Sullivan’s Travels / Preston Sturges / 1942 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Witty dialogue; Good premise; Interesting third act
Side Effects: Joel McCrea; Awkward comedy; Meandering structure

A young Hollywood director decides to experience poverty as research for his next film, O Brother Where Art Thou. “I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions,” the director proclaims. The film’s rapid-fire opening dialogue neatly lays out, in bold letters, Sullivan’s character, the plot of the film and its lofty themes. Unfortunately, for much of the film’s run time these themes are only haphazardly explored. Sturges reaches for comedy both high and low early on, but little of it lands. Zany sequences of slap-stick feel out of place, and Joel McCrea as Sullivan is far too earnest and naive to carry the more dialogue-driven comedy.

For a film with such clear goals for its characters, very little of the first two acts is consequential. Sullivan and his new squeeze (Veronica Lake) intermittently try to experience poverty, but none of their attempts to reach bottom have any hope of succeeding. Given the third-act twist that gives the film a welcomed change of tone, Sullivan’s ambivalence might be the point, but it makes for a dull story. He should have just made O Brother, Where Art Thou.