The advertising satire Crazy People takes off from a nifty idea. Dudley Moore plays a burnt-out ad exec who comes up with the demented inspiration of creating ”totally honest” ad campaigns. His coworkers commit him to a mental institution, but the ads prove wildly successful, and Moore, aided by his fellow inmates (they’re the usual cuckoo’s nest of one-note goofballs), keeps churning out popular spots. He also falls for one of the inmates, played by the always-dazzling Daryl Hannah, who’s on hand to smile and take long walks through the woods with Dudley.
Moore’s first ad, for an unsexy car (”Volvo — Boxy, But Good!”), had me giggling. But the satire soon grows blurry and tame, and in a very revealing way. When Moore comes up with a Jaguar ad that promises outrageous erotic success to anyone who buys the car, the only thing he’s being brutally honest about is the sales pitch. (In this case, the truth-in-advertising gambit doesn’t apply to the product at all.) Yet the movie doesn’t differentiate: It draws no distinction between that Volvo spot (which is essentially true — that’s why it’s funny), the one for Jaguar (which lies, but in a blatant way), and an ad that has it both ways (e.g., a cigarette pitch that says you’ll get cancer, but with better cigarette flavor).
Much of this can be chalked up to simple ineptitude. As a comedy, Crazy People is repetitive and lightweight. It’s obvious the filmmakers came up with their one high concept and proved less adept at fleshing it out than the Saturday Night Live crew might have.
But something else is going on. By completely blurring — in its very satire — the line between products and sales pitches, the movie commits the same sin commercials do. It’s saying the sales pitch is the ultimate reality — that an advertisement that’s completely up-front about the way it’s conning you is being ”honest.”
Unlike Network (its obvious inspiration), Crazy People isn’t a protest against mass-market brainwashing. The movie is really a celebration of advertising. At the preview I attended, people exploded into laughter every time one of Moore’s ads came on. Yet what they were getting off on was the clever effectiveness of the ads; they were sharing in Moore’s huckster triumph. Crazy People’s blunt-edged satire may be aimed at Madison Avenue, but it ends up skewering a nation that is starting to think like Madison Avenue. The movie wants you to giggle and say, ”Yup, we sure are saps, aren’t we?”