A Movie A Day #20: First Family (1980, directed by Buck Henry)


first-familyLike any newly inaugurated President, Manfred Link (Bob Newhart) faces many new challenges.  The biggest challenge, though, is keeping control of his family and his White House staff.  His wife (Madeline Kahn) is an alcoholic.  His 28 year-old daughter (Gilda Radner) is so desperate to finally lose her virginity that she is constantly trying to sneak out of the White House.  General Dumpson (Rip Torn) wants to start a war.  Press Secretary Bunthorne (Richard Benjamin), Ambassador Spender (Harvey Korman), and Presidential Assistant Feebleman (Fred Willard) struggle and often fail to convince everyone that all is well.

President Link needs to form an alliance with the African country of Upper Gorm, a country that speaks a language that only one man in America, Prof. Alexaner Grade (Austin Pendleton), can understand.  The President of Upper Gorm (John Hancock) orders that the kidnapping of Link’s daughter.  Holding her hostage, he demands that Link send him several white Americans so that the citizens of Upper Gorm can know what it is like to have a minority to oppress.

First Family not only featured a cast of comedy all-stars but it was also directed by one of the funniest men in history, Buck Henry.  So, why isn’t First Family funnier?  There are a few amusing scenes and Newhart can make a pause hilarious but, for the most part, First Family feels like an episode from one of Saturday Night Live‘s lesser seasons.  Reportedly, Henry’s first cut of First Family tested badly and Warner Bros. demanded that certain scenes, including the ending, be reshot.  Perhaps that explains why First Family feels more like a sitcom than a satire conceived by the man who wrote the script for The Graduate and whose off-center perspective made him one of the most popular hosts during Saturday Night Live‘s first five seasons.  Famously, during one SNL hosting gig, Henry’s head was accidentally sliced open by John Belushi’s samurai sword.  Without missing a beat, Henry finished up the sketch and performed the rest of the show with a band-aid prominently displayed on his forehead.  Unfortunately, there’s little sign of that Buck Henry in First Family.

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