Of all the American directors who came to prominence in the 1970s, Robert Altman is the warmest, the most democratic and the most disarming. The overlapping dialogue, shaggy plots, lived-in sets, and sharp characterization make nearly all of his films feel both like “slices of life” and something much more personal and unique — it’s just that the lives being portrayed are themselves theatrical and all over the place.
In the case of 1980’s consistently enjoyable, occasionally bizarre, and criminally underrated Popeye, he recreates the world in the image and vernacular of classic cartoons, made for kids, but peoples it with complicated individuals adults can recognize. Again like most of his films I’ve seen, the sets are characters themselves, that seem to have existed before we showed up and will continue once we’ve left its world. Harry Nilsson’s whimsical and wry songs form the basis of the structure, and serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the goings-on (and also a possible testimony to the amount of narcotics being consumed in the movie’s production).
For me, the whole thing peaks with Shelley Duvall’s song (as Olive Oyl), “He Needs Me.” It perfectly encapsulates the longing and celebration of the film as a whole, tinged with regret and inevitable awkwardness — her clunky feet and loping, lovely dance. It’s adorable from the start, but Duvall’s creaky delivery of “But he does!”, after Robin Williams mutters the same, sends it over the top.