You gotta give to Criterion. When they decide give a film the full Criterion treatment, they do not fuck around.
If you are a fan of Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, then this new edition it for you. Gorgeous 4K transfer of the 164 minute theatrical version and a reconstruction of the Roadshow version clocking in at 197 minutes. Documentaries on the film’s visual effects. All the original Stan Freberg TV and Radio spots. Etc, Etc. If you’re a stone cold comedy nerd, the extras alone make this an essential purchase.
I just wish I liked the film more.
Look I get why the film has a cult following. On one level, there’s nothing like it. A giant slapstick epic close to three hours long starring every major comedy star of the sixties shot in Cinerama screen filling Ultra Panavision.
It was insane to even conceive of such a thing. All the best comedies time out at ninety minutes, one hundred tops. (Anything beyond that and you risk pounding jokes into the ground.) And instead of two or three big comedy stars following one or two concentrated story lines, you’ve got twelve in five intersecting story lines. And then you have slapstick on a grand scale including gags with cars, buildings destroyed, planes slamming into billboards.
It’s huge and crazy and in a rational world, shouldn’t exist. It’s like the “Fitzcarraldo” of comedies.
With the caveat that it’s only slightly funnier that “Fitzcarraldo”.
In an odd sense, Jonathan Winters work in the movie exemplifies what’s good about it and why it doesn’t work.
On the one hand, he manages with the scant amount of characterization he’s given in the script to turn Lennie Pike into a charming lug with a good heart. You feel sorry for the guy even when he completely demolishes a gas station.
On the other hand, the role plays to none of WInter’s strength as an improvisational genius. He’s never given any moment to cut loose. Hell, go to YouTube and type in Winter’s name. He’s funnier ad-libbing for five minutes on Dean Martin’s old variety show then he is in this entire film.
Yes, it’s true. Most filmmakers had no idea how to harness Winter’s particular brand of madness. But honestly, the whole film feels like Kramer hired the funniest people he could find and then told them the only thing they could do is scream the dialogue in William and Tania Rose’s script.
And honestly, I’m not that crazy about the script. The verbal humor is almost nonexistent and the slapstick feels rudimentary in conception. And it lacks the daring of Rose’s work with Ealing Studios. (The Ladykillers. Man in the White Suit.)
I’m now going to piss off legions of comedy fans by suggesting that Jerry Zucker’s “Rat Race” is a superior rendering of the same basic idea. Mostly because Zucker has a much stronger comedy sense then Kramer ever did. And that Andy Breckman’s script has much stronger gags.
Don’t believe me?
Then show me one scene in “Mad, Mad World” that on a purely conceptional level matches The Barbie Museum.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I don’t think “Mad, Mad World” is an awful movie. I just don’t think it’s as much of a rib tickler as people think it it. It does have it’s moments. (With a bulletproof cast filled with people like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and Dick Shawn, how could it not?) And honestly, if the opportunity came to see it in a decent 70MM print came along, I’d probably grab it.
Because “Mad, Mad World” is in the end a fascinating experiment in trying to trying to stretch the comedy form. To see if you can make a Comedy Epic even though both forms are at odds with each other.
Again, your milage may vary. If you’re a hard core fan, this set is nirvana. If not, use your discretion.