Martin Mull - Serial (1980) & Rented Lips (Robert Downey, Sr.)
Martin Mull, the comedic persona, plays best the sardonic professional whose common sense is tyrannized by an unruly, nonsensical world. In Serial that world is the New-Age ethos turning everyone into Esalen zombies; in Rented Lips it is Hollywood, a stand-in for all forces that apparently stifle creative expression. Mull does not countenance idealism and his call for order is not puritan or status quo. His characters are ever quicker than the audience, and no matter how self-deprecating or schlubby, he always has a smart-ass line that, even if it isn't his cleverest you want to laugh because it is Martin Mull saying it, from just below the tawny primmed mustache and professorially deadpan eyes, like a fed-up Roast-master. Much of Mull's schtick is derived from his starring TV turn on Fernwood 2 Night, as campy and haughty wide-collared talk show host Barth Gimble. He has a rich pedigree as a supporting character in 80s comedies, like the smarmy prick boss in Mr. Mom - and in TV, having showed up on the likes of transgressive sitcoms Dream-On (1990) and Get A Life (1990). Mull’s way is the believable weirdo with a bit of dimension: Pat Coletti, the millionaire next-door neighbor in OC & Stiggs (1985, R. Altman) who, when asked “What do you do?” answers, "Basically, I drink;" or Gene Parmesan, the abject master of disguise on Arrested Development (2004). This author has yet to view Mull’s performance as Colonel Mustard in the Clue adaptation (1985), but it suits the man that he would enliven a boardgame character.
Serial unravels in Marin County, CA, at the aftermath of the Me Me Me Decade. Martin Mull, as Harvey Holroyd, is the straight guy whose life comes homeopathically crumbling down: daughter joins a psycho love cult; a silly affair with the sultry orgy-queen; the old-fashioned friend with whom Holroyd commutes by ferry to work that ends up on a debauched suicidal Quaaludes binge; Tuesday Weld, as Mrs. Holroyd, beholden to the coked-out pill-pushing Frederick Perlsesque shrink; and a gay biker club headed by closet CEO Christopher Lee a/k/a 'Skull.' The romp is well-tinged by the Lalo Schifrin cheeseball lite FM theme song, and the Catskills zinger-style comedy applies to an ultra-contemporary satire which, today, almost 30 years later, has removed the movie from the pop discourse in ways that no-brainers (though classics) like Caddyshack and Vacation have lingered in influence. Very rarely has Mull been given the star power with which he shines in Serial, with a most apt predicament of the loose and sunny sham 70s stiffening into the glitzy and shammier 80s.
In Rented Lips, Mull is Archie Powell, a loser who makes socially conscience documentaries and still lives with his mother. Shady investors agree to give Archie money to make his dream movie about Native American farming, on the condition that he also make a porno flick, and the hack actors involved will star in both productions. It is a problem for the movie that there is never any sex. A Mull fan would expect prodigiously smart and smutty gags upon such a premise, but a whole swath of pertinent trashy gags is lost. Instead, the movie does The Producers vein: silly musical numbers with Navajo and Nazi costumes set to a score by Van Dyke Parks. The script is credited solely to Martin Mull – perhaps the calamity in the movie apes its own making. The principled Artist stands for the purity of his Art within the shackles of an unfair and cruel system. It's the actor's territory surely but not one for the Mull canon.