With a talented trio of Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers and an introduction of Woody Allen, it’s a genuine surprise that What’s New, Pussycat? tanks this badly and this quickly. The 1965 piece pools together an impressive cast of comedy greats and acting legends, yet everyone involved comes off as, at the very least, having an off day. But an off day cannot explain how awkward director Clive Donner’s work appears.
Allen’s writing has one or two golden moments of inspired comedy. A scene involving a steam room, alongside a handful of slapped together moments that make up the finale are the few scenes that evoke any real laughs. Even after watching the movie, I’m still not entirely sure why the finale is all that encapsulating considering all it does is bring a handful of cast members into one ridiculous area, throw in some completely random, new characters and then call it a day. Ending in a fracas akin to that of the lowest form of wit that you’d find in a Carry On… film, the charms of its exceedingly stupid ending are too little, too late.
You can see the vision here and there in these scenes, a comedy that could’ve been a true bit of slapstick and braindead humour if it weren’t so transfixed on making useless, broad sentiments in relation to love. If it weren’t for so many scenes that feel like nothing short of filler, What’s New, Pussycat? Would have some genuinely incredible energy to it. Instead, we get a mismatched panic of scenes that don’t necessarily fit with the tone or style on the whole.
There are awkward parallels between this and 8 ½ which is possibly the strangest of all references to pick on. A scene where Michael (O’Toole) is surrounded by the women he has and does love brings us that ever-impressive Fellini scene but without the depth or interesting characters to bring it together. Even donning the infamous hat and brandishing a black whip, the homage turns into an embarrassing mockery of one of the greatest films of all time. It’d have been a great attempt at picking apart such a scene if Allen’s writing could keep up with the overly slow pacing.
Switching between O’Toole and Sellers rather infrequently, the two are ill-suited to the stylings of Allen’s craft. Allen would go on later to prove that he is the best man to helm his own writing, but there are glimmers of hope within this, especially from his and O’Toole’s performance. O’Toole was a true veteran, and seeing him in one of his earliest works is always going to have its charms. It’s a true shame that he doesn’t manage to do all that much with his performance as the sex-addicted Michael James. To give credit where it is undoubtedly due, Michael has his scenes of charming sentimentality, but all of that is thrown away when half the time he’s presenting himself as a spiteful and annoying character.
Much of the issues surrounding the film can be boiled down to background controversy, scripting reworks against the dreams and ideas of a young comic rising through the rankings. While it may not be the main reason for What’s New, Pussycat?’s failings, it certainly can’t have helped. When I expected the film to have finally crawled to its end, there was still a half-hour left. It’s there that lies the problem. For a film with a near two hour running time, there’s barely enough substance for one hour. Forgettable scene followed by useless crossfades into the next revolting jolt of energy Sellers tries to bring, and then it’s back to another overused transition shot. At least Eureka has done a stunning job of remastering this, making for a visually enjoyable piece with a nice touch-up and reworking of the film on the whole.
Certainly worth picking up if you’re an ardent fan of Woody Allen, or you are a Peter O’Toole completist, What’s New, Pussycat? has only one memorable piece to it and it’s the overplayed Tom Jones title song. Unfunny, with only a few chuckle-worthy moments, any comedy that fails to make you laugh time after time is simply not worth watching, for me. Whether rolling in hysterics in the aisle (or in this case my chair), both are way off the horizon – prospects rather than reality. Simply put, in 2019 it doesn’t work as a comedy vehicle. The shock value of some of its scenes distract from the lack of substance, and therein lies the problem.