MOVIE REVIEW: “The Party Animal” (1984)
By ELLSWORTH BENCHWOOD
How can a movie that is not “good” by any rational analysis be “great?”
Matthew Causey is an accomplished scholar who earned a PhD in Drama at Stanford, and from 1994 through 2000 as a professor at Georgia Tech, founded and led its Performance Technology Research Laboratory. He is currently a professor at Trinity College, Dublin, where he is Director of its Arts Technology Research Laboratory. In 1984, long before pursuing a distinguished career in academia, Causey starred gloriously in the fascinating and inscrutable Z-grade T&A comedy, “The Party Animal”.
Sprinkle some surreal on an atmospheric brooding crime noir and you’ve Gone Lynchian. Viewing (if you dare) “The Party Animal” less answers the question of what happens when surreal is slathered on a goofy sex comedy than it does change the question to, “How did this happen?” The answer is Causey but he has plenty of help.
First, it appears the soundtrack might have been the result of an I.R.S. Records executive losing a bet to a producer of the movie. The Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It?” accompanies the opening sequence, where we meet 26-year old freshman Pondo Sinatra (played by Causey) as he arrives on an unnamed college campus riding literally in the back of a turnip truck. We’re introduced to Pondo via voice-over by Elbow (played by Jerry Jones, yes that Jerry Jones, who was in “Dolemite” in 1975), the wise ancient janitor who lives in the boiler room. Other characters are shown speaking to an off-camera interviewer about Pondo, in sort of a documentary style that the movie deploys randomly.
“Why Can’t I Touch It?” plays multiple times in the movie, as does The Fleshtones’ “Right Side of a Good Thing”. Other early-80’s I.R.S. label bands on the soundtrack include The Untouchables (who appear in one of the movie’s many party scenes), Dream 6 and Chelsea. “The Party Animal” was released (sort of) around the same time I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland closed the deal to release the soundtrack (featuring REM, Oingo Boingo, The Fleshtones, The Alarm, etc) for “Bachelor Party” (1984), a real Twentieth Century Fox movie starring a young up-and-comer named Tom Hanks.
Wait, what? Did Copeland just adopt a blanket “the word ‘party’ in the title” company policy re: placement of I.R.S. label talent in movies? Maybe a subordinate signed a contract absent-mindedly, mistaking “The Party Animal” for “Bachelor Party”? However it happened, “The Party Animal” was to New Wave, Post Punk (or whatever you call it) music as “O Brother Where Art Thou” is to old-timey.
Writing it off to “that’s the 80’s for you” might not be half-wrong. Among the many things about the 80’s that make looking back an occasion to wince is the proliferation of the T&A/party/sex comedy genre. “Porky’s” was ridiculously successful (5th highest grossing movie of 1982), and countless others like it were profitable. Tom Hanks wasn’t the only future A-lister who made his bones in the genre – see, e.g., Johnny Depp in “Private Resort” (1985). There were dollars to be made, especially with the dawn of the VCR, within and outside the big studio system.
Surely its soundtrack to some degree sets “The Party Animal” apart from the other dreck of the era, but its use of the surreal and the way it embraces an internal illogic suggest that on some level, somebody had an idea. It may not have been a good idea, but it happened, and it invites examination of the notion of something being a statement about something versus just being the thing.
Pondo, we learn from the character interview snippets, is a virgin whose single motivation is to lose his virginity. The interview subjects speak about Pondo in the past tense, recalling events that we’re about to see. In addition to Elbow and several “college girls” (average age seems to be around 30), we hear from Studly (played by Timothy Carhart), a ladies’ man and Pondo’s only friend.
The bulk of the movie’s 78-minute running time is episodes in which Pondo fails spectacularly in trying to use advice Studly gives him about how to woo women. Several of these episodes result in serious injury to or the death of Pondo or his quarry. A full 2 minutes (feels like 200) shows a pair of buff thong-wearing male strippers entertaining a crowd of raucous women, presumably depicting Pondo’s unattainable ideal.
When Studly suggests that Pondo visit Willinger’s, a fancy men’s clothier, to make himself more appealing to women, Pondo accidentally goes to Dillinger’s, a punk tattoo-parlor/emporium and requests “the works.” He emerges a hideous hunchback in chains with a mohawk hairdo and spikes impaling his face. We cut to an angry torch-carrying mob chasing Pondo through the city streets, culminating in him facing the crowd, screaming at them to shut up, which they do, so he can say in a weak and weary voice, “I… am not… an animal…” The movie’s hat-tip to David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” (1981) is short-lived as, after a beat, one of the crowd members yells, “Bull-shit, that’s an animal!” and the crowd proceeds to beat Pondo to death.
Of course, the next shot is of Pondo waking up the next day, apparently still alive and looking like he did before the Dillinger’s thing. After many similarly absurd failures, Pondo accidentally synthesizes an effective aphrodisiac in a chemistry lab, and the movie’s final act is a King Midas tragedy, resulting in Pondo’s death and reincarnation as a jack-rabbit. His fate is hinted at earlier in the movie when Elbow advises Studly to steer clear of Pondo’s downward spiral into permanent virginity, fearing it might be “a Buddhist thing… karma,” which puzzles Studly: “I thought you were a Baptist?”
Okay, surrealism, absurdism, fine, but does it play? To the extent that it does, Causey’s completely committed and charismatic performance deserves the most credit. There is absolutely no phoning it in here, as he commands every bizarre and ridiculous scene, which is pretty much all of them. The end result is a sex comedy devoid of titillation. The “sex” scenes are decidedly comical and non-sexual, as is the nudity. A scene in which Pondo (dressed as a woman) invites a house full of lingerie-wearing coeds to play strip poker leads to tracking shot of their bare torsos standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
This joke (a shot that manages to be interminable in less than 10 seconds) lands only because of the intelligence of Causey’s all-in performance – anything less and the movie would merely be a relatively poorly executed entry in a silly period-specific genre in which amateurish execution is commonplace. Thanks to Causey, the soundtrack, and a generous helping of the surreal and absurd, it’s possible that “The Party Animal” is actually a wry examination/indictment of the genre.
Timothy Carhart went on to have a successful career in mainstream movies, which is still ongoing. If he and Professor Causey should ever cross paths and see fit to reminisce, here’s hoping they remember “The Party Animal” fondly as a rarely-seen achievement – elevating ostensibly “bad” material to something that might actually be greatness.