Watching this almost back to back with Postal (completely coincidentally, by the way) is interesting. They’re both rather structureless comedies that aim for constant funnies, but one succeeds rather well where the other fails utterly and miserably. They’re both anarchic in spirit, but one is made by a witless idiot while the other is made by a technically expert creative. Anyway…just for the record, this review is based on the longer special edition, which is a full half hour longer than the original theatrical cut
Japan has just bombed Pearl Harbor and the people of Southern California are besides themselves with worry. Some prepare for a land invasion by taking out old shotguns and cleaning them. Others sit atop Ferris Wheels to inspect the waters off the coast. Others concern themselves fully with a jitterbug contest that could get them a seven year deal from RKO. Wally couldn’t care less about the war or the men signing up for the effort, because he’s going to win his girl’s heart and steal her away from her father by winning that contest. He’s so committed, that he dances throughout his shift at a trashy little diner where he works, getting into a fight with Treat, an army captain, by getting a bit of egg on his jacket. Fired, without any money, and sans sweet zoot suit for the night, he goes into a department store and cranks up an air raid signal to inspire panic and get out with the suit he’s trying on without paying.
Meanwhile, Major General Stilwell is trying to use his post has head of the army in the area to calm the people down. His aide, Captain Loomis, is far more concerned with getting lucky with the general’s new secretary, Donna. The only way she’ll got that far with a guy, though, is by going in an airplane into the air. He got kicked out of the air corps after a couple of days, but that’s not going to get between him and his time with the goddess (probably the best Nancy Allen ever looked, to be honest).
There also is a Japanese submarine just off the coast, captained by Mitamura with the Nazi Captain Kleinschmidt along to observe. Mitamura’s objective is to hit America right after Pearl Harbor and strike fear, so he chooses to land an attack on Hollywood, except their compass broke and they don’t know where they are. They send a group of ninja trained sailors on shore to kidnap Slim Pickens who won’t give up any information, going so far as to swallow a compass taken from a Cracker Jack box they found on his person.
Through all of this is Captain Wild Bill Kelso, a pilot in the air corps that’s intent on finding a group of Japanese Mitsubishi planes he knows are flying over American airspace (there aren’t).
There’s a lot going on, following a lot of characters, and I find it all rather delirious in some of the best ways. I would have been happier with a cleaner movie overall, but then it would have lost its anarchic appeal. Would we have gotten the magnificent jitterbug dance competition that morphs into a fist fight and then into a giant riot between all three branches of the military and the zoot suiters? All while General Stilwell was sitting across the street in a theater tearfully and joyously enjoying Dumbo? Seriously, this is one of the most purely entertaining spectacles Spielberg ever made, and I don’t think it would have happened if the movie was more straightforward.
No, this movie is special. It’s manic and chaotic, but I never felt overwhelmed or lost. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It’s really a Frankenstein’s monster of four different visions (Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and John Milius), but they gel rather well into one bulging at the seams whole. It spills out in every direction, cheerfully desperate to entertain. I really enjoyed this movie, and I look forward to revisiting it in years to come.