Wreck-it Ralph

Wreck-It poster

The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is a digital-age version of Toy Story (1995). It all takes place in a happy little arcade, strangely free of graffiti, litter and juvenile delinquents. Every night, when the arcade closes down, the characters in the games are free to wander between consoles, socialize and goof around. Only one catch: if you die outside your own game you don’t regenerate. But I’m sure that won’t become an issue.

We are introduced to this world by Wreck-It Ralph himself (John C. Reilly), the miscast, wheel grinding, time-card punching “bad guy” of the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. He explains how, all day, he has to demolish a building with his comically big hands, so the hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), can save the day. After which, Felix is rewarded with a pie on the roof of the building, and the tenants throw Ralph off the roof, into a mud puddle. Ralph shares his frustration at seeing his contribution to the game go unrecognized while Felix is given pies and medals. Ralph is talking to a villain support group, whose members extol the value of being a villain. As Zangief, from Street Fighter II, says “If Zangeif was good, who would crush man’s head like sparrow’s egg between thighs?” They tell him that it’s a villain’s lot in life to get beat over and over, and watch the hero get the glory, and that his life will be happier if he excepts it.

And I just have to make a comment here. Don’t villains usually win in video games? Especially in arcade games, which are designed to keep you pumping quarters in. Realistically, it would be Felix getting thrown into the mud 99% of the time. Oh, well.

Ralph has his inevitable confrontation with the rest of the game’s cast (Nicelanders, they are called), in which Mayor Gene (Raymond Perci) tells Ralph that bad guys don’t get medals, and if Ralph ever won a medal (since he clearly never will) the Nicelanders would let him live at the top of the building in the penthouse. Ralph calls his bluff, and storms off to do just that. Something that’s amusing to watch here, and in certain other scenes, is the choppy, blocky way in which the characters move. It is, of course, intentional, and it does bring out the feel of a 1980s platform game, which is what this is supposed to be, but I’m sure it also saved Disney several tens of thousands of dollars.

Ralph’s quest for a medal leads him to steal the uniform of a space marine from the game Hero’s Duty, a fictitious game that is exactly like 10,000 real shoot’em up, blow’em up, throw-away first-person shooters that you find in arcades all over the world. Ralph’s misadventure in Hero’s Duty is certainly one of the best, possibly the best scene in the movie, and gives rise to a line every parent in the audience will love: “When did video games become so violent and scary??” It also introduces us to Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the model-proportioned, yet tough-as-nails cliché who leads the marine troop. Calhoun’s spittle-throwing PG version of a potty mouth might just be the most entertaining part of the movie, but “It’s not her fault,” because “she’s programmed with the most tragic back story ever.” I won’t tell you what this back story is. Suffice to say, I laughed enough to shed tears when I saw it, because it’s so over the top, and yet just like what you see in video games today. Calhoun is awesome.

Tri-fold

Eventually, Ralph also lands in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed cart racing game. The landscapes in Sugar Rush are beautifully rendered, although, if you’re a salty snacker like me, you might get a little nauseous after a while. Here, Ralph meets Vanellopy Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a game character who wants to join the races, but is ostracized from the racing community because she is a glitch, the oppressed subculture of the video game world. Ralph is blackmailed by Vanellopy into joining her quest to buy or pry her way into a race so she can become part of the game, and the two start to become friends. Their relationship is similar to that of Sully and Boo in Monsters, Inc., except that Vanellopy talks. And boy does she ever. She could have gotten really annoying in the hands of a lesser director, but Rich Moore (who has directed voice acting for The Simpsons and Futurama) toned her down just enough that she’s lovable, if slightly eccentric. Ralph, Vanellopy, Calhoun and Felix eventually find themselves in a battle to save the arcade from a cataclysmic threat, and from one of the most subtle, surprising and effective villains I have seen in a long time. This leads to a lot of great chemistry between the characters, and a weird, yet strangely plausible romance between the pint-sized Felix and the arm-twisting, nose-breaking Calhoun (classic pick-up line: “Look at the high definition in your face! It’s beautiful.) I will say, I thought the ending was just a little too happy. There’s a point where it looks like victory is going to require a terrible sacrifice, and the movie would have been more powerful if it had. But, in typical Disney fashion, they had to have everything work out a little too perfect. Oh, well.

To help the reader fully appreciate the quality of Wreck-it Ralph, I thought it would be worth putting my encounter with it in context. My wife and I had previously driven 250 miles. We did this because, for the first time ever, we were going to leave our 2 1/2 year old daughter in the care of her grandparents overnight so we could spend a romantic evening together. On said evening, we dressed to the hilt and had a romantic dinner at one of the finer restaurants in town, then spent some time strolling around downtown under the lights. Finally, we checked into a hotel and got ready for bed. We had a bottle of champaign in a bucket of ice when we slid into bed. We were snuggling a little bit, when we decided  a movie wouldn’t hurt, so we charged some extra to our room to see Wreck-it Ralph. At the credits, we realized we could back the movie up in 30-second increments, so I spent about 10 minutes repeatedly pushing the button, and the ice in the bucket melted while we passed the champaign back and forth and watched Wreck-it Ralph a second time.

Yeah. It’s that  good.

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Courageous

The Kendrick Brothers of Sherwood Bible Church are at it again. No doubt hoping to match their home run of Fireproof of 2008, they’ve shifted their focus from taking on divorce to attacking fatherlessness in America. We’re still in Albany, Georgia, but this time, instead of following the heroics of the Albany Fire Dept.,  we’re on patrol with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Dept. (Interesting that, Albany being a city of 77,000, it doesn’t seem to have its own police force, but I guess they had to trim the cast somewhere.)

The Kendricks have ramped the action up a notch with this one. Right at the beginning, we see Fireproof’s Ken Bevel, now playing Nathan Hayes, stop for gas, only to have his truck stolen by a dew-rag clad gang-banger (T.C. Stallings, a devoted husband and father in real life). He throws himself half-way through the driver’s window, and we are treated to a fist-fight with Nathan hanging out the window at 30 miles an hour. The movie eventually leads up to a climactic scene with guns blazing. In between is more action, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-felt message about how crucial a father is to a child’s development, and how those without fathers often become dew-rag clad truck thieves.

The story follows Deput. Hayes, a recent transfer to the department, three other Deputies, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick), Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes), and David Thompson (Ben Davies), and Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a rarely employed construction worker, and their families. Javier breaks his back to provide for his family and eventually finds employment working on Adam’s house. He then becomes part of the group. David is the rookie of the squad who’s holding in a shameful secret. He has a daughter around three years of age, whom he has never met, and whose support he had not contributed a dime to. (Apparently, the Georgia Division of Child Support Services was vaporized along with the Albany P.D.) Shane struggles to be a dad to his son when he only sees him every other weekend.  Adam dotes on his daughter but refuses to join his son for the father-son 5K. And Nathan and his wife, Kayla (Elenor Brown), struggle to fend off the “saggy-pants boys” interested in their teenage daughter.

A tragedy eventually forces these men to reevaluate what they are doing as fathers. The story dives into Christian kitsch for awhile. Adam comes up with a written resolution and the five families actually hold a ceremony with their pastor in which they dramatically recite it. In a similar vein, we later see Nathan take his daughter to a very expensive restaurant (below), where he, again with great ceremony, presents her with a “promise ring.” Yeah, I know. I chortled at this scene, too, but then I found out my wife had very specific plans for me to do exactly that with our daughter one day.

But for all the kitsch, the film really is trying, and trying to do far more than just entertain. The problems with Courageous mainly serve to highlight the fact that most movies just fill themselves up with explosions and car wrecks and expect you to buy a ticket. Courageous sets the bar much higher, and does come close to clearing it.

There was a time when I would have been unable to enjoy this movie. I can enjoy it now largely because I have a wonderful wife, who makes my life very sweet. That said, there are still some key points of this film I can’t help but take issue with. A lot of the film’s attitude is summed up when Nathan delivers the curmudgeonly line “If fathers just did what they were supposed to, half the junk we see on the street wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the mantra of conservatives and liberals alike: it’s all men’s fault. But if you look at the history of America over the last 40 years or so, men have not been the only – or even the primary – culprit of the breakdown of the family. History does not tell of a movement of men throwing off their responsibilities to society. We don’t see crowds of men burning their undergarments and demanding the right to kill their children. We do, however, see women doing all these things.

In the U.S. today, more than two thirds of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And why not? The feminist political machine has tilted the legal game board of divorce ridiculously toward the woman’s pockets. (Please note: Every man in Iowa should carefully read chapters 236 and 598 of the Iowa Code before he even thinks about getting emotionally attached to a woman. As for the other states, talk to a lawyer there.) Millions of children in the U.S. grow up without fathers because their mothers want it that way.

My first year out of law school, I worked in a family law firm. I never had a man in my office who didn’t care about his children. Most of my clients were there because they were having to fight just to see their children. The slant in family court is based on more than gender stereotypes.  The judicial community includes many territorial lionesses. A child is power, and they are not about to share it. Conversely, male judges are of the old way of thinking, in which men are expected to take the lumps and bear the weight of the world on our shoulders without complaint. This combination of liberal women and conservative men, not only in court, but also in society, is a frustrating dynamic. While women are exhorted about their rights, men are flagellated with our supposed responsibilities. Lawyers aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feeling the pain my clients felt. Commanded to be fathers by the right, yet torn from their children by the left; commanded to “be a man,” yet emasculated.

Courageous never addresses any of this, failing to live up to its name. The Kendrick brothers buckle under the pressure of political correctness. Too afraid to take women to task for their desertion, like so many before them, they turn on men.

It’s hard to stay angry at a movie that has this much heart, and is actually trying to make a difference in the world. But while it’s a valiant effort, another Fireproof it is not.  Fireproof met

Actor-director Alex Kendrick takes aim at bad fathers.

people squarely where they were at. There’s no reason 3 billion men couldn’t have connected with Caleb Holt, the fire chief who shows valor in the work place, but doesn’t know how to love his wife. The story eventually shows that, only by first receiving the unconditional love of God can Caleb show unconditional love to the flawed and sinful woman he lives with. It would actually  have been fairly simple for Courageous to do the same thing. Shane Fuller is a character that millions of men would easily connect with, including unbelievers. He is divorced. He wants to be a father to his son, but, as he explains it, he only gets him every other weekend, after his mother has filled his head with her toxic opinions of him. He wants to provide for his son, but almost a third of his paycheck is swallowed by alimony. Shane should have been the lead role of this movie! He could have been the Caleb Holt of Courageous. How can Shane, and other men, be the kind of fathers God wants them to be, despite the obstacles? How can God help them to raise their kids right despite what they have  to deal with? This was a golden opportunity for the Kendricks to win the hearts of their intended audiece. Beating up on men will do nothing to fix the family. Ministering to broken men where they are at will do a lot more.

Sadly, Shane is confined to a small role as the bad cop we’re not supposed to like, and Courageous preaches to the choir. Most of the focus is on Adam, Nathan and Javier, who all have perfect wives, straight out of a Christian fantasy.

Overall, I recommend seeing Courageous. There’s a lot of great moments I didn’t want to spoil here. The fact that I can even disagree with it shows it had more of a brain than most movies. It’s not easy to make a movie that ministers. I still laughed and I was still swept along by the story. It was good to see Christian cinema taking another (mostly) positive step.

Number four at the box office in October of 2011. High-five!

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Hot Chick

Jessica Spencer (Rachel McAdams) is a stuck-up, self-absorbed, cruel little harpie who strings along and breaks the hearts of boys and girls alike (in different ways). She’s exactly the type of girl that makes you think “Boy I hope she wakes up one morning to find that she’s traded bodies with Rob Schneider, and is destined to be chased from her home by her family, maced by her best friend, forced into a fist fight, watch her boyfriend find someone else, and scratch out a living cleaning toilets and mowing yards!” And, just as you’d expect, that’s exactly what happens. Via a ridiculous plot device that I won’t even bother with, Jessica and a male mugger (Schneider) wake up one morning on opposite sides of town, begin their morning urination ritual, and suddenly realize that something is very, very wrong. Hilarity ensues.

No, really, it does. The biggest surprise of The Hot Chick is that it is actually really good. Most of the credit for that has to go to Schneider, as he pulls off one of the toughest acting assignments I’ve ever seen with flying colors. I am not, generally a Schneider fan. I consider his acting sophomoric and distasteful. But it seems he was born to play a teenage girl. No, I mean that as a compliment. Watching Schneider prance, preen, giggle and bat eyes in this movie, you really do forget that he’s acting and he isn’t really a teen chick in the wrong body (at least I … assume he isn’t). I don’t know what Schneider does in his personal time, but he spends a lot of this movie hanging out (so to speak) in tight, pink T-shirts and tight panties, and pillow fighting with Jessica’s BFF’s until it seems almost natural.

Jessica’s best friend (Anna Faris) really wanted to see Jessica’s new … best friend.

Aside from Schneider’s antics, the story is built around Jessica’s quest to get her body back, with the help of a bunch of other girls, once she’s convinced them of her identity, as well as get her boyfriend back. Her boyfriend has been stolen by an equally stuck-up cheerleader from a rival school, and I have to say, there is something very satisfying about watching Schneider head-butt her. There’s something even more satisfying about seeing a rich daddy’s-girl, now stuck in a male body, trying to do manual labour. Probably the funniest scene in the movie is when Jessica (Schneider) enters a men’s room, and finds all the stalls occupied, and has no choice but to use the urinal. She then begins asking other men how to pee standing. (Side note: it’s not like it’s that hard.)

There are a few holes in the plot. It’s interesting that nobody seems to notice Jessica’s missing for a week. Also, her boyfriend, Billy, goes on his own internal journey. This ads some human interest to the plot, but they could have had him turn into a decent guy without having him turn into a total man-gina. All in all though, this is a movie well worth seeing.

 

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Green Hornet

I’m sure you’re all wondering if The Green Hornet is any good. It depends on what you’re looking for. A far cry from the original version, this one is more like a mismatch buddy comedy than an actual super hero movie. The first scene (aside from the prologue) sets the meta tone for the movie. Two villains meet in the back room of a night club and attempt to intimidate each other. What do they talk about? How many men they each have? Guns? No! They critique each other’s image and marketing. “You need a better name!” “Well you need a better suit!” By now we all know what kind of movie this is going to be.

Much like the villains, our heroes decide to be such almost by accident. The new Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) is the irresponsible son of a millionaire newspaper owner (Tom Wilkinson), who spends all his time partying. After his father’s death, Britt hates being overshadowed by his legend. He meets Kato (Jay Chou), who used to work for Britt’s father and also didn’t like him. After a few beers one night, they go out to vandalize Britt’s father’s tomb. Since this is a movie, they just happen to run across a couple being mugged by several men. Through his impulsive heroism Britt manages to piss the bad guys off, before Kato puts them all in the hospital (Britt lands one punch). They then go home and get really hammered. Britt says to Kato “We’re wasting our talents! We could be heroes.” The rest of the dialogue boils down to “sure, why not? We just need a cool name! And better suits!” Thus begins the battle of image between heroes and villains who strive to be cooler than each other. I won’t mince words; The Green Hornet is definitely stupid. It’s saving grace is that it knows it’s stupid, and remembers to make fun of itself, rather than insult its audience.

There are a lot of funny moments here that I won’t spoil, and some great action sequences (Refer to Mythbusters for the question of whether any of them could happen).

Seth Rogen with the real Green Hornet.

On the other hand, Rogen’s Britt Reid is hardly hero material, being propped up by Kato throughout the movie. What’s more, the relationship between them seems pretty forced, changing from standoffish strangers, to friends who call each other “brother,” to hating and punching each other over (what else?) a chick, to reconciliation in time for the big showdown, in a little under two hours. It would have been more effective had Rogen (who also wrote the script) reduced the number of transitions.

I guess it boils down to personal preference. When I go to a superhero movie, I expect to be blown away, not to laugh at movie that laughs at itself. I want a real hero, not a wise-cracking bumbler who gets lucky a lot and has his sidekick do all the work. If you want a movie you can have fun with and not take seriously, check this one out. Don’t bother with the 3-D.

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Due Date

When I saw the previews for director Todd Phillips’ Due Date, it looked pretty obvious what I was getting myself into. On the surface, Due Date appeared to be a 21st century reboot of the 1987 comedy, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, starring Steve Martin and John Candy. Planes is a classic. Martin and Candy are comedic legends. Trying to update a great film (even if they aren’t explicit about it) is always tricky business and rarely a good idea. Still, the previews, the re-teaming of Zach Galifianakis and Phillips, and the inclusion of Iron Man sucked me into believing it would be worth seeing. Sure, Due Date was sure to have its quirks. But coming off Phillips’ surprise hit The Hangover, it didn’t seem reasonable to think with Downey Jr. on board Due Date wouldn’t be another pleasant surprise and a interesting twist on old favorite. Sigh. While premise wise Due Date is almost a carbon copy of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Due Date derails (sorry, had to use it) somewhere between Alabama and the Grand Canyon.

Due Date is the story of workaholic Peter Highman (Downey Jr.) and his misadventures with fellow traveler Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis). Highman is on business in Atlanta and needs to get home for the birth of his first child across the country in L.A. Normally just a few hour flight away, Highman is kicked off his flight and placed on the nation’s “no-fly list” while his bag and wallet are carried off on the flight without him. With few options and only five days to get home before the birth, Highman is offered and accepts a ride by a strange co-traveler, aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay. Let the hilarity ensue! Kinda…

To be fair, Due Date is not without its moments and Downey Jr. and Galifianakis do seem to have some comedic chemistry. Still, it seems most of the comedic set-ups and gags are wasted on the lowest common denominator, which becomes endlessly frustrating as the movie continues to develop. So many potentially hilarious moments are cut short or never develop at all just so that Galifianakis can do something completely over-the-top and bizarre. Sure, the thirteen year-old kid who snuck into the theater sitting behind me thought it was funny. But it’s not what I was hoping for.

The movie’s most glaring flaw comes in the form of the relationship that develops between Downey Jr. and Galifianakis. In Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Candy and Martin develop a friendship that comes across as heartfelt and genuine in the movies final scenes. In Due Date, the friendship between the movie’s two leads seems bizarre and forced. I’m still scratching my head as to why Downey Jr. ever develops any sort of affinity towards Galifianakis other than the periodic drug usage that occurs during the movie. Galifianakis comes across as so over-the-top and sometimes downright disgusting that there is no conceivable way anyone in their right mind would be able to put up with him for five minutes let alone five days. That’s what was so brilliant about Candy’s character in Plains, Trains, and Automobiles. He is an everyman, an annoying and attention starved everyman, but still an everyman. Candy strikes the right balance between endearing and irritating. Galifianakis leaves us only with absolutely strange to the point of ludicrous.

In the end, Due Date was a serious let down. Sure, I laughed at times. But what could have been a nice update of a classic turned into a sophomoric affair. To say cheap gags and middle school boy humor abounds in this one is an understatement. This one might be worth a rental but definitely not worth the price of seeing it at your local megaplex. In fact, it might be more worth it to look up your local listings and see if the old John Candy and Steve Martin flick is on somewhere. It probably is, and it’s free and far more enjoyable.

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Trick ‘r Treat

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good … You probably recognize those words from the beloved children’s song about Santa Clause. You’ve probably sung it, laughing and giggling at a joyful time of year. You have to admit, though, those words are pretty creepy. An old man with supernatural powers watching children sleep?

Every Christmas, we can expect admonitions to respect “traditions,” even if we steer clear of the religious side of the holiday. You have to have a tree and give gifts, like it or not. Why? Because it’s Christmas, that’s why. The same is true of other holidays. On July 4th and Memorial Day, for example, we are expected to demonstrate respect for our national traditions.

I loved Halloween as a child because there were no burdensome traditions. Be whoever you want. Roam the neighborhood at will. As long as you didn’t eat candy without a wrapper, you were free to run amok. Maybe it was your friend from YMCA soccer walking next to you under that costume … or maybe it wasn’t a costume at all. You could have whatever adventure your imagination could write, and no one threatened you with coal.

Until October of 2008, when Legendary Pictures released Trick ‘r Treat. Trick ‘r Treat is set in Warren Valley, Ohio, during the city-wide Halloween festival. The school principal, Steven Wilkinson (Dylan Baker), sits beside a student on his front steps, ominously stabbing and slicing a pumpkin. “My dad taught me a lot about the traditions of Halloween,” he says. “Traditions that were put in place to protect us. Tonight is about respecting the traditions, not breaking them.”

Oh, great.

The first scene in the movie involves a woman who blows out her jack-o-lantern prematurely and is then murdered by “Sam,” a child-sized creature hidden in a burlap costume. Trick ‘r Treat seems to be a horrific version of A Christmas Carol, with Sam acting as the Three Spirits, enforcing Halloween traditions. Later in the movie, he gives similar bloody treatment to a crotchety old man (Brian Cox) who refuses to give out treats. I have to admit, I would not want to be on Sam’s “naughty list.”

The rest of the movie is a patchwork of short stories, overlapping and intersecting. The stories are done fairly well, though there’s nothing original aside from Sam. If you’ve ever sat around a campfire with friends, you’ve heard the staple elements of all of them:

  • A psychopath kills neighborhood children and turns their heads into

    Anna Paquin as horror movie character #VIR017. By touching this movie, she has absorbed its uncanny campiness.

    jack-o-lanterns.

  • A group of friends pulls a scary prank on an unpopular girl, and it backfires horrifically.
  • A girl, begging for help, is murdered in front of party-goers who think it’s an act.

This is a good movie to watch at a party, or with a bunch of friends, to make fun of. It isn’t remotely scary, unless you’re the type who worries about being eviscerated with a lollipop. (Yes, you read that right.) On the other hand, the scenery is really cool, and the writing and acting are good enough to hold your attention. It’s fun to try to predict where the stories will interact. For example, early in the movie, one character looks at his neighbor’s house and sees his neighbor at the window, shouting “help me! Help me!” He waves him off and goes back to the story he is in. Later, the movie backs up and we see the story inside the neighbor’s house and learn what he was so afraid of.

But what is with Sam? Do we really need one more omnipresent holiday symbol secretly watching and passing judgment on us? Especially considering that, while Santa tends to be portrayed as merciful and just, Sam seems rather capricious. Do we really need a morality play about the power of mutilated pumpkins to ward off evil?

As the festivities wind down, the last few minutes of Trick ‘r Treat tie a lot together, and we realize most of what we saw happened on the same street. I would hate to be the coroner for Warren Valley. The authorities will be picking up the pieces for days. What’s more, the funeral homes and grief counselors will be booked solid til Christmas. Then Jacob Marley can start terrorizing us.

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Revenge of the Nerds

Revenge of the NerdsI think watching this movie must be kind of like an inside joke, in that you had to be there to get it. In this case, you had to be a high schooler or college student in the 1980s to appreciate the humor…I guess. Maybe once upon a time this movie would have been funny, but I found it to be dull and tedious, with jokes as blunt as a cardboard knife and all the subtlety of a sledge hammer. The few bright spots seemed more accidental than anything, but again, something had to have worked or else Revenge of the Nerds would have probably died a quick death instead of spawning a series of sequels.

In theory the premise has promise: a bunch of socially awkward college nerds band together to fight the oppression of the big-time fraternity on campus. One imagines it might feature lots of jokes about outcasts turning the tables on the frat dudes, jocks receiving a well-deserved comeuppance, and a healthy dose of fish-out-of-water gags. But it’s all so contrived, so thinly-packaged, and so poorly executed that the whole thing collapses on itself.  The nerds are about as stereotypical as one could imagine: Lewis and Gilbert, best friends armed to the teeth with highwater slacks and pocket protectors, are the leaders of the motley pack of misfits who get kicked out of their dorm to make way for the dudes of Alpha Beta fraternity, who accidentally burn their own house down during a night of wild partying.  The nerds are forced to live in the school gym until they find their own house, and eventually band together to form the Adams College chapter of the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity.  But darn it, those mean Alpha Betas keep picking on them (just like in high school, which apparently no one in the movie has gotten over) and the nerds decide they have no choice but to fight back at those dumb old jocks who keep ruining their fun.

Revenge of the NerdsIt’s a setup that seems ripe for comedy, but the problem is that most of the humor just falls flat.  Every one of the nerds seems to have been borne from a checklist of stereotypes, which leaves little room for actual characterization.  In the gym, as the nerds are settling in to their new accommodations of army cots and basketball-induced study interruptions, the asian nerd Takashi (Brian Tochi) asks the slacker nerd Booger (Curtis Armstrong) “Excuse please, but why do they call you ‘booger’?”  And of course Booger simply replies “I don’t know” while he picks his nose.  Oh, I get it, says the viewer.  They call him booger because he picks his nose!  Har dee har.  Painfully obvious setups and fourth-grade-level punchlines permeate the entire film, and midway through I was honestly checking the clock to see just how long until the misery would be over.

Many scenes just reek of sheer laziness on the part of the writers, such as the party thrown by the Nerds to convince the ruling members of the Tri-Lambda council to accept their admittance into their fraternal order.  The party goes nowhere, and consists of a series of amusing awkward moments when the nerds attempt to be social, but it’s not until Booger produces a joint straight out of a Cheech and Chong movie that things start to liven up.  Really?  Is that the best they can do?  With all the ripe character potential at their disposal, the filmmakers take the cheap way out and instead play for the lowest common denominator: laughing at people under the influence making fools out of themselves.  Gee, how funny.

Like Caddyshack, Revenge of the Nerds was probably funnier in its time than it is now, and I fully admit that much of the comedy is probably lost on me–someone who came of age with movies like Ghostbusters, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and later, Office Space.  And one day my children are probably going to watch them and wonder what the big deal was with those movies too.

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Tommy Boy

Like most people, I missed Tommy Boy during its initial run in theatres.  In my freshman year of high school I didn’t watch Saturday Night Live, had only a vague knowledge of Wayne’s World, and knew nothing of David Spade, Chris Farley, or even Rob Lowe.  It was not until my senior year when some friends and I popped in the VHS tape at a party somewhere and I was introduced to the Tommy and Richard, one of the greatest comic duos of all time and the perfect embodiment of what it means to have chemistry between actors.  Even then, like the first time I saw This Is Spinal Tap, I didn’t quite get it.  It was funny, sure, but even after watching the movie I didn’t understand why all my friends were going around singing “Fat guy in a little coat?” and shouting “Shut up, Richard!”  The story of Tommy’s transition from a rugby-playing college flunkie to kind-of grown up and responsible brake pad salesman was amusing, but I found the movie to be, at best, amusing, but not out-and-out hilarious. In subsequent years, though, I have come to realize how solid, witty, charming, and yes, downright hilarious this tale of the oddest of couples really is.  Having just watched it again recently, and with the added bonus of director Peter Segal’s commentary, I wanted to try to put in to words exactly what makes it such an outstanding film.  This isn’t quite a review (spoiler alert: I give it five stars) as it is an examination of what makes Tommy Boy work so well on such a fundamental level.

Like all good movies, Tommy Boy is first and foremost about the characters and story.  Strip away the jokes, physical comedy, the deer in the car, the killer bees, and Zalinsky’s forehead, and you’re left with the tale of a young man forced to grow up before he is ready, with the weight of the world on his shoulders and dire consequences lest he fail in his quest.  Tommy’s journey mirrors that of the classic hero’s quest found throughout centuries of great literature and in most of the great movies and novels in recent memory as well.  It is the creation of this type of everyman, with no apparent natural abilities to be able to realize his ultimate destiny, that allows the viewers to be so innately drawn in to the story.  Callahan Auto will fall unless someone rises to the challenge of saving it, and though Tommy is entirely ill-equipped to accomplish the task, we cheer for him as he draws Excalibur from the stone and begins his journey that will, if he is successful, save the world of Sandusky, Ohio.  This archetypal character is one that we want to succeed, especially because the odds are so stacked against him–in essence, his victory, we know from the beginning, will be all the more sweet because the obstacles he must overcome are so significant.

Tommy Boy-Lifejacket

Tommy Callahan - The very definition of "Unlikely Hero"

Added to this setup is a powerful familial connection between Tommy and his father, Big Tom, which creates an emotional bond with the viewers as well.  Tommy’s love for his father is almost puppylike–so pure and heartfelt that it would be well-nigh criminal to separate the two.  We see them joking, hugging, and encouraging each other, and though Big Tom knows his son is ill-equipped to run the factory, he is eager to take him under his wing and show him the ropes, that one day he may be ready to take his rightful place as the head of Callahan Auto.  And so when Big Tom succumbs to a heart attack in the middle of his wedding, also on the eve of one of the realization of one of the greatest triumphs of his career, the event is all the more tragic for the relationship it destroys, not just the life it ends.  This type of emotional core is sorely lacking in most comedies–we are often asked to root for the main character, but we rarely encounter such a harsh injustice played with such emotional honesty.  The funeral is scene is entirely straight-faced with no hint of comedy, and even Richard yelling “Somebody call 911!” after Big Tom falls unconscious shows us that he is far more concerned for his boss than he might let on at work.  All of us have lost loved ones, and as Tommy walks away from his father’s grave, alone, with the autumn leaves blowing, it stirs emotions that are rarely, if ever, seen in movies with catchphrases like “Holy schnikes” and lines like “If you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time.”

And so early on in the film we have Tommy, the lovable unlikely hero, setting out on his quest to save Callahan Auto with his unlikely partner Richard.  This mismatched duo is another turn of comic genius, and a classic case of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it on the part of Segal.  For decades, odd pairings like this have worked well for comedies, and Segal wisely doesn’t stray too far from the formula here.  In fact, he practically defines the formula.  Farley is the perfect foil to David Spade’s straight man in almost every way:  Richard is street- and book-smart, while Tommy squirts ketchup packets into his own mouth. Richard knows everything about the auto parts business, while Tommy knows almost nothing at all. Richard is confident, and Tommy is shy and confused in the real world.  But the pairing works in the opposite direction too:  Tommy is deeply social, exuberantly joyful, and has no trouble making friends–all qualities that Richard sorely lacks, and comes to appreciate by the end of the story.  Add to this Tommy’s whale-sized body next to Richard’s toothpick frame and you have one of the most fully-realized and perfectly-cast mismatched couples in movie history.

Tommy Boy - Richard

Tommy and Richard, one of the great mismatched duos in film history.

The conflicts set up in Tommy Boy function on several levels from physical, with the continued destruction of Richard’s mint-condition GTX Convertible, to interpersonal, emotional, romantic, and even metaphysical when Tommy is in need of “a little wind” at the very end. Tommy must overcome his personal demons and weaknesses, but also deal with the harshest of human conflicts, betrayal at the hand of his loved ones.  All good hero stories must involve a dragon for the hero to slay, and Tommy Boy has two:  Tom must deal with his inability to sell brake pads, but also confront his new-found stepmother and stepbrother and stop them from selling the company.  Keep in mind that Tommy’s mother had passed away, and Beverly’s betrayal makes the wound all the more deeper for him.  This type of layered, multifaceted conflict structure is far more than what we would expect from a movie with a fat guy in a little coat, and while it’s no Godfather or Citizen Kane, Tommy Boy certainly has a far deeper and more emotional plot than most comedies, if not most movies altogether.

After facing trials, overcoming his inner demons, and triumphing as a salesman, Tommy must confront the King (of Auto Parts) himself, Ray Zalinski, and in doing so proves his worth as a man to himself and the entire Callahan Auto Parts company.  Whereas Beowulf set out to slay the monster Grendel, Tommy set out to save the town of Sandusky from the monster Zalinski.

While the importance of physical comedy Tommy Boy, as well as the brilliance of Chris Farley’s portrayal of Tommy, cannot be overstated, it is also worth noting that the movie rarely delves into the cesspool of scatalogical gags, cursing, and cheap jokes that plague so many comedies today.  Whereas most comedies rely on trotting out a series of cardboard-thin characters and inserting all manner of gross-out jokes with cheap shocks designed to elicit a laugh or two, Tommy Boy dares to suggest that a solid script with deep and heartfelt characters can be far more funny and certainly more memorable than most of its contemporaries.

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Rating: 4.7/5 (6 votes cast)
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