The Party

The PartySynopsis: Hollywood mogul Fred Clutter buck isn’t just giving a party, he’s giving The Party. Absolutely everyone who’s anyone will be there: gorgeous models, ravishing starlets, powerful producers – even a baby elephant! And by mistaken invitation, accident-prone Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi (Peter Sellers) will be there, too. He wouldn’t miss it for the world… and if you enjoy “side-splitting gags” (Leonard Maltin) and “break-neck action” (Boxoffice), neither should you!

This uproariously funny send-up of tinseltown snobbery pairs the trademark antics of Sellers with shrewd comic timing from director/producer/co-writer (together with Tom and Frank Waldman) Blake Edwards. If you’re looking for a good time… come to The Party!

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The Party 6.75

eyelights: the overall vibe.
eyesores: the foreigner as a joke. Sellers’ slapstick.

“Birdy num num.”

‘The Party’ is a collaboration between Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers, their third following the extremely successful ‘The Pink Panther’ and the genius ‘A Shot in the Dark’. Released in April 1968, it is considered a comedy classic by many and is frequently referred to, along with Inspector Clouseau, as one of Sellers’ most iconic performances.

In the mid-’90s , when I started exploring Peter Sellers’ oeuvre, this was one of the first pictures on my list. I bought it as a gift for one of my best friends, who was equally interested by Sellers. We made a point of watching it together. Frankly, I have rarely been so disappointed as I was that day: my expectations unmet, I barely laughed at all.

The fact is that I found the humour far too corny. But, mostly, I was offended by the caricature that Sellers played.

For reasons that escape me still, Edwards and Sellers thought it would be funny to make their lead an Indian who finds his way into a high society party and naively bumbles his way through the evening, annoying the hosts and guests (who are too “polite” to show their dismay) in the process. I hated seeing this nice guy be the butt end of the jokes, especially since it all hinges on him being a foreigner.

I hate to be uptight about it, but, to me, this was (is?) racist. And I just couldn’t get beyond this aspect. Would it have been considered funny if he was just a bumbling Caucasian? No. It’s supposedly funny because, being from India, Hrundi V. Bakshi is meant to be a fish out of water – out of place, and out of step with everything. And that translates as “comedy”.

The fact that he is played in “brownface” by a Caucasian only adds to the impression that this is an inherently racist picture. Had Hrundi been played by an actual Indian, then perhaps we could excuse the film by saying that, had been demeaning to his race, he wouldn’t be doing it. But when he’s the only non-Caucasian in the whole picture and he’s played by one, you have to wonder.

Look, being from another country doesn’t make one unable to adapt to new environments, it doesn’t make one corny and out of step, and it certainly doesn’t make one a bumbling simpleton. There is absolutely no reason why being Indian should make him a fish out of water, and there’s no justification for the filmmakers making that assumption and making him the target of ridicule.

Perhaps my attitude stems from having lived my whole life in a multicultural environment; as far as I can remember, I’ve always been surrounded by people of myriad cultural origins. Although it’s easy to buy into the stereotypes promulgated by the media and through general ignorance, I’ve tried very hard to see people as people. Sure, there are cultural chasms, but there is an inherent respect.

And so it is that ‘The Party’ landed with a thud that day.

A friend of mine, who is of Indian origin, told me that her parents found ‘The Party’ hilarious. They were not offended one bit by the fact that Hrundi is basically the joke of the movie. Not one bit. This may be partly due to the fact that Indian characters were rarely found in North American culture at the time (or now, really), so almost any representation was welcome.

I understand that. The same thing happened to me with ‘The World’s End‘. Sure, the “goth” guy is a loser and a drunk, but I was so thrilled to find a character with whom I could connect on this superficial level that I ignored his foibles. All I could think was: “This is exactly the person that I would have looked like and become if I drank. He’s like me but from an alternate reality; he’s my drunk doppelgänger.”

In any case, I’ve given ‘The Party’ many chances over the years; I had the VHS and I eventually bought the DVD and have watched it 2-3 times. Sadly, it still bothers me that Hrundi is meant to be laughed at because he’s the “silly” foreigner. It offended me slightly less this time around, mind you, having adjusted my expectations, but it still nagged at me to some degree.

Another unpalatable aspect of the humour is its dependency on alcoholism to provide the laughs: there’s a waiter at the party who keeps sneaking drinks and ends up totally sloshed out of his mind (there was a time when alcoholism was funny, apparently). The problem is that he is allowed to continue serving guests well after it’s clear that he’s incapacitated and is making a mess of everything.

Funny.

I did laugh a few times, but there is a tremendous flaw in the picture: the laughs are contingent on the audience ignoring the fact that there’s no way the gags would take place as shown, if at all. When Hrundi wipes a painting that he wet by mistake, it wouldn’t smudge. When the kids start washing the elephant that they brought to the party (don’t ask), the whole place wouldn’t fill with soap bubbles.

This is obvious right from the start, when we are introduced Hrundi for the first time: he is an all-too-eager actor brought in from India. He is supposed to enact a death scene, but he just won’t die, milking it for all he’s worth. The problem is that we aren’t told that this is supposed to be a movie-within-a-movie, so it comes off as just a wacky, nonsensical, action scene.

But then we discover it’s a movie set, and the other actors start shooting at him. It doesn’t make any sense that he is being shot at by his own people, unless it’s part of the movie they’re making – ’cause otherwise, they’re all shooting blanks at him (plus which he wouldn’t have been rigged with squibs). Except that this wouldn’t make sense in the movie-inside-a-movie; they would just stop filming.

Then there’s the moment when he blows up the fort by resting his foot on a detonator. Firstly, no one would lift their foot so high as to rest on the handle like that; it’s far too awkward for that. Secondly, the sequence was so predictable, and really poorly set-up; it’s basically a clumsy cartoon gag that’s so obvious and trite that it’s not funny in any way.

In fact, Sellers’ comic timing is not nearly as sharp here as it has been in other films; his physical comedy is a bit overdone, and too slapsticky at times. For instance, when he gets out of his car (a silly model that only a foreigner would drive), he keeps hurting himself. But we don’t know how or why given that he’s only maneuvering between two cramped cars; he seems to react violently for no apparent reason.

I did enjoy one aspect of the character, though: for all his pseudo-naiveté and maladroitness, I liked how he got embarrassed by his missteps and awkwardly tried to cover them up, frequently rushing to the other end of the room so no one would think he was linked to the blunder. Granted, it was impossible for him to travel that distance in so little time, but I like the idea – it made him human.

I also really enjoyed the absurd bits, like the gag with the shoe flying into the kitchen and onto the hors d’oeuvres platter – which a distracted waiter would offer to the party guests. It was silly but I loved seeing everyone so involved in what they were doing, smugly dismissing the waiter without noticing the shoe. It’s an exaggeration of a sight often seen at these gatherings, so it made me chuckle.

I also enjoyed the set, which represented an elaborate and extravagant pad that only the stinking rich can afford. If this were a real house, which it isn’t,  it would be super expensive: it features a huge kitchen, remote-controlled moving bar, retractable floor, a large pool, a control panel for all sorts of household functions, a small stream, and ceiling-to-floor windows separating it from the spacious backyard.

Impressive. Expensive.

But the film isn’t nearly as memorable. Based on a 63-page script and largely improvised, it feels sloppy, not carefully thought-out. By the film’s end, which devolves in an out-of-control party (as they only depicted them in the ’60s. Crazy, man, crazy…) we get the impression that they’re out of ideas – as evidenced by Hrundi dropping a girl off at her home and leaving.

..with no final laugh, gimmick, nothing.

It still baffles me that ‘The Party’ is so dearly loved by so many people. To me, it’s an okay, but largely forgettable, picture. Admittedly, I found 4-5 really good laughs in it this time (an improvement for sure), and I certainly didn’t groan nearly as much either. Is it due to adjusted expectations, or ambivalence? I don’t know. But it still doesn’t make it a classic in my mind.

Nor is it anywhere near the top of either Sellers or Edwards’ achievements.

Date of viewing: July 6, 2014

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