Monday, February 9, 2015

Retro Trio: Better Off Dead (1985); Kingpin (1996); Tristram Shandy (2005)

Better Off Dead... (1985)
One of the many classic scenes which, though having nothing
to do with the plot, speak to the silly fun of the entire film.

Director: "Savage" Steve Holland

At this point, I'll just assume that you've all seen this movie. If you haven't, it's probably because you're either under 25 or over 75 years old.

For those of my generation who haven't watched the movie in a long while, you may be wondering if it's still funny. Unequivocally, the answer is, "Yes." Nearly every bizarre segment and skewed sketch in this absurdist take on teen angst is still hilarious. There are a few scenes that are dated, such as the stop-motion hamburger "Van Halen" segment, but these are very few and far between. The vast majority of the movie holds up extremely well.

The key element to why this movie works is just how deadpan everyone is, most obviously John Cusack as the heartbroken and suicidal protagonist. But we should not discount the many other denizens of director Steve Holland's bizarre world, nor should we overlook just how effective their own dry approach to everything is. One need look no further than Lane Meyers's father, played by David Ogden Stiers. Stiers's stone-faced delivery of his lines had me rolling just as hard one week ago as they did two decades ago.

There are so many quirky little things in the movie that I hadn't thought of in long time, such as how enraptured the math class students are. Or the street-racing, Japanese brothers and adversaries of Lane. Or the basketball team members who are caricatured ogres. This is all great stuff, and the result of a fertile comic mind. 

It's always great to see that a key movie from one's childhood still had the goods. 

Kingpin (1996)

Director: Bobby & Peter Farrelly

I feel Kingpin to be the Farrelly Brothers' oft-forgotten masterpiece. Their highest grossing and probably best-known film is There's Something About Mary. Their first major film, Dumb and Dumber is a classic of idiotic comedy. I love the latter, and thought the former was funny but overrated. Kingpin, somehow, doesn't seem to register with nearly as many people, though, and I'm not really sure why. It's hilarious.

An early meeting between Big Ern and Roy. In this 2-minute scene, Murray
fires off no fewer than a half dozen classic lines and gags as he casually
denegrates everyone who gets within arm's length of him.
It boils down to two things: the writing and the cast. Curiously, it is one of the very few movies directed by the Farrellys that they didn't write themselves. Instead, it was written by a couple of veteran 1980s sitcom writers, Bobby Fanaro and Mort Nathan, who wrote for Benson and The Golden Girls. Knowing this, you might not expect the raunchy, sly, biting humor of Kingpin, but it's there in all its glory. There's a wealth of fantastically quotable lines throughout, and there's more than a few great dialectic and visual nods to classic films like The NaturalThe Hustler, The Color of Money, The Graduate, and more. The entire world of Kingpin is a skewed alternate reality in which bowling is wildly popular, so there's plenty of fodder for spoofing athletics.

The cast is perfect. Woody Harrelson plays naive bowling prodigy-turned alcoholic degenerate Roy Munson, who incurs the wrath of veteran bowling champion Ernie "Big Ern" McCracken by daring to actually beat him. Big Ern is played by a Bill Murray at the absolute top of his comedy game. He's deadpan. He's ruthless. He's a womanizing, supremely arrogant dirtbag who lures Munson into hustling the wrong kinds of gamblers and having his bowling hand cut off. That's right. Harrelson plays a one-handed bowler the rest of the way, leading right up to his revenge showdown with Big Ern 17 years later. If you don't see the comedy in that, then this movie isn't for you.

Kingpin is another movie that's easy to recommend giving a shot. Just like Bad Santa, you can pick up the tone and humor within the first 10 minutes, and you can tell whether you'll like it or not. Unlike a lot of comedies, it doesn't lose steam at any point, and the last 15 minutes are just as funny as the first. 

Coogan's passive annoyance in the foreground is a steady
theme when he's paired up with the loquoacious Brydon.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

Director: Michael Winterbottom

I watched this for the same reason probably anybody would go back and watch it - I loved The Trip and The Trip to Italy. The semi-scripted, ad lib chemistry between comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is phenomenal, especially to those who like rapid-fire British humor.

Tristram Shandy is funny, and it's a good film, but I didn't find it as consistently funny as the "Trip" duology.

This movie is a different animal, in nearly every way. It is very much in the vein as films like Day for Night  and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 - two films about making a film. In the case of Tristram, it focuses most on the star actor (Coogan, in this case) trying to exert his star status as the title character of a famously unadaptable work of classic English literature. The dryer forms of humor come from Coogan's passive aggressive attempts to belittle his co-stars, no one moreso than the affable Rob Brydon.  Of course, Coogan is made to look a fool often enough, whether by his own arrogance or by the wild demands of the Tristram script

Those looking for the great back-and-forth between Coogan and Brydon in the Trip movies might be a bit disappointed. While they have several scenes together, Brydon is not nearly as prominent as Coogan, whose larger celebrity is the target for humor here. The overarching theme is the madness of moviemaking, with its writes and rewrites, casting and recasting, the short-lived passions that flair up between crew members, the egos, and plenty more. From that perspective, a cinephile like myself appreciates these peaks behind the curtain of movie show business. Those who are less interested are likely to find the film a bit dull.