“Do you think we like being associated with the President of the United States? I mean, we run an honest business here!” —
Jeff (Gerrit Graham) in Used Cars (1980)
As a film lover, I’ve sat through so many disappointing commentary tracks that, when I come across one that’s actually fun and informative, it causes me to like the film even more. One of the best commentary tracks that I’ve ever heard was the one that Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell recorded for the DVD release of the 1980 comedy Used Cars.
The film — which was an early credit for both director Zemeckis and screenwriter Gale — tells the story of two rival used car lots. The bad guy car lot is owned by Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden). The good guy car lot is owned by Roy’s brother, Luke Fuchs (also played by Jack Warden). The top salesman at the good guy car lot is Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell). The film shows what happens when Luke dies and Rudy tries to prevent Roy from taking over the lot.
The commentary track is distinguished by just how much Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell seem to truly enjoy watching and talking about the film. Kurt Russell, in particular, has an incredibly engaging laugh and his sense of fun is contagious. However, for me, the most interesting part of the commentary track came when Bob Gale explicitly compared Rudy Russo and Luke’s daughter (played by Deborah Harmon) to Bill and Hillary Clinton and then even starts to do a surprisingly good imitation of Bill’s hoarse Arkansas accent.
What made it interesting was that the comparison was absolutely correct.
Politicians are salesmen. Much as politicians will say anything to get your vote, the salesmen in Used Cars will say and do anything to get your money. Politicians sell promises that are too good to be true. Rudy Russo and Roy L. Fuchs do the same thing, claiming that their used cars are just as good and safe as a car that’s never been owned before.
In fact, one of the major plotlines in Used Cars is that Rudy is plotting to make the move from selling cars to buying votes. There’s a vacancy in the state senate and Rudy is planning on running for the seat. All he has to do is come up with the $10,000 necessary to buy the nomination from the local political machine. (I imagine it would be more expensive to buy a nomination today.) Luke agrees to loan Rudy the money but, before he can, Luke goes on a test drive with a former race car driver.
The driver works for Luke’s evil brother, Roy. Roy knows that Luke has a heart condition and he specifically sends over that driver to give Luke a fatal heart attack. Just as Rudy is trying to sell a car to a costumer who is skeptical about whether or not he should pay an extra fifty dollar for something he doesn’t want (“$50.00 never killed anyone!” the customer insists), Luke staggers into the office and dies.
(The shocked customer agrees to pay the extra fifty dollars. Ever the salesman, Luke grabs the fifty before he dies.)
With Luke dead and his estranged daughter nowhere to be seen, Roy is next-in-line to take over Luke’s car lot. So, Rudy hides the body and tells everyone that Luke is down in Florida. Both he and his fellow salesman, the hilariously superstitious Jeff (Gerrit Graham), conspire to make as much money as possible before anyone discovers the truth.
How do they do it? Illegally, of course!
First off, they break into the broadcast of a football game and do an ad. Then, they use strippers to attract customers. And finally, Rudy comes up with his master plan, interrupting a televised address from the President of the United States.
“You can’t fuck with the President!” Jeff says.
“Hey, he fucks with us…” Rudy responds.
Seriously, I love Rudy.
In fact, I really liked Used Cars. It’s a good combination of broad humor and clever satire and both Kurt Russell and Gerrit Graham give such likable performances that you can ignore the fact that they’re both playing total jerks. (In fact, I would argue that one reason that we love Rudy is because he’s so honest about being so crooked.) Not every scene worked perfectly. The scene where Rudy and Jeff interrupt that football game goes on forever and, after a spokesmodel’s dress is ripped off, becomes so uncomfortable to watch that it actually takes the film a while to recover. But then, after that, you get the interruption of the President’s speech. You get Jeff freaking out over whether or not red cars or unlucky. You get some fun driving school humor. And, of course, you get a cute dog that can do tricks and helps to sell cars. The film recovers and, ultimately, Used Cars is a celebration of small businesses everywhere.
And you know what?
I really hope Rudy did make it into the state senate.
We need more Rudy Russos in government.
And we really need more commentary tracks featuring Kurt Russell!