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The Ratings Game (1984)

Little Boxes

Please forgive the redundancy if I’ve written about this before, but one of the hardest parts of being a film critic, for me, is realizing that a movie I’d praised for its originality was really the outgrowth of something I hadn’t yet seen. I know, I know. Everything’s based on something, right?

Earlier this year, I rediscovered Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend’s biting 1987 entertainment-industry satire. In it, Townsend plays Robert Taylor, a struggling actor whose journey up and down the success ladder is depicted by his own fantastical takes on popular movies and TV shows. In that review, I remarked on how “Weird” Al Yankovich’s 1989 film, UHF, was a wackier version of an identical concept, wherein a perpetually unemployed goofball lucks his way into creating offbeat programming for his own TV channel. As it turns out, there’s an antecedent to both movies, Danny DeVito’s 1984 comedy, The Ratings Game.

DeVito stars as Vic De Salvo, the wealthy co-owner of a national trucking company who lives with his brother, Goody (Louis Giambalvo), in Hollywood. Eager to shake off his humble New Jersey upbringing and make it big in entertainment, Vic spends his days knocking on doors at TV networks. Sadly, no one is interested in his Princeton-set, Three’s Company-style sitcom, Sittin’ Pretty—until one day, when the Head of Comedy Programming at MBC gets canned, and decides to greenlight Vic's pilot as a final “FU” to the executives.

The episode (which Vic not only writes and directs but also stars in) is terrible, but the higher-ups are contractually obligated to put it on the air. Smarmy head honcho Parker Braithwaite (Gerrit Graham) tells Vic that his creation will die a swift death when it airs opposite the World Series. Distraught, Vic turns to his new girlfriend, Francine (Rhea Perlman), who happens to work at the Computron Ratings Service. They hatch a plan to get the top 100 most influential families of the 1,500 nationwide ratings households to make Sittin’ Pretty’s debut a smash hit.

That plan comprises the bulk of The Ratings Game’s second and third acts, and I don’t want to spoil its silly and ingenious details. Suffice it to say the mafia figures heavily into things, and Vic’s wildest dreams come true--but at a cost. DeVito and writers Jim Mulholland and Michael Barrie create some wonderfully deranged commercials for Vic’s newly minted production company, Paisan Pictures, such as the pimp drama Nunzio’s Girls, and the cuddly calamari of Saturday morning cartoon sensation, The Goombas. The joke is, of course, that the bits we see of these shows are not dissimilar from MBC’s regular lineup, which includes the Charlie’s Angels rip-off H.O.T.B.O.D.S. and a Bosom Buddies-type army comedy called W.A.C.ked Out.

The parody elements are spot-on, but DeVito and Perlman make The Ratings Game work. I don’t want to play armchair relationships expert here, but the couple’s on-screen affection feels like an extension of their real-life romance. Vic and Francine bicker, make goo-goo eyes at one another, and casually talk about things that bother them with a relaxed intimacy that can’t simply be written into a script. Sure, sometimes the dialogue is a clunky and too cute by half, but the earnestness with which the actors deliver it is undeniably smooth.

Earnestness. That’s a word you don’t hear associated with a lot of modern comedies, which often play like cobbled-together improv sessions built on performers trying to out-gross or out-random on another. DeVito gets the most from his cast, which, for fans of 80s American cinema, is a character-actor cornucopia that includes Vincent Schiavelli, Robert Costanzo, Kenneth Kimmins, among others. Even Michael Richards and Kevin McCarthy pop up, in very similar roles to the ones they would play five years later in UHF. Though the parts are often painfully archetypal, I never once felt that the performers had run roughshod over Mulholland and Barrie’s tight screenplay.

The Ratings Game debuted as a Showtime movie in 1984. Two years later, Rodney Dangerfield starred in Back to School, playing a street-wise businessman who tries to rig an institution--in this case, college--that considers him below its notice.* Hollywood Shuffle came out a year later, and UHF two years after that.

Vic De Salvo is ultimately a corrupt figure, and in a different context, some of the things he does to realize his dreams could be considered downright monstrous. The Dangerfield character from Back to School filed down some of that edge; Hollywood Shuffle turns the tables on us by presenting Robert Taylor as a relatively noble protagonist whose greatest enemy is the temptation of a cruel and flashy town. By the time we get to UHF, our hero is a big-hearted clown, content to cobble together a mini-Hollywood with friends and a shoestring budget. Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind sort of brings things full circle with his tale of two video store clerks who reclaim the art in "Art and Commerce" by creating lo-fi versions of Hollywood blockbusters.

We'll never know if all roads really lead back to The Ratings Game, but these movies comprise a fascinating quintuple-feature of outsiders whose self-worth is wrapped up in the acclaim and respect of others, and whose big break reveals itself as a crossroads of integrity (Be Kind Rewind is the weakest example of this, but it's also, arguably, the weakest film). Watching DeVito's film, I wondered how Vic De Salvo would work in a contemporary setting.

Would he hustle the increasingly irrelevant TV networks, or try to find a niche in the billion-channel cable landscape? Would he be savvy enough to go for a Netflix deal? Or would he be the ultimate DIY King of YouTube, using all his unsavory connections to blast the Internet, day after day, with hours of outrageous clickbait? The Ratings Game is a time capsule of outdated media metrics, sure, but it's also a mirror to an ancient and insatiable appetite for affection, expressed through that perennial commodity called "art".

*And, like Vic, his best friend is a thuggish but lovable limo driver.