Using his birth name, Howard Zuker, as a directorial nom de cinema, actor-producer Zack Norman partnered with Neil Cohen for their helming debut in 1986. Thirty years later, they’ve rescued the shelved project, a comic riff on money and politics, from not-quite-completion, and, with an eye on election-year relevance, dusted it off for a theatrical spin in Los Angeles before its East Coast debut at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
Chief Zabu, which received its R rating in 1988, is being promoted with the tagline “A New York real estate developer dreams of respect and political influence.” The seemingly prescient Trumpian parallels are no coincidence; one of Norman’s inspirations was New York hospital signage announcing the philanthropy of the candidate’s father.
But the movie has more on its mind than one man’s ambition. Though its mix of the loopy, the broad and the deadpan is uneven, its story of American business designs on a tiny Polynesian nation still has satirical bite.
As the status-seeking developer Ben Sydney, a terrific Allen Garfield leads the ensemble of well-known character actors and less familiar faces. Ben’s particularly Jewish brand of neurotic social climbing often tips into hysteria. When he’s lured into the deal of a lifetime by a smooth swindler named George Dankworth (the late Allan Arbus), he’s sure that he’ll finally have the wealth-induced peace of mind, not to mention the clout, to feel like a real American.
The deal targets Tiburaku, a newly independent island nation whose president, Chief Henri Zabu (Manu Tupou), has traveled to the Big Apple with a delegation in a bid to secure UN membership. The Tiburaku Tourist Bureau’s investor-friendly animated promotional film (created by Mary Cybulski and Barbara Lehman) opens the movie and introduces the fictional country in parody-perfect fashion.
Tupou, who died in 2004, imbues Zabu with a flair for lofty oratory and a soulful gaze, wary and wounded. The movie could have benefited from more interactions between him and the scheming New Yorkers, but the screenplay, credited to the two directors and Nancy Zuker, is concerned mainly with the aspirations and machinations of the story’s ridiculous white guys (and gals), beginning with the half-dozen middle-aged business leaders who gather in a Plaza Hotel suite for Dankworth’s pitch. Having already sold Zabu a bill of goods, he plants sugar-plum visions of road, soft drink and fishing rights in the entrepreneurs’ profit-seeking heads.
Norman (Romancing the Stone) plays Ben’s employee and friend Sammy Brooks, a 46-year-old struggling comedian who’s tired of trying to pass off cramped hovels as “river-view” apartments. Charged with researching Tiburaku for Ben, Sammy spends hours in the pre-internet public library, reading news clippings in which nuclear fallout is a running theme; France, Tiburaku’s former colonizer, has been conducting weapons tests nearby.
But Ben is too dazzled to take Sammy’s findings seriously and instead focuses on charming cash out of the deep pockets of turnpike heir Skip Keisel (Ed Lauter). Ineffectual but not clueless, Skip is eager to shake off his particularly WASP brand of neurosis. He’s still under the thumb of his old man (Joseph Warren), his butler (Ferdinand Mayne) hates him, and his wife (Lucianne Buchanan) is wackadoodle and adulterous beneath her suburban propriety.
In the pastel fashions and big hair of the female characters, the movie offers further evidence, not that we needed it, that the politically divisive ’80s was also, hands down, the most horrendous modern decade in American women’s fashion. Those female characters include a vacuously self-involved Hollywood actress (Marianna Hill). The title of her claim-to-fame feature, The Deluded Chimp, could apply to most of the Americans in Chief Zabu. As a colleague of fraudster Dankworth, the mighty Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers) harbors her own hopeful delusions. Least deluded but most enraged is Sammy’s co-worker Linda (Betty Karlen), who feels discriminated against and sidelined by Ben, and hates him even more than the real estate racket.
With their dueling frenzy, Garfield and Norman generate a thoroughly convincing chemistry of agitation, culminating in a jazzy shtick about the percentages of their assumed profits on the Tiburaku deal. His self-importance rising with the heady figures, Garfield’s vocabulary-challenged Ben segues righteously into lip service about the “underpoverished” and, not least, his determination to have “public opinions.”
The humble brags eventually give way to empty blather about democracy, with absurdist digs at the moneyed classes in showbiz and politics hitting a crescendo in a gathering of Beverly Hills grotesques.
Though a number of Chief Zabu’s participants are now deceased — among them the great caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who did poster illustrations for the movie under its original title, Rich Boys — its discerning glances at the difference between the growth-and-profit-defined developed world and the “mineral-rich” developing world make it more than an artifact. Shot in 15 days, largely on the campus of Bard College, this resourceful low-budget picture could have gone deeper, but within its brief running time manages to send up materialism, groupthink, celebrity worship and political posturing.
As the French-speaking Tiburakans might say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Production: Zabu Company
Cast: Allen Garfield, Zack Norman, Allan Arbus, Lucianne Buchanan, Marianna Hill, Betty Karlen, Manu Tupou, Ed Lauter, Joseph Warren, Shirley Stoler, Ferdinand Mayne, Harsh Nayyar, Charles Siegal, Tom Nardini
Directors: Howard Zuker, Neil Cohen
Screenwriters: Neil Cohen, Nancy Zuker, Howard Zuker
Producer: Norman Leigh
Director of photography: Frank Prinzi
Production designers: John Loggia, Tom Surgal
Costume designer: Hali Breindel
Editor: Fima Noveck
Composer: Andrew Asch
Casting: Jessica Parfrey
Rated R, 74 minutes