There are messy films that have aimed at greatness. Films whose evident care, visionary goal, and meticulous craftsmanship are apparent through the shipwreck of ambition. There are others that are deliberately scattered, anchored by an almost unseen yet carefully crafted dramatic or thematic thread. Harold Ramis’ 1980 sports comedy Caddyshack is neither: behind the scenes, the film grew like rampant weeds as Ramis’ and Brian Doyle-Murray’s script ballooned with additions aimed at adding the silliest gags rather than ensuring narrative coherence. The result is a failure of dramaturgy defined by a half-baked plot, scattershot writing and shooting schedule, and unsophisticated (sometimes antediluvian) humour.

And yet, Caddyshack has earned its spot as a classic of American cinematic comedy 40 years later. It almost accidentally subverts sports films and coming-of-age comedies, in a world that values the fun of the moment over meaningful progression and consequences. The film’s most endearing and enduring quality may be this pure escapism, underpinned by its commitment to the outrageous. Caddyshack is unarguably a poorly constructed film, yet this lends its antics and performances an extreme lightness that allows the film to entertain in ways that might not work if actions meant anything in its world.

Caddyshack 3

Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

The ostensible plot is a standard tale of athletic dreams: Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) is a high school senior and caddy at Bushwood Country Club with no lofty ambition, yet a burning need for the Caddy Scholarship to afford college. Conveniently, that scholarship is open for applicants again – if only Danny can impress the club’s uptight owner. Danny acts as caddy for star golfer Ty Webb (Chevy Chase), and their relationship is set up as that of a mentor and mentee. Danny asks Ty if he ever had trouble deciding what he wanted to do when he was younger; Webb’s advice is to “stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball” – easier said than done as he hits trick shot after trick shot while blindfolded. With dedication and belief, Danny seems poised to come out on top.

But the story of athletic training and dedication evaporates at each expected beat. Danny’s lack of drive and skill seem to place him on a path to “the lumberyard” – his dad’s future for him should he not earn this scholarship – and instead of doubling down on his training and studies he flatters and fibs his way to the top. He abandons empty assertions of law school and opportunities to impress club management to instead chase after the manager’s niece, with baffling success in seduction. When caught in her bedroom, it seems his comeuppance is upon him – but he is forgiven, in some throwaway lines, to take part in the final act’s grand golf wager. When this comes down to his final shot, he succeeds on a technicality (more on this later). This ultimate case of failing upward – winning the scholarship, a hefty bet, and the love of two ladies simultaneously – is beyond unearned and implausible.

Caddyshack 2

Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

On this level, Caddyshack simply shouldn’t work; indeed, the plot is its least memorable quality. Yet the full commitment and impeccable comic timing of its performers, as well as the extreme weightlessness of any action, makes it a hundred-minute hangout film of the most ridiculous variety. There is a delightful subversion in a story of sportsmanship and growing up where hard work means nothing, as well as in an alternate reality where the most shameless fooling around leads to nothing but further shenanigans.

The critical ingredient in the comedic mayhem is the irreverent exuberance poured into each dumb joke and over-the-top characterisation. Indeed, structure may have eliminated its most iconic jokes. Bishops are struck by lightning for their foul language, unwilling grandkids schooled by their grandparents, and Baby Ruths wreak havoc in pools – and no action leads to either a proportional consequence or advancement of Danny’s scholarship quest. Payoffs are either ridiculously large (if fleeting) or incongruously meaningless.

This juxtaposition of expectation versus reality mirrors the youthful perspective of Danny and his caddy friend. Their summer jobs are both their entire world and the least of their worries when compared to a gumball machine, oversized golf bags, and the young female relatives of wealthy guests. In some ways, the lack of meaningful consequence despite extraordinary circumstances reads uncomfortably close to the world as we now know it – especially considering the extreme privilege of the golf club set. (Danny’s scholarship con and future social mobility may be the only thing keeping Caddyshack from actual social commentary.) Still, there is an odd sense of hope and heart in Danny’s wildly undeserved successes and an absurd universe of cause-and-no-effect: the world is already random and unfair – let it be random and unfair in creating the ultimate carefree summer.

Caddyshack (1)

Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

Looking at the film’s creation, the enthusiasm – and lack of expertise – is evident. Caddyshack was written by Doyle-Murray based on his youthful experiences as a caddy (brother and star Bill as well as director Ramis were also caddies in school), with the events and characters cribbed loosely from those he encountered on the green and in the clubhouse. Through this angle, Danny becomes something of a self-inserted, wish-fulfilling protagonist. Yet the lack of weight given to Danny’s personal development, as well as the “climactic” tournament, places these central elements as excuses for the madness, not instigators.

Furthermore, the script was edited on the fly to make room for improvisation and sight gags, notably from the SNL alumni in the cast. Giving Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield the freedom to write their own jokes and scenes – not one of Murray’s lines in the finished film was scripted – was perhaps the best use of the talent at hand and set a precedent in American lowbrow comedy. Caddyshack was one of the first major films based around SNL personalities, and its DNA is evident in the likes of Wet Hot American Summer and the Lonely Island’s output.

Caddyshack 1

Murray and Chase did not have a scene together in the original draft, but Ramis had the SNL stars write their sole interaction towards the end of the film.
Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

Groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Murray) and his wonderfully deranged hunt for a fearless gopher is possibly the film’s most memorable subplot – one that was continually expanded through production and post-production. Its absurdism and overblown stakes are emblematic of Caddyshack’s place in the American comedy canon. As Spackler builds animal-shaped plastic explosives to lure his prey and whacks flowerbeds, dreaming of his own golfing “Cinderella story”, Caddyshack becomes a Cinderella story of its own: a comedy of little taste and less budget, held together by enthusiasm and adaptable circumstances, that trusts its audience to come along on its inane ride and thus wins its place in film history. The result is a spectacularly unmoored plot, but superbly stupid entertainment.

Caddyshack’s ending is where this lack of consequences finds its most hilarious payoff. For one second, it seems that Danny’s quest for the scholarship is going to come down to his final shot; with the whole club watching, Ty puts a spin on his earlier advice: ‘See your future, be your future, make your future’. This unexpected sincerity is poised to push Danny to true achievement, but his shot falls just short. Thankfully, Spackler’s pre-planted gopher-hunting dynamite detonates to a remixed 1812 Overture, ripping craters in the course and shaking Danny’s ball into the hole – victory on a technicality. No one is harmed – not even the pesky gopher – but Bushwood Country Club lies in smoking ruins. The victorious Al Czervik (Dangerfield) turns to the crowd gathered at the clubhouse, and yells, “Hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!” The crowd cheers, Kenny Loggins’ ‘I’m Alright’ blasts, and the unscathed gopher emerges to dance (and presumably wreak havoc) another day.

Of course, this finale is an aggressive copout. Danny’s golf and academic skills get no marked upgrade through his summer of work and play, that gopher will finish destroying what Spackler could not, and everyone leaves horny and happy. Yet, what remains is a magnificent paean to joyous, meaningless summer fun. No one can be a caddy their whole lives, but the time spent in the clubhouse and on the green with Danny, Spackler, and the rest of the unruly crew is time worth celebrating. Forty years on, Caddyshack remains an absurd success; the result of these unconventional, sometimes disastrous dramatic and structural decisions is something so outrageous, illogical, and unrestrained by real-world consequences that it cannot fail to delight. If Danny can win that scholarship and that gopher survive Bill Murray’s dynamite, the world feels a little more comforting.