After Popeye (1980), Robert Altman had effectively alienated himself from most of the Hollywood studios and took to adapting stage plays for the big screen through independent financing. In the early 1980s, National Lampoon magazine published stories about two troublemaking teenagers named Oliver Cromwell ‘O.C.’ Ogilvie and Mark Stiggs written by Tod Carroll and Ted Mann. When Altman made O.C. and Stiggs in 1984 (it wasn’t released until 1987), teen comedies were all the rage but he hated them and so, instead, he made it into a biting satire of these kinds of films. Not surprisingly, nobody liked it and the movie quickly disappeared. Even among Altman fans it has few supporters and was eventually quietly released on DVD.
O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neill Barry) are suburban teens and avid practical jokers who live in Phoenix, Arizona. The main target of their gags is the Schwab family, a decadent, materialistic clan headed by Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley) who sells insurance. The mother (Jane Curtin) is an alcoholic, their son (Jon Cryer) is a gullible idiot while their daughter is about to get married.
In some respects, O.C. and Stiggs are like teenage versions of Hawkeye and Trapper John from M*A*S*H (1970). Both feature clever hipsters but the latter were also brilliant surgeons whereas the former are only good at one thing – staging elaborate practical jokes. In M*A*S*H, the two surgeons were fighting against authority and the absurdity of war while O.C. and Stiggs are fighting against materialism and mediocrity as represented by the Schwabs with their bad fashion sense and gaudy décor – the epitome of the “ugly American.”
The problem with O.C. and Stiggs is the central characters. They aren’t particularly interesting. Their obsession with pulling endless practical jokes on the Schwabs seems mean-spirited at times. Another problem lies in what O.C. and Stiggs are rebelling against, which isn’t as clearly defined as the war in M*A*S*H. The teen pranksters are rebelling against the mind-numbing banality of suburbia and the “Greed is good” era of Reaganomics. There is an attempt to provide some kind of motivation for why these kids do what they do. Stiggs’ dad is cheating on his wife while O.C.’s dad (grandfather?) is unemployed and possibly senile. No wonder they spend all their time together devising elaborate schemes. It is a form of escape from their mundane surroundings.
This movie sees Altman in an extremely playful mood with the same kind of fast and loose structure as California Split (1974), which also features two freewheeling pals careening from one crazy encounter to another. A crazed, babbling Dennis Hopper even pops up as a burnt out Vietnam vet. It’s as if his photographer character from Apocalypse Now (1979) had somehow made it out of Kurtz’s compound and came back to the United States.
There are some nice moments, like when O.C. dances with a beautiful girl (Cynthia Nixon) at the Schwab wedding that is a nod to classic Hollywood cinema by way of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But it is not enough to keep this uneven film together.
Altman flips the ‘80s teen comedy on its head. He even refuses to populate the film’s soundtrack with trendy New Wave music, instead opting for the catchy African music of King Sunny Ade. No wonder people hated this movie when it came out. Clearly Altman did not grasp the original source material (or didn’t even bother to read it) and just did his own thing. The results are, at times, amusing and at some point you either surrender yourself to the goofiness of the whole enterprise or resist this maddeningly frustrating effort.