13 January 2008 | Lechuguilla
Not Much Joy Here, Boy
Maybe in its time this film was provocative and entertaining. The decade of the 1960s was known for its cinematic audacity and spunk, descriptions befitting the film's underlying concept. But what seems daring and futuristic today can look stunningly grotesque when the future actually arrives. And forty years after it was made, "The Loved One" just seems ... bizarre.
We're led to believe that the film lampoons the funeral and burial industry. And part of the film's first half does just that. Here, humor derives partly from dialogue, especially as it relates to burial terminology. Our casket salesman, Mr. Starker (Liberace), explains to the film's protagonist: "I can give you our eternal flame in either perpetual eternal or standard eternal". Then he asks: "propane or butane, Mr. Barlow?" Marvelous. And part of the humor is visual, as we watch the finicky embalmer, Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger), trying out various expressions on the loved one's face.
But the funeral and burial industry satire consumes less than half of the film's two-hour runtime. The rest of the plot is a mishmash of assorted gags, skits, and pranks, strictly tangential to the stated concept. You get the feeling that the script was written by a committee. Some of this plot tangle derives from too many celebrity cameos. These actors (James Coburn, Milton Berle, Tab Hunter, and many others) appear in a scene or two, then vanish, to be replaced later by others, none of whom are essential to the plot.
Probably the best elements of the film are its B&W cinematography and the production design. Outdoor scenes at Whispering Glades are visually lush. And the interior is interestingly ornate, although far more Gothic than any funeral home I've ever been in.
The film's casting and acting for major roles get mixed grades from me. Robert Morse as the protagonist, Sir John Gielgud as his uncle, and Rod Steiger as the embalmer are all fine. But as much as I like Jonathan Winters, his performance here, for whatever reason, just does not work; I found it grating and annoying.
If I had seen this film when it first came out, I might have had a more favorable impression of it. And, to repeat, it does have a certain charm, if only sporadic. But so much has happened in the last forty years, and there's been so many changes in America's culture, "The Loved One", for all its intended courage and boldness in 1965, now seems, for the most part, just puerile and pointless.