More TV Turkey Slices

Car 54, Where Are You? Good lord, it's Toronto!

Published: Oct 13 2013, 01:01:am

Sunday, January 30, 1994
CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? Written by Erik Tarloff, Ebbe Roe Smith, Peter McCarthy and Peter Crabbe. Based on the TV series created and produced by Nat Hiken [NBC-TV, 1961-63]. Music by Pray for Rain, Bernie Worrell. Directed by Bill Fishman. Running time: 88 minutes. Rated Mature with the warning "occasional violence, nudity, suggestive scenes and very coarse language."

IF YOU LIKED Coneheads, loved The Beverly Hillbillies and just can't wait for The Flintstones, then you probably deserve Car 54, Where Are You?
     A comedic mess, director Bill (Tapeheads) Fishman's 1991 feature weds sixties silliness to eighties excess. The result is a dull, desperately dopey movie making a brief visit to local theatres before its inevitable video release .
     Another scatterbrained flashback to U.S. network television's addled adolescence, it recalls the granddaddy of police precinct sitcoms. Created by writer-director Nat (Sergeant Bilko) Hiken, NBC-TV's Car 54 preceded Bonanza for the two seasons that coincided with the Kennedy presidency.
     In it, 53rd Precinct patrol car officers Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) and Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne) served and protected the citizens of New York's Bronx Borough. The series worked a variation on the slapstick service humour that Hiken had perfected during his three seasons with The Phil Silvers Show.
     Fishman's picture relocates the 53rd to modern Brooklyn. When the veteran music-video director went on location in Toronto (home of the Police Academy films), he was determined to make a beat cop feature with a beat.
     Hey kids, on this round the well-meaning, if inept, Toody is played by David Johansen, better known as Buster Poindexter, lead singer of Saturday Night Live's Banshees of Blue.
Mr. Hot! Hot! Hot! is just one of the popstar performers on view. To keep your toes tapping, Fishman has packed in everyone from the Ramones to Tone Loc, from Mojo Nixon to The Amazing Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band.

     For film historians, we have octogenarian Al Lewis and the greying Nipsey Russell reprising their roles from the original series. Making her motion picture debut (as Toody's long-suffering wife Lucille) is Rosie O'Donnell.
     That last item serves to remind us that Car 54 was shot in 1990 for release in 1991. It was one of the features shelved when Orion pictures went bust.
     It might have been more merciful if Fishman's folly had gone direct to video. The big screen only magnifies the lack of inspiration in its committee-written screenplay.
As in a Police Academy episode, everything is obvious, overstated and overplayed. The storyline has doofus Toody assigned a new partner, a by-the-book ex-seminarian named Muldoon (John C. McGinley).

     A "new breed" cop, Muldoon instructs his fellow officers in the MADCOPP (Maximum Automated Deployment, Criminal Operations Police Procedure) computer system. Toody is determined to find the virginal Muldoon a girlfriend.
     In the meantime, they are told to hide yuppie Herbert Hortz (Jeremy Piven), a mob bookkeeper targeted for death by local godfather Don Motti (a spot-on DeNiro parody by David Baldwin).
     Despite a chuckle-worthy moment or two, Car 54, Where Are You is a film too busy being hip to be funny.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1994. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

AFTERWORD: In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I watched the TV show in the day, and can still sing the theme song (written by series creator Nate Hiken): There's a holdup in the Bronx / Brooklyn's broken out in fights / There's a traffic jam in Harlem / That's backed up to Jackson Heights / There's a scout troop short a child / Khruschev's due at Idlewild / Car 54, Where Are You? (For those too young to remember, Nikita Khruschev was the Soviet Premier until 1964, and Idlewild was New York's International airport; it was renamed JFK in late 1963.) The lyrics tell us a great deal about the public perception of the role of the police in the community during the show's run. The acronym SWAT had yet to be created and the surveillance state was still an idea in a book called 1984. Simpler times.

THANKSGIVING TURKEY LINKS: The Addams Family (1991);  Coneheads (1993); The Flintstones (1994); The Nude Bomb (1980).