A glance at the Rotten Tomatoes reviews of Robert Zemeckis’ Used Cars (1980) about sums up this Milius-and-Spielberg-produced cavalcade of gags. “One of the most underrated comedies of all time. Made in an era when political correctness was challenged and Kurt Russell was at his BEST,” gushes Ian D—5 stars! “There are two women in this movie. They both get molested on screen and the audience is supposed to laugh. I’m sure there are some jokes about molestation that are funny and unoffensive, but in my opinion these are neither,” retorts another commenter—half a star. Back in 2014, Leo S gave it a perfect rating, gleefully announcing “This is a true classic! Very funny and not for the PC of heart!” On IMDb one user wonders: “Did this movie usher in the ‘go-go’ 80s?” Rob P has the answer: “Typical 80’s movie ha.”
It’s true—Used Cars is the 80s. It’s all Boomer humor, irreverence, the celebration of American industriousness, and a cynicism that, magically, transforms into optimism. Insofar as it ushered in the 80s, it captures the spirit of the modern US. I’m not sure why the commentariat spilled so much ink trying to “get” the median Trump voter—it’s readily apparent if you stay for all 113 minutes of Used Cars.
We follow Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), a fast-talking parody of a salesman. He works for the sickly Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) at the failing New Deal used car lot. Across the way is their competitor, Let’s Deal, which is owned by Luke’s brother, Roy (also played by Jack Warden) and is doing a hell of a lot better. Roy is politically connected and has been buying off his state senator to postpone a proposed highway that would cut right through his business; unfortunately, his friend in office is retiring, so he concocts a plan to inherit his brother’s lot and squeeze the government for double the money when the wrecking ball and paving trucks come-a-calling. Luke has a daughter he hasn’t heard from in 10 years and so this should be easy enough—hire a demolition derby driver to go on a Crazy Taxi-inspired test drive so wild that Luke keels over from a heart attack. It works! The only problem is that, just before he gets in for the fatal drive, Luke informs his would-be assassin that he’s just heard from his daughter. She’s back in the picture.
Hijinks ensue in that goofy 80s sort of way. Rudy and his coworkers hide Luke’s body in his favorite car and bury it out back, claiming that their boss has gone fishing in Florida. The daughter shows up; Rudy falls in love with her and doesn’t have the heart to break it to her that her long-estranged father has bitten the dust. Meanwhile, this slimy parody of desperate car hawker decides he’s going to run for office to fill that state senate seat—he just needs $60,000 to pay off the party. He and the boys decide to make this money by illegally taking over TV commercial slots, which they fill with sex, explosions, strippers, and more sex. Will Rudy square his lying ways with his boss’ daughter’s seeming innocence? Will he tell her the truth? Can he tell her the truth? Should he tell her the truth (he’s a used car man turned politician after all)?
Things get quite complicated in this movie, which is just as well, since the whole machine runs on big gags à la Caddyshack (1980) or Stripes (1981). What makes it worth watching isn’t these classic bits (at one point, Rudy literally peels a customer off the rival lot by tying a crisp $10 bill to a fishing line and tugging it over and over just before the guy can grab it—that is until he’s made it across the street). No. What drives Used Cars is a certain attitude about life in the American Century. Every single character is a lying cheating huckster out for nothing but moolah. The only question is how to get ahead (Rudy quips that he figures if he’s going to be a dissembler he may as well just become a politician and actually get rich doing it). Sex sells and so they turn to sex. Roy half-heartedly offers moral protest, but this is a guy who’s killed his brother; he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. At one point, our villain tries to shut down the airwave thieves by accusing them of lying for claiming to have “jillions” of cars. Unfortunately, Roy is informed that, since “jillion” isn’t a real number they have no case—but if they’d said “million” woo boy, they’d be clobbered. (Why haven’t they just been taken to court for stealing airtime? That I don’t know). Indeed, the climax of the movie is based on just such a case. Roy edits some footage of Luke’s daughter so that it sounds like she claims to have “a mile of” vehicles. Rudy and the gang only succeed by driving a huge number of cars onto the lot at the last minute, arranging them to be measured by the judge’s lackey.
The premise here is that America is failing and all you can hope to do is snatch whatever scrap metal you can. And this would be fine—cynical, but not untrue. But Used Cars doesn’t stop there. It glories in the pillaging. Rudy Russo, after all, may be a liar, but he’s honest about his lying. He knows politics is rotten—that’s why he’s getting involved. Sure, the bad guy is fighting to keep bikini-clad strippers dancing atop soon-to-be-exploded cars off TV, but he’s a hypocrite. There’s no new deal to be had, but hey, why not use the name and conjure up a past when a person could expect more than scraps? All one can do is game the system, become a small business owner, and revel in having made it to the top of the trash pile.
I don’t pass any moral judgment on Used Cars. Despite its plethora of absurd gags, it’s an experiment in realism. No camera, however, merely observes reality; we infuse it with our perspective and craft a past, a present, and a future. Zemeckis’ movie may not have created the 80s, the Age of Reagan, or the modern American mind. But this film testifies to it—whether you can laugh at it comes down to how you feel about that testimony.