With his thin, tight line readings, and the tired expression on his face, he really does seem like a man on the verge of a heart attack. If it hadn't happened, his performance wouldn't be painful to watch, but it would be perplexing. Because it did, it's not all that pleasant to watch him lumbering around in buckskin on desert locations in Durango, Mexico. In his other films, this hugely endearing guy seemed to need every pound and every inch of his vast girth to house so big a soul, but here, for the only time, his bulk seems like a burden to him. The film is dedicated to Candy's memory, and while this is a fitting gesture, he deserves a far better monument. If you wish to memorialize him for yourself, do so by checking out his smashing supporting or bit roles in Stripes, Splash, The Blues Brothers or National Lampoon's Vacation. Check out his surprisingly romantic star turns in the otherwise flatulent Uncle Buck or the slightly better Only the Lonely. Best of all, if you can find it on video, check out his peerless television work on SCTV, one of the best TV series North America has produced. Candy aside, the overall feeling generated by Wagons East! is still one of regret, because the film wastes an idea with potential. It's a parody Western in which the wagon train is headed back East. Candy's the wagon master (his previous gig was with the Donner party), and the travelers are civilized Easterners, disgusted with the barbarism of the West. Among the party's number is Richard Lewis as Phil, a nervous urban type who has tried his hand at cattle ranching--his brand reads simply "PHIL'S COW." There's also a whore with a heart of gold (Ellen Greene) who's sick of taking IOUs for payment, a dapper gay bookseller (John C. McGinley), a bank manager (Robert Picardo) who's fed up with the constant robberies, and others. Although the characters in Wagons East! are anachronistically modern, their journey must reflect some historical actuality--in the history of the American West, somebody must have thrown up his hands and gone home. It's amazing how subversive, even heretical, this idea seems to our national psyche. During the screening of the film I attended, when a gruff barkeep snarled at the Easterners, "Go home and leave the West to the real men," a guy in the audience yelled, "Yeah!" Some scenes are worth a chuckle or two, but Peter Markle's direction lacks the tight pacing that this sort of zany spoofery calls for, and the dialogue is entirely lacking in snap. Much of the humor has a cruel, unsavory edge to it, as well. Lewis (who looks a little unwell here himself) is a riot as a standup comedian, but so far, the movies haven't proved congenial to him--his persona requires the vehicle of his weird, fervent one-liners. No one in the cast comes across as well as he deserves to, except for McGinley, who comes across better than he deserves.
This reliable character actor, who specializes in manic, second-tier villains in action movies, takes the stereotypical effeminate approach to playing a gay man, but he's so upbeat, so cheery and debonair and self-assured, that I, at least, couldn't find the stereotype offensive. He utterly steals Wagons East!, for whatever that theft is worth. Indeed, McGinley turns out to be the hero of the picture; it's he, not Candy, who has a showdown with the evil gunslinger (Ed Lauter). It's by far the best scene in the film--McGinley displays such casual courage that we see that he, alone among the quitters, left the West not because it was scary but because the people there were so hopelessly gauche.