Damian Corvallis at Windmills of My Mind has been doing a gargantuan run of blog posts about Steven Spielberg's entire body of work (to date, anyway), and the post on 1941 in particular caught my eye.
I agree with many of his points--it's misshapen, it goes on too long, too loud, and much of it is simply not funny. But I don't enjoy 1941 (which I saw on the big screen--makes a huge difference, I think) for the humor; I enjoy it for being one of the purest, least sentimental, most extended and elaborate expression of Spielberg's graphic talent ever put on celluloid. So he wants to make a musical? I think he's done his musical, only the score is a John Cage-like cacophony of gasps, shrieks, screams, bellows, crashing cars, wooshing airplanes, crunching tanks (John Williams' march acts like an impatient usherette, hurrying the impromptu orchestra along). It's a symphony of chaos, building and building and daring you to dare it to build even more--and calling you on your bluff, every time.
The cast is irrelevant (though I agree with Damien that Robert Stack is very fine (tearing up over Dumbo and delivering the single sanest line in the film ("that is the craziest sonofabitch I've ever seen")), that Toshiro Mifune in my opinion even better (Damien notes how a little joke about a toy compass escalates into a howlingly loud and unfunny escape attempt--which, I submit, Mifune brings full circle back to witty small-scale humor with the throwaway line "this has not been honorable"), that Chistopher Lee seems to be having boatloads of fun; I submit too that Nancy Allen's horny Donna is tuned in to the same usefully demented frequency, delivering an erotic jolt (a much-needed commodity in Spielberg's movies) whenever she can).
Belushi, however I think is crucial--he doesn't need to be funny, he just needs to be loud, louder than life. He has to be to make a bigger impression than all the crashing planes and falling Santa statues and wildly careening ferris wheels. He's the film's spirit incarnate, an emblem in the shape of a human cartoon; a figurehead, if you like, fixed to the hood of a runaway ten-wheeler.
Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis worked on the script, and it has their brand of can-you-top-this? comedy. Damien wonders if maybe Zemeckis had directed the comedy would have been more consistent with the storytelling; as is Spielberg had reportedly softened the cynicism (the movie's still refreshingly free of easy sentiment and emotional uplift though (except when Gale and Zemeckis mean to skewer it (i.e. Dumbo)). But Zemeckis has never had the grasp of camera movement and use of film frame Spielberg so effortlessly displays (though he does have I think an equivalent skill in editing and pacing), and for once I'm able to enjoy a collaboration between the two--Zemeckis' heartlessly intricate plotting, Spielberg's visual inventiveness--on a huge scale.
It releases something in Spielberg, I think; it releases the amoral uncaring child in him (Is the movie racist? But everyone's lampooned, from whites to blacks to Latinos to Germans to the Japanese macho males to helpless females, in a freewheeling spirit that feels quintessentially Angeleno). Some have called this Spielberg's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and the comparison to Stanley Kramer's big thud of a movie in many ways is just (overlong, overproduced, loud, unsubtle) with the crucial difference; this director really knows how to stage and shoot action sequences, even invest them with an emotion, an overriding sensibility and vision. Spielberg reveals that vision in the key shot of nighttime Los Angeles seen from on high, a tabletop model with streetlights glittering like so many carelessly scattered jewels, bright gold flak bursting like so much buttered popcorn. First time he used the shot, I gasped (on the big screen, it's breathtaking), and realized: he's enjoying himself; he's like a kid with the world's best and biggest toy, having the time of his life.
This is the Spielberg I love. Screw heart, screw emotion, screw attempts to even sketch a realistic human emotion (don't get me started on tackling complex moral issues in the real world); Spielberg here just has creatures and objects and vehicles bouncing off each other for two or so hours, brilliantly. It doesn't have Spielberg's usually expert pacing, carefully calibrated not to overtax the audience's attention span too much, and I love that too--it's as if for once he's beyond such calculations, as if he's too wrapped up in his need, his lust to show us something never attempted before (and never equaled since, far as I'm concerned) to care about boxoffice potential. It's as if he's starting to learn what it's like to be an artist, pushing the boundaries of what's possible--in this case, in farce.
This is the side of Spielberg that might have had more success bringing J.G. Ballard to the big screen (forget narrative logic or character development, focus on interactions, conjunctions, abstractions of shapes and sounds and colors). This is why 1941 represents for me Spielberg--despite himself, despite his noblest intentions, despite all his later regret and embarrassment at doing the picture (I'm happy to note, though, that Zemeckis on the DVD commentary of the film sounds largely unrepentant)--at the top of his game, why this for me is one of his very best.