Somewhere in the upper left hand corner of Robert Downey's mind dances a little vaudevillian with cane and striped hat. Downey often discusses his work with him. The product of their collaboration is the most excellent and funny Chafed Elbows.
The movie is a series of one-liners and short skits involving the Oedipian Walter Dinsmore. The straightmen are the black comedy figures of the New York Scene: the bald psychiatrist (who speaks like Groucho Marx), the underground movie maker ("in underground movies the action is all behind the camera"), and the Jewish caterer. The show recalls the most thunderous moments of burlesque, irreverence armed and swaggering.
Chafed Elbows is also an experiment in visual humor. Downey uses still pictures for more than half the movie, treating the frozen action as a cartoon. Dinsmore is on a roof undressing a girl. Stop. Comment. He makes love. Stop. He throws her off the roof into Long Island traffic. Comment, existential chuckle. Dinsmore gets a stop-action hysterectomy which, allowing for differences of taste, is still not the last laugh. But that it is humorous at all is Downey's victory.
There is a crudeness in this joking, and the crudeness is the best part of the movie. Downey will do anything with the camera to get a laugh, even if it means leaving the screen black at the end of the film while a Negrohippie voice slanders all that is good.
Other directors sense the farce in the drama of any still picture. Fellini's White Sheik is a parody of the Italian fumetti, romantic cartoon strips with real pictures instead of drawings. But White Sheik was made as a movie, with due respect paid to continuity of motion and thought. Chafed Elbows, whatever it is, has not paid respect to anything.