Some people don’t believe in evil. I know it exists because I’ve seen its effects firsthand—most recently in the lack of a proper release for the 1997 indie comedy Who’s the Caboose?. Whatever confluence of personality, finance, or perceived audience taste that kept this film from mass distribution until last week (!) is surely the work of malignant forces.
A lot of people, I imagine, will come to this movie for the novelty of seeing some of today’s most influential comedians in early roles; Who’s the Caboose? may be the comedy-nerd equivalent of George Lucas’ infamous original cut of Star Wars. But even if you have no idea who Todd Barry, Marc Maron or Andy Kindler are (shame on you, by the way), the film’s big draw is that it’s both hilarious and way ahead of its time.
In the mid-90s, director Sam Seder and co-writer Charles Fisher set out to make a stinging parody of superficial Hollywood culture and the subversive influence of media on consumers. That’s a lot of heady talk for “Boy and Girl Set out to Make it Big in L.A. and Get Chewed Up by the System.” Shot mockumentary-style, a camera crew follows aspiring actress Susan (Sarah Silverman) and her performance-artist boyfriend Max (Seder) from New York to California as Susan tries to make a name for herself during pilot season; which, as is explained to us, is the period between January and April when TV studios develop all of their sitcoms for the fall season (the documentary within the movie was originally supposed to be about disease in the homeless community; the details of this transition, and its implications later, are simply awesome).
Over the course of 120 days, Susan goes on countless auditions where she laments the fact that all the best-written parts go to men, and everything else goes to blonde, big-breasted women—which she is decidedly not (at one point, one of Susan’s CAA reps scolds her for not having shaved what the agency considers her embarrassingly hairy arms). Meahwhile, Max begins a bizarre ride from tag-along to toast-of-the-town thanks to the sly machinations of entertainment lawyer Ken Fold (H. Jon Benjamin). Susan and Max encounter lots of wacky personalities on the West Coast, from a bitter, raging actor/caterer (David Cross); to the schmoozing bombshell who shows up at every one of Susan’s auditions and sweeps casting directors off their feet (Laura Kightlinger); to Susan’s obsessed-with-himself manager, Jason Reemer (Andy Dick).
This is a variation on one of the movies’ oldest setups. But what sets Who’s the Caboose? apart is Seder and Fisher’s 14-year-old crystal ball. The mid-to-late-90s saw the birth of reality television with The Real World; the exploitation of reality television with the smash-hit film Reality Bites; and the dawn of the mockumentary as we know it, with Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (okay, technically This is Spinal Tap pre-dates Guffman, but Guffman opened the floodgates). Seder and Fisher were able to cobble these elements together and predict—with stunning accuracy—the reality genre’s continued popularity, co-opting, and inevitable corporate distortion a decade early.
Susan begins dating a guy named TV’s John Devlin (John Barnett) whose every appearance on camera is accompanied by a title card that reads, “John Devlin, Star of Bachelor Pad ™”. The Ken Fold character is a prototype of Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold from Entourage: a hyper, cut-throat worm who can land a development deal with two simultaneous five-minute phone calls. The most interesting part in the movie is the role of Cary (Cary Prusa), a delivery guy who talks his way into hosting much of the latter portion of the documentary; his is the classic waiter-looking-for-a-break character, but in the age of the ever-present camera, he’s able to cultivate a TV career in about 48 hours. The reality depicted in Who’s the Caboose? reminded me a lot of MTV’s The Hills: both feature marginally talented people attempting to exploit their supposed relatability and create a personality brand; they perfect the art of acting like themselves instead of perfecting the art of acting.
In addition to the filmmakers’ brilliant observations, Who’s the Caboose? is also highly enjoyable as a comedy. I got three solid, out-loud laughs; that’s not a lot for a comedy, but I think my brain was so engaged by the excellent material that I was in a state of shock for most of the run-time—in other words, the movie was literally so funny I forgot to laugh. Like Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner, Seder knows the value of a well-placed camera. There are some terrific gags that I won’t spoil (they involve an elevator, a therapy session, and a tennis court) in which the frame’s keen misdirection leads to a wonderful payoff that you’ll be thinking about well into the following scenes.
But, hey, cameras aren’t comedians. Fortunately, there are a ton of them in this movie—many of whom act against type (at least the type they’ve become famous for in the years since Who’s the Caboose? was made). This is Sarah Silverman’s best role. I think she’s really funny as a stand-up, and I dig her caustic personality in films and on TV, but Susan is her most complex and fully formed character. She’s a pseudo-innocent, a pretty nice person with some spunk; this tiny crack of imperfection widens throughout the movie, causing her lots of trouble, then success, then (maybe) trouble again.
Andy Dick surprised the hell out of me. Sure, he plays a variation on his Wacky Boss character, but his last scene made me empathize with him. His is an exaggerated personality, but not wholly cartoonish one; he seems like a decent guy who’s been so caught up in the wheels of the glitz machine that he has no idea how ridiculous he’s become.
And Sam Seder! I can only imagine the rom-com leading man he might have been, had Who’s the Caboose? found a proper fan base. He’s so good in this movie, alternating between artistic and smarmy that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting or Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Seder plays Max as a lovable scumbag who will make you root for him even as you’re hoping he fails. Today, Seder has parlayed that charm and social acumen into a career as a political commentator, and you can play a fascinating game of “What If” by pondering the alternate universe in which Who’s the Caboose? was the Reality Bites of its generation instead of, well, Reality Bites.
I can’t recommend this movie enough. Though, I’ll qualify that by saying the film may not be for everyone. This isn’t necessarily as raucous or accessible a comedy as Best in Show; Who’s the Caboose? is more like the British version of The Office than its American counterpart, if that means anything to you. Some folks don’t like movies about movies or the whiny exploits of Hollywood hangers-on; I get the feeling Seder and Fisher didn’t either, when they made this film; which is why this is such a must-see.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 04/21/11.]