' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Carl Reiner

Saturday, July 04, 2020

In Memoriam: Carl Reiner

Carl Reiner died on Monday at the age of 98. He was an entertainment legend who came up under the wing of Sid Caesar, created “The Dick Van Dyke” show, helped devise some of those classic early Steve Martin kooky comedies, including one with a cameo so brilliant this blog names its annual random came award after it, and appeared in the Ocean’s remakes, including the ingenious “Twelve” (2004), where his saying “You’re all aces in my book” is one of the myriad movie lines I sometimes say aloud to myself for no reason at all. But. Loyal frustrated followers know the place “Summer Rental” (1985) holds in this blog’s heart and has held since the day way back when I first watched it with my Mom and my Sister when my Dad, a teacher, was away for the State Debate Tournament in Council Bluffs. Carl Reiner directed “Summer Rental”, of course. I considered writing a few new words about it but then though, nah. I already wrote what I wanted to write about it five years ago. So here it is, slightly revised, again. Because I can think of no better way to say goodbye to Carl Reiner. RIP


The demarcation line in “Summer Rental” (1985) is a scene between Jack Chester (John Candy), an air traffic controller forced into an unsuccessful vacation, and Scully (Rip Torn), piratical proprietor of a mostly unpopulated restaurant/bar situated on a rundown schooner. “Do you know what it’s like to peak when you’re  eighteen?” Jack demands. At this point, Scully, a character who comes across so much like Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa that it is deliberately difficult to tell whether or not it’s all a gigantic put-on, assumes an entirely earnest expression, suggesting that inside this caricature lurks something very real. “Yes,” Scully says, “I do.” That solemnity in his voice makes you believe him. And so a movie that has, up until this point, been primarily slapstick metamorphoses into the sweet at-sea comeback of a middle-aged man finding his sea legs, evinced by Candy with simultaneous loud hilarity and quiet pathos as only he could, and giving the family he clearly loves a reason to buck up and feel proud.

I used to identify so much more with the first half of “Summer Rental.” I was raised, as I have said so many times before, on “Star Wars”, Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland adventures and John Candy comedies. “Summer Rental” was a cherished favorite of my mom, my sister and me. We rented it on VHS multiple times and never failed to chortle at the sight of a hapless Jack Chester cracking eggs on the dashboard of his car or seeing him shoo away a nosy kid that’s not his with a fly swatter.

But then, at that age I had no comprehension of what vacation meant. I enjoyed family vacations, don’t get me wrong, but as a worn-out, embattled parent might say, “What do you have to get away from?” Catching lightning bugs in jars? Staying up late to watch this strange David Letterman show on NBC? Listening to Q-102’s nightly Top 10 countdown? This endless assortment of gags in the first 45 minutes of director Carl Reiner’s comedy were comical to my youthful mind but I missed what they were intended to represent for people of, shall we say, a more advanced age.

The initial passages in “Summer Rental” revolve Jack’s professional burn out. Air traffic controller is a job ripe for burn out, of course, but that job could well have been anything, merely the means to demonstrate a middle-aged man worn down to the nub. And so the film, smartly establishing his exhaustion and then swiftly moving on, packs up Jack and his wife and daughter and son and sends them on a getaway to Citrus Cove, Florida. Of course, even there Jack can’t re-find his center. Jack gets sunburned. Jack breaks his leg. It’s supposed to be humorous but through the prism of age it’s terrifying, a blessed sabbatical revealing itself to be cursed.

What’s more, Reiner injects his easygoing comedy with distinct notes of class tension, gently deepening Jack’s plight. Our hapless vacationer eventually acquires a nemesis in the form of local sailor Al Pellet (Richard Crenna) whose omnipresent Captain’s hat, fancy yacht and reserved table at a hot-to-trot lobster restaurant that doesn’t take reservations transforms him into a snooty emblem of the rich & semi-famous. Jack, on other hand, symbolizes the fatigued working class, forced to re-locate, courtesy of a comical mix-up, from a nice place on Beach Lane to the proper shanty on Beach Road with his whole family sadly looking on. And when it turns out Pellet owns the shanty and threatens to jettison the Chester clan, Jack’s kids run off in disappointment, leaving their father genuinely hurt, a man trying to do his best who just can’t get it right.

That’s what makes the final forty minutes not so much funny as cathartic, as Jack challenges Pellet in the local regatta, and scrimps and scrawls with his wife and kids in tow, everyone pitching in and having fun, re-lighting a flame. It’s something so much more moving than any “Vacation” movie. They win the regatta, sure, they have to, and good for them, but Jack’s already made peace before the finish line and his family’s already come around to have a good time.

“The film,” Janet Maslin wrote in her original review for The New York Times, “doesn’t even have an ending; after the regatta is won, it simply stops.” She meant this as a criticism; I disagree. What’s the worst part of vacation? Why the post-vacation letdown, of course, and that letdown usually starts happening while the vacation remains in progress and its finish line has appeared on the horizon. “Summer Rental”, on the other hand, concludes at the pinnacle, in the midst of the emotional retreat’s finest hour, that transcendent place we all wish we could stay forever.

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