One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): The Darkest of Comedies
MovieBabble’s first review towards its goal of watching and reviewing every movie on the IMDb Top 250 List begins with a beloved classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest! The film certainly helped solidify that Jack Nicholson was a powerhouse in the industry, but does the film stand the test of time? The following review will be spoiler free.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is directed by Milos Forman and stars an impressive cast including Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, and Danny DeVito. In an attempt to avoid prison work detail, Randle McMurphy (Nicholson) convinces the powers that be to send him to a mental institution. Once there, he ingratiates himself with an odd bunch of inmates that’s led by the cold, unfeeling Nurse Ratched (Fletcher). Fed up with the oppressive conditions, McMurphy works to rebel against the system that Nurse Ratched has created.
Those who love the film industry have certainly heard of this film. Considered one of the best films ever made, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has continued to have cultural impact since its release in 1975. The film even has a noble distinction of being the second movie to ever win all five major categories at the Oscars (Best Picture, Actor in a Lead Role, Actress in a Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay).
However, despite its critical reception, the film, or at least its outline, was despised by the writer of the novel (Ken Kesey) of which the movie is based. He was originally involved in writing the script for the film but quickly left the project after disagreeing with casting choices and narrative point of view. The battle was so hostile that Kesey eventually filed suit and a won a settlement. Kesey has exclaimed in the past that he has yet to see the film in its entirety.
As for the rest of us who didn’t write the novel, is the film actually any good?
What I Liked
When discussing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is simply can’t be done without mentioning the incredible performances involved.
Jack Nicholson wasn’t exactly a household name before this movie came out, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may have solidified him as one of the best actors of his era. With seemingly zero effort, Jack packs so much symbolism, wit, and hilarity into every scene. To the untrained eye, it would be easy to just cast this performance aside, noting that it’s just “Jack being Jack,” but that would be a gross underestimation.
While his character isn’t exactly an upstanding citizen, Jack perfectly exemplifies the idea of people going against the establishment that was incredibly prevalent in the 1970’s with Louise Fletcher perfectly capturing the oppressive establishment with her icy, monotone nature. They work so perfectly off each other, acting as symbolic and literal opposites as Jack goes insane while Fletcher remains composed and unnerved.
This film rests mostly on the shoulders of Jack. With his larger than life personality and mannerisms, he is more than able to handle the weight. There’s one scene in particular where Jack doesn’t say a single word. However, through his mannerisms, our attention is still completely fixated on him.
What I Liked…Continued
I would be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge the work of the great supporting cast. Before he hit fame on television with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Danny DeVito was known for his great work in feature films. His work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may be the best of his career. Playing a man with mental instability is a slippery slope. One misstep could have you viewed as a caricature for years afterwards. However, DeVito fully commits, giving an often hilarious performance that had this critic falling over in pain from gut-busting laughter. If I had to wager, I would assume that DeVito had less than twenty lines of dialogue. But his facial expressions and brief dialogue are enough to create perfect little moments interspersed throughout the film.
When you combine DeVito with perfect, supporting roles from Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson, and William Redfield, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest excels mightily. Each character beat has a morsel of creativity that surprisingly still works today.
What I Liked…Continued…Continued
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t without flaws, however.
Does it drag during extended scenes? Sure it does. Do some plot points feel shoved into the middle of a different movie? You betcha’.
But these issues pale in comparison to the wonderful moments that Milos Forman created. There are some incredibly dark themes and imagery on display throughout the film’s approximate two hour and fifteen minute run time. To counter these ideas with so much humor and weird plot points and actually having it succeed is an absolute marvel. In the wrong hands, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest could have been one of the worst films ever conceived. Luckily, that’s certainly not the case here.
There’s a certain “unhinged” nature to the film as if Milos Forman told everyone to riff off each other once the camera started rolling. Nothing about this classic feels calculated or by the books. In a time where way too many films try to check off all the major demographics and appease the largest audience possible, more studios executives and creative teams should have the fearlessness to be different. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is odd, bizzare, and possibly even reprehensible. However, the movie is all the better for it.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t without flaws, but there’s so many wonderful moments and symbolism involved in the story that it more than makes up for any issues in the narrative.
As the great Roger Ebert once said, “Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film so good in so many of its parts that there’s a temptation to forgive it when it goes wrong. But it does go wrong, insisting on making larger points than its story really should carry, so that at the end, the human qualities of the characters get lost in the significance of it all. And yet there are those moments of brilliance.”
This critic tends to agree with that sentiment to a point, but those moments of “brilliance” are just too great to ignore. It gets an A+.
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