Picks and Pans Review: Popeye

“What am I?” chants Robin Williams, the squinty-eyed sailor man in Robert Altman’s musical version of the durable E.C. Segar comic strip. Williams has an idea, so do Altman, screenwriter Jules Feiffer and composer Harry Nilsson. Unfortunately, no two of them have the same idea. As a result, Popeye is a mess, even if it’s often charming. The real spinach is Shelley Duvall’s performance as the spindly Olive Oyl. Whether snappish or swoony, as in her rapturously funny He Needs Me number, Duvall hits the right notes. That can’t be said for Nilsson’s dull-to-derivative score, with tunes memorable only for lyrics consisting of endlessly repeated titles (He’s Large, I’m Mean, I Yam What I Yam). The other magical performer is Wesley Ivan Hurt (Altman’s 23-month-old grandson) as the ever-smiling “orphink Swee’pea.” He doesn’t just steal scenes from veterans like Ray Walston and Paul Dooley; it’s grand larceny. Williams takes longer to get rolling. There’s his Mork TV image to overcome, not to mention the weight of bulbous latex-and-foam-rubber forearms. Williams does finish in full vigor, though, and the movie picks up in its second half when Altman’s “morality tale” subtext gives way to fun for the devil of it. (PG)

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