Retro Review: Gus (1976)

Retro Review: Gus (1976)

Get ready for the big game by watching possibly the worst football movie ever made.

We put football flicks through their paces last year before the NFL’s crowning game. We looked at the highs and lows, but made one glaring omission. While we called out Disney’s pigskin fiasco, Gus, we didn’t really give it the thorough dressing down it deserves. Now, with the benefit of Disney+ inexplicably letting this monster out of the vault, we can really refresh our memories on why this comedy was such a tragedy.

Gus (1976)

Low-ranking football team The California Atoms are at a constant loss until they recruit a new player — a mule named Gus. It turns out that Gus is an amazing place kicker with a 100-yard field goal ability! Just as the Atoms begin to leave their losing streak in the dust, crooks attempt to kidnap their new star.

Retro Review: Gus (1976)

Roster Check

The film seemingly has all of the pieces in place to field a decent team. Don Knotts and Tim Conway were still in their prime, and would indeed go on to make several funny, family friendly movies for Disney together. Ed Asner was a bit outside his expiration date, but comedy workhorses like Dick Van Patten and Ronnie Schell help round out the cast.

The premise is goofy, but as a million films from Bonzo Goes to College to Air Bud show, you can make hay with it. The sports comedy genre is pretty much just the same formula over and over: a bunch of losers get a chance to turn their season around thanks to a new addition who gets the team to play together. It doesn’t matter much if the addition is a monkey or an angel or Adam Sandler. Just plug in the numbers and the formula spits out the results.

I didn’t say the formula always churned out good films, mind you.

Missed Snap

Where Gus goes terribly wrong is that it benches all of its talents and gives the ball to the wrong players. The film focusses on it’s two weakest links: Ed Asner’s as the shyster team owner, and Gary Grimes as Andy, a block of wood Gus’s trainer/holder.

Asner can’t hold the limelight; his best work is as the foil to the nebbish/fool character. His character is unlikable and he doesn’t have nearly enough chemistry to play off Don Knott’s foolish coach Venner. His plot line (an inveterate gambler whose bad bets with the mob put the team and Gus in jeopardy) takes up too much time, and his performance dries out the film like a tumbleweed under a French fry lamp.

Great, we got a mule and a jackass in the same picture.

Gary Grimes ostensibly plays the fish out of water character who stumbles into fame when Gus becomes a phenom. He’s softspoken and shy as a character and completely bland as a performance, leaving a gaping hole in the film where you need either the emotional punch of a lovable loser or the comedic bang of a character constantly wrong-footed. Even as awful as Slam Dunk Ernest was, Jim Varney at least could do both heartfelt and silly at a moment’s notice.

Tough Actin’ Tinactin

The film seems to aggressively try to sideline its best bits. Don Knotts could have been the glue that kept it all together – playing an inept fatherly figure to Grimes and providing the comedic counterpunch to Asner’s character. Instead, he’s criminally underused. Hell, he doesn’t even get to do his usual Tweedle-dee, Tweedle-dum routine with Tim Conway BECAUSE THEY’RE NEVER IN THE SAME SCENE TOGETHER! How to do you botch that casting decision?

Should have stuck to Dorf on Golf!

Knotts does what he can, but the story just keeps moving away from him. We spend more time in a supermarket food fight than on the football field. When we’re actually watching the team play, there’s nobody around for him to bounce off of. The rest of the extras are either lifeless tackle dummies or a bunch of stumblebums who don’t have any comedic timing or personality quirks to play off. It’s practically a law in these movies that every teammate has to at least have one obvious funny flaw. Big guys who can’t stop falling down is not a funny character trait.

OK, which of you boys is comically nearsighted? No? Anyone got uncontrollable gas? Weird birthmarks? Chronic halitosis? Work with me here, guys!

Call an Audible

This film just doesn’t know what makes a movie like this work. The comedy is too dry for 80% of the film, and the other 20% is just pratfalls. Every performance is dead-weight, low-energy, and bland. Even Knotts, who usually is bug-eyed and exploding with energy, feels like he’s just punching a clock.

It’s actually in his contract that he has to make this face in 50% of his scenes!

For such a stupid, silly premise, the film forgets to be silly. I’m surprised they didn’t run a montage during the credits of the owner found face-down in a lake, the coach becoming an alcoholic, and Andy selling Gus to a glue factory. It wouldn’t have been a bigger bummer than the actual film.

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