the audience, then slack off a little on the cleanup once the viewer is already invested.) You expect a degree of interference in a movie of this age, and it's there, but once things get rolling it isn't offensive.
I have mixed feelings about the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. It's gratifying that Paramount allotted the resources to produce a surround mix for this DVD (the original mono track is also included as an option), but its quality is hit-and-miss. I developed a cramp in my thumb dialing the volume up and down to compensate for the uneven audio levels. When the score swells, it's generally overbearing, while the dialogue tends to be buried in the distance, requiring a boost of gain to make the conversations audible. This inconsistency carries through the picture from start to finish—I never reached a point where I could leave the volume in one location for more than a few minutes at a stretch. The solution would have been to crank up the dialogue passages and tone down the orchestra, but I sense that the disc producers were attempting to flesh out a mono track by pumping up the score. Sometimes it works—overall, David Shire's music does sound great—but more often the viewer works too hard at getting a comfortable balance.
Your friends at Paramount buried the following disclaimer in the fine print on the keep case back cover: "This disc was created in compliance with applicable DVD specifications. Certain of its advanced features may not play on all machines." Let's see now—which advanced features would those be? The audio commentary? Can't be: there isn't one. The documentary featurette? Nope, not one of those either. The retrospective interview segments with the cast and crew? Gee, not here. Filmographies? Zero. Production notes? Bupkis. Wait—maybe the trailer? Nada. Stills of the producer's girlfriend's cousin's nephew's dog? Not even those. It seems to me that if you're going to warn people about the possibility that advanced features might not work on their DVD players, Paramount, you might at least include some advanced features so that they might not work. You think?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I couldn't help wondering: when filming was completed, what happened to the bus? Is it sitting in some stagehand's backyard somewhere? Someone with an interest in non-lethal weaponry could make a terrific battle jitney out of the old gal.
The bottom line of comedy is simple: you laugh or you don't. The Big Bus made me laugh—not a lot, but enough that I didn't feel my 88 minutes had been wasted, and enough that I found myself watching again to catch the good bits I missed and to enjoy again the ones I'd seen and liked. If satirical comedies of the Airplane! genre and '70s kitsch are your bag, take a spin in The Big Bus. It's a smooooth ride.
The Big Bus is free to go its nuclear-powered way. Paramount is sentenced to hand-washing every bus at the local Greyhound depot for the crime of tossing this clever little film naked to the DVD wolves with nary a stitch of extra content. Court is adjourned.
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