[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
The Big Bus is no movie to slap down first-run admission prices for, but if it turns up on a double bill with another halfway-enticing film, plan to give it a chance. I’d like to pretend it’s a better movie than it is, because most of the notices I’ve read have taken it to task unduly: its failings aren’t gross and its modest pleasures are so far superior to the general run this slummy summer season that I feel very kindly toward it. The worst thing about the film is a pantingly insistent—and quite superfluous—foreword that wants us to know we’re watching a sendup of disaster pictures. And if sending up disaster pictures is a little like putting rosy contact lenses on an albino, well, all right, maybe there are better ways of expending money and talent. But James Frawley is an intelligent director who’s had precious few chances to exercise his talent: even with post-release prodding from the Lincoln Center Film Festival, Kid Blue never achieved better than cult standing, and the earlier The Christian Licorice Store remains on a shelf somewhere.
That talent is quietly, observably at work in The Big Bus, and it’s made a bigger difference than, say, audiences who’ve bought disaster pictures straight may be prepared to appreciate. Usually when some moviemakers set out to spoof a cliché-ridden concept, they lay on the caricatures with a trowel, write dialogue so broad that any wit spreads out and evaporates under the lights instantly, and appliqué a klaxon-style music track overall so we can’t miss where the belly laughs are supposed to be. There are few belly laughs in The Big Bus, but a generous supply of chuckles and smilies. A good many of these work because—exist because—somebody with a sense of visual style and convention is behind the camera. We don’t get inflated effects here that break down under the weight of their own laboriousness; Frawley knows both the power of exposition and that of implication inherent in a crane, a track, a symmetrical frame, a low angle, a high angle; chances are he remembers a specific instance when a particular setup was used in an earlier, straight spectacular. (The direction of the Big Bus’s emergence from its “hangar” into the light of day—and its first sighting onscreen—recalls, kids, and builds on some spacecraft maneuvers in 2001 with greater wit and precision than the “Also sprach Zarathustra” theme on the soundtrack.)
Most of the time he also resists the temptation (customarily given in to, even embraced, by other directors in a similar situation) to protract an incident beyond its limited comic potential, whether the comic rationale be to push an idea to absurdity (an incompetent physician so determined his patient can’t be moved that he sets up hospital screens around him—in a parking lot—and forces him to stay there, in the rain yet) or simply to substitute a ludicrously inappropriate yet logical one-to-one surrogate for some generic convention (a group of bus drivers ritualistically ostracizing a dishonored colleague by clicking their ticket punches and changemakers at him in unison; an outnumbered combatant in a saloon fight breaking the top of a milk carton against the bar). He is aided immeasurably by screenwriters Freeman and Cohen who, though parties to the lavishly inept S*P*Y*S, are better remembered for their work on another, shamelessly funny genre spoof, Start the Revolution without Me, and who do for disaster-film dialogue what they did for Hollywood-historic epigrams in that earlier movie. (A wishfully resonant argument about who knows more about the bitterness of life, between Richard Shull as a “terminal traveler” with only six months to live and Bob Dishy as an alcoholic vet who’s afraid to operate anymore, is a minor parodic gem.) The performers who come off best are those who play straightest, especially Bologna as the bus driver accused of having eaten 110 passengers during the Mount Diablo disaster and Stockard Channing as the scientist’s daughter and designer of the nuclear-powered superbus with whom he shares “a past.” It’d be nice to see The Big Bus in a small arthouse during the off-week between Wertmüllers, where a few hardy cinephiles might have a very pleasant time chuckling at touches like Frawley’s pseudo-poignant, corner-of-the-frame punctuation of key emotional scenes with artfully eloquent sails of newspaper that might have blown in from Touch of Evil. Nobody else is likely to care much.
THE BIG BUS
Direction: James Frawley. Screenplay: Fred Freeman, Lawrence B. Cohen. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr. Music: David Shire.
The players: Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck, René Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, Walter Brooke, Bob Dishy, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Harold Gould, Larry Hagman, Howard Hesseman, Sally Kellerman, Stuart Margolin, Richard Mulligan, Richard B. Shull.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson
A pdf of the original issue can be found here