Used Cars epitomises both the end of a depressed, cynical 1970’s for America and the birth of a gaudy, loud, colourful 1980’s.
The used car salesman is one of the almost cliched examples of textbook hucksterism in the Western world, we are almost programmed to distrust the line of fast-talking, buddy buddy technique exuded here by Kurt Russell’s salesman Rudy Russo. Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale rely on that textual assumption on the audience’s part to sell Used Cars, which pits Rudy’s aspirational salesman and his ageing, low-fi boss Luke against their rival, over the road, slick car sales operation led by Luke’s loud and nasty twin brother, Roy L. Fuchs (both parts being played by veteran character actor Jack Warden). It’s a traditional high concept comedic set up, with the audience designed to root for Rudy’s crooked underdog as he tries to stick it to an even more crooked Man.
Used Cars, in that respect, works as a piece both then and indeed now. We are not short of salesmanship and crooked hucksterism in our modern age, and Rudy’s aspirations to run for state Senate and combine his penchant for selling dodgy cars with a political bent feel particularly acute given the White House is currently home to the biggest con man in modern history. Released during the Carter Administration, the short period of a lesser-known President who inherited the shock of Nixon’s disgrace and a subsequent economic downturn, Used Cars has one eye on the glitzy rhetoric and showmanship of the coming Ronald Reagan, whose neoliberal approach mixed with a halcyon yearning for a simpler, greater America, ushered in an era in which the Rudy Russo’s of the world would profit while millions still suffer the consequences today.
While a comedy of its time, and one which has lost some punch over time, Used Cars still makes sense, when it could have ended up lost to the ages.…