In a bid to impress an intense activist named Nancy, gadget tester Fielding Mellish fakes a fascination with Third World politics and finds himself enmeshed in the civil disturbances splintering the South American republic of San Marcos.
Loosely based on Richard Powell's novel Don Quixote USA and originally entitled El Weirdo, Woody Allen's second outing as writer-director-star is an erratic concoction that overcomes its lack of continuity and coherence to pack in satirical, surreal and slapstick gags at a frantic pace. The first cut ran for two hours, but Ralph Rosenblum persuaded Allen to excise some 37 minutes of footage (with the casualties including an attack on the guerillas' camp by a rhumba band and a parody of Bob Hope entertaining the troops) and the celerity and brevity go some way to disguising the mediocrity of some of the material.
Opening and closing with sequences in which sportscaster Howard Cosell commentates upon the assassination of the President of San Marcos and the consummation of Fielding Mellish and Nancy's marriage, this is a film about America's tendency to trivialise everything for mass consumption, whether it's the advertising of cigarettes or the reporting of a major political story.
It's also a satire about dissemblance in a society in which nothing lives up to expectation and no one fulfills their promises. Like the Execusisor machine, revolution seems to offer an easy solution to the problems of a developing country, but President Vargas's pledge to reform simply results in the imposition of twice-hourly underwear changes and Swedish as the national language. Only in such a cockamamie world could a man in a fake Castro beard (who couldn't even successfully buy a porn mag, let alone deter subway muggers back in New York) become an icon.
Although there are fine homages to Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Eisenstein and Harold Lloyd here, this is a scattershot offering full of apolitical mockery. Yet, Allen frequently patronises Latin America and not even the scathing assaults on the State Department quite atone for his careless choice of clichés and caricatures.
Rapid-fire gags and some inspired one-liners qualify this as an early classic from Allen.