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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