Where's Poppa? (Carl Reiner / U.S., 1970):

The opening set-up and punchline -- George Segal drags himself out of bed, dons gorilla costume to scare his aged, sociopathic mother (Ruth Gordon) to death, and gets clocked in the nutsack -- lay out the risky Freudian foundation and highlight Carl Reiner's calm, plaintive pitch in the face of urban madness on the cusp of the new decade. "Where's Poppa?" "Still dead." Oedipus Wrecks, indeed! Segal's inspired Kabuki mask of shuffling, slump-shouldered filial despair lightens up at the sight of Trish Van Devere in a nurse outfit: He envisions her in bridal whites, she sees him in knight's armor atop a horse and then recounts her story of marital woe. (The uproarious stinger lies not in Van Devere's "caca" line but in Segal summoning full, scrunched-face outrage for the "son of a bitch!" retort.) The stumbling block in their way is Gordon's senile Jewish momma, a tiny bulldozer with a yen for Fruit Loops with Pepsi and pulling down her son's pants and biting into his ass mid-meal. The New York streets outside are those of Little Murders (and, down the road, Seinfeld), attuned to the Naked Prey adventure that is crossing Central Park at night and to full-fledged vaudeville turns by Barnard Hughes, Vincent Gardenia, and Paul Sorvino. All the same, the still center might be Ron Leibman's unerring guilelessness as the henpecked mensch who's touched when the undercover policeman he buggered the night before sends him a bouquet of roses and asks for his phone number ("I never got flowers from anyone," he says, enchanted). An indispensable 1970 transition, positioning the relationship of American comic traditions (the dark humor of Arsenic and Old Lace versus that of a Lenny Bruce mother bit, say) as a cracked mirror of the Segal-Gordon bondage. Reiner scrutinizes the situation, and pretends to resolve the tension with a long-shot gag (out of McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow) before bringing the joke home with a brackish coda. With Rae Allen, William LeMassena, Joe Keyes, Jr., Garrett Morris, and Rob Reiner.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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