This film is where the Crispin Glover legend started to grow, literally years before the release. Playing reclusive and socially incompatible eccentric Rubin Farr began in 1987 on an episode of Late Night With David Letterman. In a Kaufmanesque appearance - Kaufmanesque except for being unmentioned to Dave beforehand - his bizarre clothes and stilted speech sucked the oxygen out of the room just before almost kicking Letterman in the face. An inch or two closer and horrible television history would've been made, killing Glover's career before his very eyes. Instead of helping promote the film which was years away from completion, Glover kicked off his own national infamy as a semi-dangerous oddball.
Glover later incorporated Rubin Farr into the music video "Clowny Clown Clown" from his own 1989 experimental avant garde music album The Big Problem Does Not Equal the Solution, The Solution Equals Let It Be. Again the legend of Glover grew without bolstering anticipation for Rubin and Ed. Even today, millions of people have watch the Letterman clip on YouTube without investigating further.
While Glover alone does not make this film great, his character may signal a surreptitious shift in film comedies from the 1980s to 1990s and beyond. Harris seems to have been the first director since Tim Burton in 1985 to give almost a whole movie over to a completely self-assured nerd. The obtuse and socially maladjusted have starred in incrementally more and more film since the 90s. We've seen them in the films of Wes Anderson, the films of Jim Carrey, in Napoleon Dynamite, in American Splendor, in Punch Drunk Love, in lots of Will Ferrell roles. The defining trait of this comic type is a cultivation of eccentricity so intense that he's genuinely unaware of the world around him. When pushed to interact, his intrusion into our world takes such focus from him that his psychic aura practically clashes with our physical plane and forms a field of energy around his body pushing out in all directions. Glover first lines in the film are childish shouts of "NO!!!" to his mother's demand he go outside and make a friend, and with both fists clenched he practically seems to leap off the frame.
Harris and Glover's progeny is markedly different from screen nerds of the past as portrayed even by Glover himself in his breakout Back To The Future role. Rubin refuses to be scathed by persecution and mostly seems uncomprehending of his own weirdness, basically living inside his own head. Harris makes the character dynamic and mostly ignores the ridicule that such a strange young man would incur, which is exactly what Burton did for Pee-Wee. No one in that big adventure ever remarked what a freak Paul Reubens was, and like the obtuse dork Napoleon Dynamite to come, Rubin Farr has but one designated detractor. There may even be a straight link between the Rubes as Rubin and Ed's credits thank Julie Hickson, Burton's onetime writing partner and girlfriend. The distributor Working Title Films actually came to prominence the same year as Rubin for another auteurist work of trendsetting geek chic weirdness: the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink.
The yin to Glover's yang in an absolutely perfect straight man performance is Howard Hesseman, star of 70s and 80s sitcoms WKRP In Cincinnati and Head of the Class, bringing a consumate understated professionalism to his frequently flustered character. Setting the thematic roadmap for the story, Hesseman introduces himself to Rubin as an emissary of an EST parody, the "Power of Positive Real Estate." Mindful of his mother's demand, Rubin reluctantly agrees to come with Ed to a PPR seminar only if they can bury his beloved dead cat along the way. This task soon sidetracks the duo into a mystical trek across a desert, during which Rubin discovers his destiny and Ed has an epiphany of his own once Rubin's abrasive personality wears down his phony salesmanship. The setup is almost a throwback to classic bickering-in-a-desert buddy comedies like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on the road to Morocco, minus the budget.
Neuroses fly from Hesseman like sweat, exacerbated not only by Rubin but ex-wife Karen Black in a small but unfortunately broad part, the film's only real weak spot. In his tacky clothes, befuddled demeanor and mood swings from platitude driven cheerfulness to sputtering fury he's the perfect counterpart to Glover - "weird" in his own familiar TV sitcom neighbor-next-door way, compared to Rubin the Martian. He also has the courage to wear an awful looking wig the entire movie, probably his most important character detail.
Glover and Hesseman's comedic chemistry is dazzling and Harris has some very funny observations about our culture and the nature of its misfits, unlike so many future imitators of the weird-dude comedy. Both characters are fringe dwellers of polar opposite perspectives and desires. Glover is happy as a shut-in, Hesseman throws himself with religious fervor unsuccessfully into the lessons of salesmanship. Rubin's beloved cat is implied to be the only friend he's ever had. When Hesseman pushes Rubin into going outside the house, he and the Power of Positive Real Easte help Rubin fill a hole left in his heart in a hilariously serendipitous way completely different from what they had in mind. Rubin's inability to care about what anyone thinks of what he does or says drives Ed crazy until suddenly the whole context of his pathetic life is transformed a la Werner Erhard explaining why you suck.
The funniest and most telling exchange in the film might be Ed's reaction to Rubin guffawing uncontrollably at graffiti reading ANDY WARHOL SUCKS A BIG ONE: "That isn't funny. Andy Warhol is a successful artist." When Rubin then calls him a fraud, Ed says that's absurd - he's famous. "You should never talk about art, religion or politics. No wonder you don't have any friends." At least I'm not a fraud like you, Rubin counters. The choice of modern self-invention pioneer Warhol for this joke is no arbitrary one.
Even as 90s comedies started celebrating dysfunctional behavior they somewhat protecting their weirdo protagonists by stylizing the worlds around them into something not resembling our own. Being one of the first filmmakers to capitalize on this, Trent Harris brings a balanced sincerity to the tone of his film. The direction is so deliberately matter of fact as to be askew, as actor after actor is placed in the dead center of frame or deep within the Y axis of a delicately arranged set. Occasionally there will be a pointless flourish thrown in to remind us we're watching a film, like an insert close up of a recently discarded beer can. Camera tricks are rarely used for laughs as Harris mainly lets his actors perform his witty script without any camera tricks, and the TV ordinariness of his picture compositions only emphasize the askewness within. Rubin and Ed's wanderings through desert formations were shot on location by Utahan native Harris, and he presents the natural grandeur with suitably casual affection complimenting the overall stilted formality.
There are several standout hilarious scenes including Rubin's cat-centric desert mirage and the PPR seminars themselves, even a couple well earned gross out jokes to sideswipe the viewer. Considering the Utah terrain and the PPR office are the only real locations, there's never a dull moment thanks to the raw talent involved. If anything, the desert jaunt really gives physical scale to the comic imagination on display. This movie was so ahead of its time it could be rereleased tomorrow and people wouldn't be any wiser, except for the lack of cell phones. One no-context pop cultural spat of dialogue between Glover and Hesseman about movies with the word "cat" in their title is an epochal moment for the insularity of TV and movie culture and the ties that bind insulated protagonists of slacker and shut-in movies to come.
Only the music stylistically dates the goings on, composed by Frederick Myrow as an arrangement of synthesized MIDI instruments chosen for maximum eclectic strangeness and layered on top of each other. Setting the tone during the film's opening titles, Rubin and Ed's music is also the only overture to identification as a weird movie for weird people. Fortunately Harris does not use Myrow to oversell Crispin Glover, who is at least as bizarre as his music.
As Rubin and Ed walk off together at the end of Rubin and Ed friends at last, they did so into the mist of unjust obscurity. Rubin and Ed is still an undiscovered comedy milestone.