The films are also deeply cynical about American culture, namely its reverence towards success and competition. Many of them revolve around games or forms of competition presented as elaborate games: sports in Downhill Racer (1969), Bad News Bears (1976), Semi-Tough (1977), and Diggstown (1992); organized crime rivalries in Prime Cut (1972); politics in The Candidate (also 1972); a California beauty pageant in Smile (1975). Ritchie’s central theme—that the American dream is simply a game that produces more losers than winners—reflects a 60s drop-out mentality, as does his purposely casual aesthetic. But given the current economic situation and the widespread cynicism towards career politicians, Ritchie’s 70s work feels more relatable than many American movies currently in theaters. (Had Richard Linklater embarked on his Bad News Bears remake a few years later than he did, the film may have been a big hit.)
His humor has aged well too. A shrewd editor, Ritchie liked to cut to the next scene immediately after a punchline, so that the audience wasn’t quite sure what hit them. And if the jokes weren’t funny, as was often the case in Semi-Tough, he at least spared the audience from wading in the unfunniness. The satirical jabs come quickly, but unpredictably. In Smile, for instance, Ritchie presents the inane beauty pageant business in successions of short shots that spotlight the contestants at their most desperate or ignorant. (One of the running gags that hasn’t aged very well involves a Mexican-American girl who’s constantly trying to exploit her minority status to win favor with the judges; yet Ritchie generally takes care of her with a single damning line of dialogue and moves on.) Not every shot is laugh-out-loud funny. Overwhelming the sequences is a Frederick Wiseman-like sense of social organization, in which some people emerge as more inane than others.
Ritchie’s eye for social portrait matched his sensitivity to location. One of the enduring pleasures of Smile and Bad News Bears is that the films don’t feel like they were shot in California suburbs out of convenience—the films are as much about these places as they are about the characters. Bruce Dern’s naive, all-American car salesman in Smile has a distinctly Californian air in the way he defends adolescent triviality as a matter of principle and the way he ties every positive character trait back to virtues of entrepreneurship. And the sexual go-getters of Semi-Tough are made to seem like the organic byproducts of hedonistic Miami. (Soderbergh achieves something similar in Magic Mike, in that his film often comes across as a sexual-sociological survey of Tampa.) Prime Cut is another beast altogether, a film that depicts the dark underworld of rural Kansas with grisly and imaginative action sequences set in barns, a wheat field, and a county fair.