Utopia (1951)

I picked up a dirt cheap, used DVD copy of the Laurel & Hardy comedy Utopia (aka Atoll K, aka Robinson Crusoeland) thinking it’d likely be as good of an introduction to the comedy duo’s 23 film catalog as any. I’ve done my best to catch up with comedy staples like Charlie Chaplin and Abbott & Costello over the years,  but somehow the filmography of Laurel & Hardy has always escaped me. This was an ill-advised point of entry as an outsider, as it turns out that Utopia was the final film in Laurel & Hardy’s catalog, a misfire that put an end to their career. It’s difficult to even know which version of the film is the definitive one, since they’re are four separate cuts with four different runtimes, none of which were positively received. Filmed in Europe with a blacklisted American director years after the comedy duo’s heyday, Utopia was engineered to function entirely as last gasp cash grab. It was anything but. The shoot was supposed to take twelve weeks, but instead lasted an entire year, dragging out any chance to make a quick buck off the shriveling Laurel & Hardy legacy before it disappeared entirely, with no chance to financially succeed. You can feel that labor in every dull frame of the picture too; it plays more like a hostage video than a slapstick comedy.

The main problem with Utopia is that it works way too hard for way too long to establish what should be a simple premise. Laurel & Hardy inherit a rickety yacht & an uncharted island from a deceased uncle, where they intend to establish a paradisal version of Mortville to ease their economic troubles. It takes an absolute eternity for them to reach that goal, as the movie wastes tons of time in unnecessarily expensive sight gags suffered by their traveling ship for more than half the runtime. It takes a solid 40 minutes for the plot to fully set up Laurel & Hardy alone in the island with two other dirty men & one beautiful lady. It takes a full hour before that crew decides to establish their own country, Crusoeland. That only leaves 20 minutes for the film’s basic premise to play itself out, which really wouldn’t be a problem if the lead-up were shorter or less labored. I was simply too exhausted by Utopia’s narrative mechanics of setting up the political follies of a small island country to be amused by the inhabitants of that island treating a lobster like a pet dog or trying to pile into a single bed. Instead of achieving the knee-slapping energy of a light-hearted farce, Utopia presents a frustrating existential crisis where everyone from the (multiple!) directors to the actors to the audience has to work way too hard for laughs that never arrive or feel worth the effort.

As poor of a Laurel & Hardy introduction as Utopia turned out to be, it at least thematically clued me in on some of the duo’s charms. They way they function like a married couple (“Don’t I always take care of you? You’re the first one I think of.”) and turn their dire economic peril into (sometimes literal) gallows humor is endearing, at least. I can also get behind their central goal to establish a country with “no passports, no prisoners, no taxes, no laws, and no murder.” It’s a shame that those sentiments are buried under a film so visibly tired & directionless. Every potential is wasted, from Laurel & Hardy’s vaudevillian energy to the absence of a performance from French singer Suzy Declare, the only female performer of note onscreen. By the time previously absent narration intrudes halfway through the runtime to summarize the young country’s efforts to tame the island they inhabit the whole thing feels like a mess that should have been cancelled the first month it fell behind schedule. No one steering the ship wanted to be there and I didn’t want to be watching them go through the motions, especially not as a first time audience for an iconic comedy duo I’ve never witnessed in their prime.

-Brandon Ledet

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