In Cadillac Man, Robin Williams plays Joey O’Brien, a used-car salesman in Queens who never, ever stops hustling. Joey will pull up alongside a stalled funeral procession if he thinks he can make a sale; he’ll even help load the coffin. As the movie opens, this smooth-as-silk pitchman is being pulled in five directions at once. He hasan ex-wife (Pamela Reed) who keeps nudging him for more money, a teenage daughter who stays out all night, and two clinging girlfriends whose names he can’t even keep straight. In addition, he owes 20 grand to a mobster — and unless he can sell a dozen cars within a day, he’s going to be fired.
Can you guess what happens next? If you’ve seen the movie’s ads (the ones that picture Robin on the car lot beaming a sleazy grin with the line, ”If you can’t trust a car salesman, who can you trust?”), you probably think Joey pulls out all the stops peddling cars. It’s a New York-huckster Good Morning, Vietnam, right? Not quite.
Just as we’re primed for another Robin Williams one-man show, an out-of- work airline mechanic named Larry (Tim Robbins) smashes through the window of the car showroom on his motorcycle and fires an AK-47 into the ceiling for about three minutes. Larry is teed off: He knows his wife (Annabella Sciorra), the showroom’s luscious young secretary, has been fooling around with one of the salesmen, and damned if he’s going to let them get away with it.
To find out who the guilty party is, he holds everybody in the place hostage. It’s up to Joey to make a sales pitch — to trick, coddle, and sweet-talk this unhinged kid out of his jealous funk. And that’s the entire film. No Cadillacs, no ingenious used-car swindles, no Robin Williams motor-mouth routine. The movie is an anomaly — a friendly gloss on Dog Day Afternoon.
Cadillac Man is mildly amusing. Maybe we can’t expect Williams to keep doing variations on the rapid-fire brain-scan routines he’s an absolute genius at. After all, even comedians with minds like remote-control channel changers have a right to relax. Williams is charming here, if a bit calmer than usual. And Robbins, with his beguiling baby face, plays Larry as a likably dazed New Jersey prole. Robbins has perfected a style of innocent dementia — he’s lost in his own sweet fog.
If Cadillac Man feels a little thin, that’s because it’s barely a movie: It’s just one pressure-cooker situation stretched out to feature length. There are some chuckles along the way, but the material would have worked equally well, if not better, on Saturday Night Live or Barney Miller.
The film reveals Joey as a two-faced, womanizing heel, yet it gets you rooting for him all the same. It’s easy to sympathize with someone in financial hot water, and Joey’s economic desperation is played for frantic laughs. Director Roger Donaldson, who went off the deep end with Cocktail, seems to be trying to pull himself back, especially in a witty and deftly staged sequence in which Joey tries to juggle four customers simultaneously.
But once Larry bursts into the showroom, Cadillac Man contracts. Instead of a fast-talking character comedy, we get a one-joke atmosphere of violent instability. As appealing as Robbins is, he’s really playing a screenwriter’s concoction: a harmless, goofball maniac. Every 10 minutes or so, he takes out his gun and starts firing, and everyone ducks under the nearest desk; that’s one of the film’s typically raucous running gags. All the while, Joey is pretending he’s the guy who fooled around with Larry’s wife. This is justa negotiating ploy, a way of diverting Larry’s attention from the other hostages. Joey works his huckster magic, and before long the two men have, you know, bonded.
Cadillac Man wants to have it both ways: to revel in the sheer, amoral thrill of salesmanship and to turn Robin Williams into a big-hearted good guy. And so the movie, though plenty lively, has no satiric edge. In some ways, it’s not even as funny as Dog Day Afternoon, which was essentially a drama yet had moments of volatile humor that erupted right out of the precarious Brooklyn showdown between cops and fumbling bank robbers. The movie provoked laughter precisely because there was something at stake. Cadillac Man, like the recent I Love You to Death, starts out as comedy on a human scale and turns into canned farce. For an actor like Robin Williams, that’s the movie equivalent of being muzzled.