Justin Playfair (George C. Scott, The Changeling) thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. When his brother (Lester Rawlins, God Told Me To) tries to institutionalize Playfair to gain control of Justin’s estate and pay off a crook (James Tolkan, Back to the Future), he runs into an obstacle: Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve), who not only refuses to do the bidding of her boss, Dr. Strauss (Ron Weyland, Alice’s Restaurant), but ends up accompanying Playfair/Holmes while he attempts to solve the riddle of the blackmail note he found so that he might foil Dr. Moriarty.
They Might Be Giants is a film with a small, but ardent, cult following, and not just because the 80s nerd rock band took their name from its title. Like a lot of films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, it equates “madness” with rebellion against the square order of its date, turning the insane and eccentric into counter-culture icons. While that trend didn’t hurt the film’s chances at getting made, I’m guessing that the success of editor-turned-director Anthony Harvey’s 1968 adaption of a play by James Goldman, The Lion in Winter, helped get a film made of a play that, according to the IMDb’s trivia entry, at least, Goldman felt he never really got right.
Though the most obvious inspiration is Holmes, the title comes from one of Playfair’s lines. After Watson compares Playfair’s quest to foil Moriarty to Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills, Playfair muses: “Well, he had a point. ‘Course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.” The speech clearly lays out the film’s true inspiration: not Sherlock Holmes, but Don Quixote, with Mildred Watson as Sancho Panza, going along with Playfair’s quest despite knowing that he’s mad. Just like Don Quixote, Playfair’s family seeks for doctor’s to cure him, Playfair’s adventures bring him to a host of strange characters and Playfair chooses to imitate a character from popular fiction that provides an ordered and just world in place of our own. If Playfair imitates a slightly outdated sleuth rather than a slightly outdated questing knight, just chalk that up to changes in tastes.
The film is at its best when Scott and Woodward are working together. They are a great screen pairing, with playful chemistry as Scott’s madman brings Woodward’s dedicated but beaten doctor back to life. The supporting cast is more mixed; there are some great character actors who show up briefly, such as M. Emmet Walsh (Critters), F. Murray Abraham (National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1), Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls), and Al Lewis (Used Cars), but most of them don’t get a lot to do. Jack Gilford (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) plays what may be my all time favorite screen librarian: a caring custodian of a mostly forgotten collection who has known Playfair since he was a boy, and confesses to harboring a fantasy of being the Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s hard to judge the film’s look based on the garbage print that Netflix Instant has available, but even in widescreen and with a cleaned up print, the film would still spend a lot of time in ugly New York locations, so perhaps the drabness is always with it. The story is episodic and builds to an ambiguous ending that is probably the only ending that would fit the film, yet also fails to answer many questions and leaves the fate of the leads up in the air. I took it as another artifact of its era, when seemingly every other movie ended in an ambiguous freeze frame, but the Baroness (and others I’ve talked to about it since watching it) were more disappointed than I was, so be wary if you don’t like this kind of ending. They Might Be Giants is a fun movie with some great moments and a great lead couple but it’s not consistent enough to be a great movie. Definitely worth a viewing by fans of the band, of Sherlock Holmes, of Don Quixote, and of George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward (who steals many scenes from Scott).