The 1972 film, Rivals, is horrible and inconceivably wrongheaded. One can easily imagine young Tommy Wiseau watching Rivals somewhere in Latveria, or wherever the hell that guy’s from, and saying, “This great movie! I can do that. I make movie for living, sure. Oh, hi, Mark.” It is so stunningly wretched that the Discordian in me wants to shine it up, recommend it highly, just to trick other people into watching it. However, on the off chance that Hell actually exists, I will not do that. Picture that scene.
“Welcome to Hell, brah! Why are you here?”
“I abused my position on a major pop culture website to suggest people watch Rivals.”
“Eternal damnation is too good for you.”
Rivals is the directorial debut of Krishna Shah, who brought us the acclaimed, award-nominated film, The River Niger. But he also directed Hard Rock Zombies, making it safe to say he has had a varied career in filmmaking. As the romantic leads, we get Joan Hackett, who is a fine performer that can elevate almost anything she’s in, and Robert Klein, the stand-up comedian who hosted my all-time favorite episode of Saturday Night Live. They should go together because opposites attract, but their chemistry is one of separation, like that bottle of olive oil and vinegar salad dressing you find in the back of your refrigerator. Klein plays a wacky free spirit who runs a New York tour specifically for New Yorkers. Don’t make me explain that. Hackett portrays an uptight art gallery owner, recently widowed, who is stepping back out into the dating world. Klein pesters her into going out with him and, since she cannot perceive the difference between obnoxious behavior and charm, she falls in love with him. There’s a problem, though. Her son, played by Scott Jacoby, is a loonball. He loves his momma way too much, and becomes determined to get Klein out of their lives permanently.
This is a great setup for a blistering psychological thriller, which is what the viewer is expecting. Well, get used to disappointment, kids, because this movie has the strongest identity crisis I’ve seen since Tawny Kitaen played with a Ouija board.
Certain scenes feel like old-school New York guerilla filmmaking, with a real Larry Cohen vibe, but they degrade into street theater silliness, devolving from Black Caesar into Billy Jack, minus Howard Hesseman. The music during those sequences is sour 70s pop gruel, the Mike Curb Congregation meets Mungo Jerry, with banjos and insipid lyrics like, “We’re gonna have a party! We’ll fly like a wild balloon!” I love old AM Gold, but this music made even my Bobby Goldsboro-seasoned ears burn.
The son is an experimental filmmaker, and in one sequence, he dresses his classmates up in full-head rubber masks. JFK. Nixon. Castro. Mao. He films them on the playground, going down the slide, playing leapfrog. If only our world leaders would just come together and play like children, the world could be at peace. I think that’s what that scene means. I don’t know.
Sometimes, the script almost careens into satire. These New York intelligentsia, raising their children to be smart instead of wise, working hoity-toity outside jobs, getting doctorates and whatnot. Hackett’s shrink tells her, “These kids belong to the media generation! If they seem more sexually aware, it’s because they are.” Nothing for it. That’s just how kids are these days. Real parenting never comes into the picture.
And let’s talk for a second about that sexual awareness. At one point, Klein leaves Hackett because of her bizarre relationship with her son. He stays gone for two weeks, sleeping in a graveyard, working on a serious bender. Finally, he breaks into their old apartment (because that’s where he used to live) and surprises Hackett. She tries to get him to leave peacefully, but instead he forces her to have sex with him until she takes him back. Let’s repeat that. He rapes her until she likes it.
Are you okay with this? Because I am not.
This extends to the kid, too. He manipulates his babysitter, played by original manager of the Backstreet Boys, Jeanne Tanzy Williams, into taking off her clothes and having an ultimately ineffective attempt at intercourse. This relationship is encouraged by her classmates, one of whom says, “I once kissed a boy who was eight, and let me tell you, he was some kisser!” Her character is maybe a freshman in high school, but Scott Jacoby is playing a sixth grader. He is ten years old. Now, I realize weird things happen to people as they mature that inform their sexual experience, but this is an intensely uncomfortable scene to watch.
This isn’t even mentioning the flashback scenes to when Jacoby was a toddler, which feature more baby penis than Superman: The Movie.
Everyone is terrible in this movie. Hackett acts with her hair, emoting more and enjoying it less. Klein tries hard to make something good happen here, but you can see him bristle against the constraints of the script, wanting to break out the one-liners. He’s a sad caged tiger. As the bad son, Jacoby is aggressively smarmy, and it feels like there’s nothing wrong with him that couldn’t be cured by taking him down a peg. No dessert for a week. No television. Make him watch his own godawful films.
If Rivals is a satire, it skewers nothing effectively. It can’t be a thriller, because it provides no suspense. If it’s supposed to be a New York movie, then it’s a highly stylized vision of the city that never existed, even in the Seventies. It’s not sexy, it’s not scary, it’s not a bit of fun to watch. It’s more of an endurance test than anything. This leads to a pertinent question: if Rivals is none of those things, then what exactly is it?
Rivals is a movie. It’s on Prime Video. You should watch it, if you love terrible things.
Now I’ve done it. See you in Hell.