Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #7 Nobody's Perfekt (1981)
Sometimes I wonder why the old Nate Dogg isn’t more successful. I wonder why the page views for the website are down considerably from where they were even six months ago, why pledges have slowed to a halt when they haven’t stopped completely and why I don’t get the kinds of gigs and opportunities my peers all seem to.
Then I remember that I could literally literally write about anything for this website today. I could finally go ahead and write the My World of Flops entries on Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy, John Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy "Adult Party Cartoon" and The Book of Henry I have been contemplating for months.
I could write The Simpsons entry for The Simpsons Decade. That would make a lot of sense and would be a big boost for that struggling column. I could write another impassioned essay about Kanye West or Rachel Dolezal. I could write more darkly comic click bait parodies in hopes of once again going viral, as I did with pieces on the sinister double lives of Andie MacDowell, David Hyde Pierce and Cary Elwes. I could do just about anything with this website, including things that might attract patrons and/or page-views and/or attention and what am I doing? I’m writing about a movie so obscure even I didn’t know it existed until it was proposed for this column.
I’m writing about 1981’s Nobody’s Perfekt, the Gabe Kaplan cinematic vehicle you didn’t even know you needed to not see or care about, for Sue Trowbridge, a delightful human being and patron who has been wondrously supportive of my various endeavors throughout the years. I was tempted by the sheer perversity of a big-screen showcase for the decidedly small-screen-sized talents of Welcome Back Kotter star Gabe Kaplan but I was also intrigued by the film’s resemblance to the 1989 comedy Dream Team.
If I ever end up on WTF (I was invited many crushing failures ago) and Marc Maron were to ask me who “my guys” are I’ll answer, “Michael Keaton. Fucking Peter Boyle. My man Christopher Lloyd. Judge Doom. Doc Brown. Motherfucking Reverend Jim. And last, and also least, motherfucking Stephen Furst. Flounder.”
If he asked me what filmmakers influenced me, I’ll answer Howard Zieff and the team of Jon Connolly and David Louka, the director and writers of Dream Team respectively. If he were to ask me my favorite era of film, I’d answer the 1970s, followed by the day Dream Team was released. A highlight of the episode will be me weeping openly as I recount the plot of Dream Team and how it relates to my mother abandoning me.
What I’m saying, dear reader, is that Dream Team is a movie that I saw when I was twelve years old and vaguely remember liking, and consequently is sacred to me even if I’d probably be far less positive about it if I were to re-watch it today.
A kooky comic riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which costarred Christopher Lloyd, Dream Team is less a movie about people wrestling with mental illness than it is a movie about Crazy People. I should know. I am someone who has wrestled with mental illness all my life yet I have a fondness for Crazy People movies all the same.
Crazy People movies aren’t really about mental illness. They’re not about flesh and blood human beings with serious problems. Instead they’re a form of mental illness minstrelsy where serious debilitating psychological conditions are reduced to cheap gags, hokey, vaudevillian set-ups for zany punchlines.
Crazy People movies aren’t about people, really. They’re human cartoon characters who are nothing more or less than the sum of their comic strip maladies .
Gabe Kaplan stars as one of these unfortunate caricatures, Dibley, a mustachioed idea man with an unfortunate propensity for Temporary Amnesia. What’s Temporary Amnesia? It’s a deeply hack gimmick of a condition that finds Dibley spontaneously forgetting where he is and what he’s doing whenever it’s least convenient or appropriate for him to do so.
For example, Dibble’s insanely indulgent girlfriend Carol (Susan Clark of Night Moves and Webster) gets him a gig promoting MacBeth’s Spot Remover at a store despite, you know, his unfortunate predilection for losing his shit at the worst possible moment and wouldn’t you know it, he blacks out and forgets where he is immediately after pouring stains on an increasingly hysterical man’s jacket.
That’s illustrating seriously poor judgment but then all Clark is called to do upon here is be so erotically enraptured by Dibley and his masterful love making that she’ll do anything for him, even if it’s a matter of debasing her sexually by stripping down to a bikini and performing a sensual dance as a distraction for construction workers at Dibley’s behest.
Nobody’s Perfekt is exactly like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves if it were a sitcom from 1981 that had been dropped on its head a bunch of times. Alternately it's like The Bicycle Thief but for morons. Clark’s character isn’t just inexplicably aroused and in love with a shaky vaudeville routine of a human being; she’s straight up dickmatized, to use a phrase I’m insisting on inserting into my writing as often and as obnoxiously as possible. I have no doubt that when Dibley fucks her particularly well they drive the houseboat where they live to Red Lobster.
Kaplan and Clark are joined by Clark’s Webster co-star Alex Karras, who plays Swaboda, a mama’s boy who makes sure to bring dear old ma with him everywhere he goes. The kooky twist? She doesn’t exist! She’s dead or a ghost or never lived or some such horse shit yet for some inexplicable reason every other character in the movie plays along with Swaboda’s delusion that his mother accompanies him everywhere all the same.
The final and most embarrassing of the film’s trio of nutty nuts is Walter. A psychiatrist straight out of central casting explains to a colleague played by a haughty young James Cromwell that Walter is what’s known as a “Double Schizo” because he alternates between two wildly divergent personalities.
One is a terrible impersonation of James Cagney, one of the easiest and most abused impersonations this side of Jack Nicholson. So Cromwell’s easily shocked shrink—who disappears pretty much as soon as he’s introduced—hypothesizes out loud that the other personality must be a refined Adolphe Menjou type, sophisticated and worldly where the Cagney side is short-tempered and violent.
Well, I hope you are sitting down and holding onto your monocle tightly because it turns out Walter’s other personality is no Menjou-style sophisticate at all. In fact, she’s not even a dude. Instead, she’s Bette Davis! As in, the actress Bette Davis!
Walter is played by Robert Klein, a stand-up comedian who looms very large in various books I’ve read about Saturday Night Live and 1970s comedy as one of the giants, a cerebral, influential and much loved titan of his age whose legacy has faded greatly with time. Nobody’s Perfekt helps explain why that happened.
Klein is a graduate of Yale Drama School and a Tony nominee for the 1979 musical They’re Playing Our Song. In other words, Klein is a classically trained actor, which makes his terrible Bette Davis and James Cagney impersonations even more unforgivable.
What led to Walter’s curious predicament? In a line that captures the film’s rimshot-worthy sense of humor all too vividly, “(Walter) was born in the front row of the Roxy Theater during a double bill.”
I don't want to disparage the film's science, but I think that's taking the concept of nurture versus nature a little too literally.
That’s just one of many, many lines begging for the artificial validation of a laugh track cackling indulgently. Seldom have I seen a movie that angrily demanded a laugh track as intensely as Nobody’s Perfekt does. Its beats are sitcom beats, its set-ups sitcom set-ups, its punchlines sitcom-ready, its director and star both sitcom vets.
So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the film is the work of Peter Bonerz, an actor and director best known for The Bob Newhart Show, a sitcom about a man whose professional life involves dealing with all manner of neurotics, oddballs, kooks and whatnot. So Nobody’s Perfekt is very on brand for Bonerz, even if I suspect he was hired primarily for his name.
Think about it: is there a funnier word than boner? Yes, but it’s its plural form, boners. If you were to replace the “s” with a “z” in "boners", meanwhile, you have literally the funniest word in the English language.
You see the word “Peter Bonerz” onscreen, you laugh for a solid five minutes, which is good, because you won’t be laughing at anything that follows because the only thing more hack and half-assed than the film’s characters is its plot.
The movie follows Dibley, Walter, Swaboda and Swaboda’s mother (oh crap, now the movie’s even got me doing it!) as they try to convince the Mayor of Miami to give them six hundred and fifty dollars in recompense after their comically undesirable lemon of an automobile is completely destroyed by a pothole roughly the size of the Grand Canyon.
Dibley’s plan for overwhelming the Mayor is a Rube Goldberg contraption of a scheme involving a canon, a boat and, because this silly little trifle obviously does not have enough on its plate, these weirdoes playing good samaritan and stopping a heist engineered by Alex Rocco as “The Boss.”
Seeing Rocco credited as “The Boss”, Kaplan first-billed (on some “Y’all better welcome me back, motherfuckers!” type shit), a gorgeously tacky orange font and the credit “A Mort Engelberg Production” made me hopeful that I was about to watch a guilty pleasure slab of late 1970s/early 1980s cheese, an exquisitely dated romp that might be a good source of unintentional laughter.
Alas, Nobody’s Perfekt is less good-bad (to put things in Flop House terms) than so bad it makes you angry. I enjoyed Kaplan on Welcome Back Kotter but the drop off in charisma between Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Michael Keaton in Dream Team to Kaplan here is impossibly vast. Kaplan is simply not a movie star. Neither is Karras or Klein. Then again, Nobody’s Perfekt is not really a movie.
As a filmmaker, Peter Bonerz was an adequate sitcom director. For a film adaptation of a novel, Nobody’s Perfekt feels more like a sitcom than most sitcoms do.
Watching Nobody’s Perfekt, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was the only person in the United States watching the movie that day, or even that week. I probably am, and that’s moreover probably how it should be. Not every oddball comedy deserves a second chance or a second life. This one, in fact, didn’t even deserve to exist in the first place.
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