The central conflict might sound more like the material for a tragedy, but Carl Reiner’s 1970 film is definitely a comedy, albeit one that cuts very close to the bone.
Where’s Poppa? is a comedy of the blackest hue, set it a world so absurd that the best way to live in it is to be a little crazy yourself. The central conflict—the desire of a dutiful son to be rid of his aging mother—might sound more like the material for a tragedy, but Carl Reiner’s 1970 film is definitely a comedy, albeit one that cuts very close to the bone. It’s no accident that flirting with tragedy is often part of the funniest comedy: First, your anxiety is triggered with thoughts too horrifying to be expressed; then, the tension is released with a comic resolution, and you laugh all the harder because you are so relieved to be let off the hook.
Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) is a good-looking guy with a professional job (he’s a lawyer) and a pleasant manner, so he should be a nice catch for some lucky girl. Goodness knows he wants to be caught, but there’s one thing standing in his way: his mother. Mrs. Hocheiser (Ruth Gordon) is 87 years old, widowed, and not playing with a full deck; the title refers to the fact that she keeps asking about her deceased husband, whom she believes is still alive. Mrs. Hocheiser may be a bit confused mentally, but physically she’s as strong as a horse. To Gordon, that’s a problem, because he made a deathbed promise to his father that he would never place her in a home. So he continues to sleep on a twin bed in his childhood bedroom and tend to his mother, as a proper son should, while at the same time trying to live like a normal adult in the world outside the Hocheiser apartment.
Mrs. Hocheiser may not be all there, but she still knows what’s what. When Gordon tries to frighten her to death by bursting into her bedroom dressed like a gorilla, she first punches him in the balls, then breaks into giggles and calls him a “silly boy” who, she assumes, is just trying to cheer her up. She might be crazy like a fox, but she’s still his mother, and so Gordon takes refuge Walter Mitty–like fantasies—in one sequence, he imagines killing his mother and framing a dog for it—while continuing to do what needs to be done in the real world.
Gordon sees another opportunity to usher his mother into the next world when Louise Callan (Trish Van Devere) applies for a position as a home health aide (Mrs. Hocheiser has driven off quite a few aides already). She doesn’t have references and admits that most of her patients die, which sounds ideal to him. She’s also beautiful, and he instantly pictures her in a white bridal gown. Before you know it, they’re getting busy in his bedroom, only to be interrupted by Mrs. Hocheiser, who proceeds to describe her son’s genitals in an uncomplimentary fashion and then fall asleep, face first, in a pile of mashed potatoes.
Where’s Poppa? is a real New York City film, where even nice apartments can feel a bit cramped and worn, muggers (including a young Garrett Morris) like to show off their knowledge of classic movies, and encountering a naked man in the elevator is not a particularly noteworthy event. It’s also a city where everyone drives everyone else crazy, so that wives say things like, “You go to your brother’s apartment tonight, you take your bed with you,” and Mrs. Hocheiser openly favors the son (Ron Liebman) who is not devoting his life to taking care of her. Above all, it’s a city where life is just not fair—as exemplified by a scene is which a cabby would rather pick up a guy in a gorilla suit rather than an impeccably dressed black woman.
Where’s Poppa? is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The film looks and sounds great, but the extras package is skimpy—just an alternate ending (worth seeing because it’s even more transgressive than the rest of the movie), two teasers, and the original theatrical trailer. | Sarah Boslaugh