It's good to be out of prison, thinks Dick Kanipsia (James Caan) as he sits on the train with his feet up, listening to his cellmate and buddy Harry Moss (Richard B. Shull) sing Happy Days Are Here Again at the top of his voice. However, not everyone is a ray of sunshine because the ticket collector orders Dick to put his feet down, a small reminder that some people are not as easygoing as he would like them to be. Anyway, they take a taxi from the station to the rundown cottage Hary has out in the middle of nowhere which will do until Dick finds a place of his own - hey, someone just shot Harry!
Director Howard Zieff was a groundbreaking advertising man before he turned to films, best known for putting more ethnic faces into commercials, so it was natural his talents would be called on for the movies, and the comedies he marked out as his territory. He ended that career with the decidedly safe My Girl movies, but there were signs thoughout that filmography of a distinctive view of humour, and they didn't come any more idiosyncratic than Slither, which he shot from W.D. Richter's script. Richter also became known as an individual Hollywood talent, screenwriting some interesting cult works before the success dried up.
In combination, you'll wish these two had worked together more, or you will if you find yourself on the same wavelength of this, which was not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Most of the reason some found themselves responding so well to the film where many others rejected it as being too stupid for its own good was that it deliberately subverted expectations. It was a crime thriller with a resolution that was determinedly anticlimactic, it was a road movie which never went anywhere in particular, and as a comedy the characters were so eccentric that if you didn't get why they were funny then it would all likely leave you cold, Zieff's amused observational style doing nothing for you.
On the other hand, tune into the mood of the piece and there was a lot here truly hilarious, and the fact that it wasn't going to play ball with the usual clichés distinguished it as very much of its decade where the rule book was being challenged and in this case torn into little bits and thrown over the filmmakers' shoulders. At the heart of this was a performance from Caan which mixed the rough and ready with the bemused which sounds like a combination which would not mesh at all, but the star kept it together with some flair. Dick is our guide through this world, or he would be if he had any idea of what was going on himself; as it was he knew he wanted the fortune in embezzled money Harry told him about with his dying breath before he blew up his house with dynamite.
Quite why he did that is unclear as he was expiring anyway, but this was the seventies and they loved their comedy of destruction during that era. Dick has two names to find now, and on the way he hitches a ride with zany Kitty Kopetzky (Sally Kellerman, just perfect) who tends to go off on spacey rambles he puts up with because he thinks he has a chance to sleep with her as well as getting that lift, at least until she holds up a diner and he makes good his escape. He tracks down the first name, Barry Fenaka (Peter Boyle, again ideal for this), who turns out to be a small time bandleader and can tell Dick more, such as the location of the other man, and so they embark on a journey with Barry's wife Mary (Louise Lasser) in the high-tech trailer home behind them. Nothing is as it seems here, yet it's not more sinister as those black vans tailing Dick indicate, it's simply more ridiculous with selected scenes a joy of absurdist character comedy - Alex Rocco with the ice cream, the bingo sequence - and a great score by Tom McIntosh.