The Farrelly Brothers Come Up With A Surprisingly Amusing Film, Given The Usual List Of Suspects.
By Stacey Richter
I DIDN'T EXPECT much from Kingpin, a comedy about bowling from the Farrelly brothers, the team who brought us Dumb & Dumber. I figured it would be stupid, adolescent, forced and unfunny. It was stupid and adolescent, but it also turned out to be surprisingly funny and thoroughly enjoyable. Good performances, a quirky, non-formulaic script and plenty of self-conscious humor somehow managed to keep Kingpin from slipping into the quagmire of stupid, offensive comedies.
It's the story of Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), a fresh, innocent junior bowling champ who succumbs to the ways of the world when he decides to try the pro circuit. Disco music throbs and polyester shirts glisten as a blown-dry Harrelson, full of idealism, sets out to make it big. Through a series of mishaps, he ends up falling in with Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), an underhanded operator. Together, they trick lesser bowlers out of cash like Eddie Felson in The Hustler until some tough guys get pissed off and feed Munson's shooting hand into the ball uptake machine.
Seventeen years later, Munson is a balding alcoholic with a rubber prosthesis that fits over his hook and precious few prospects on his horizon. Not only is his innocence ravaged, he's adopted all the smarmy, insidious ways of his nemesis, McCracken. He lies, cons, prostitutes himself, etc. Then he meets up with Ishmael (Randy Quaid), a sweet, Amish bowling savant who needs to raise money to save his community's farm. The two decide to go to the world bowling championship in Reno, and on the way they meet up with Claudia (Vanessa Angel), a babe who wants to go along.
The main purpose of this admittedly contrived plot is to deliver jokes, which it does with predictable regularity. Of course, the most contrived parts end up being the least funny--the story of Ishmael's inevitable introduction to booze, cigarettes and dissipation and Munson's parallel reaquaintance with the ideals of love, hard work and friendship provide the most predicable jokes. But this script has an edgy, dark side that ends up delivering the best moments of the movie.
Munson is a broken man, and his depressing life in a Pennsylvania mill town is just ugly enough to be funny in a dangerous, uncomfortable way. When a sports interviewer asks him what he's been doing in the 17 years since he left the pro circuit, he replies, "Drinking." "But you're not drinking anymore..." responds the nervous interviewer. "No, of course not," says Munson. Then, "Why, are you buying?"
Harrelson clearly enjoys playing the scheming, not-too-bright Munson (the Farrellys seem to be happiest with characters who aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer); and Murray, reprising his familiar, smarmy, man-about-town act, gleefully mugs through his role as the sleaziest bowler in America. Murray's position as a suave sociopath allows him to transgress without being noticed, and he has probably the funniest, meanest lines in the movie. After being smoothly charming to a waitress (who brings him a Tanqueray and Tab) he asks if she'd mind "washing that perfume off before you come back to the table, hon."
The filmmakers seem to follow a strategy that allows them to try anything in the service of comedy. On the one hand, this gives Kingpin a healthy dose of absurdity that keeps the audience off-balance. Chris Elliot, playing a high roller in Reno, offers to give Harrelson a million dollars if he can sleep with Quaid--a weird, unexpected reference to Harrelson's role in Indecent Proposal. When the travelers get to Reno, the first thing they see is an advertisement for one of the endless shows put on in gambling towns: The Jeffersons on Ice.
But all this unrestrained comic energy also finds release in some really offensive scenes. The movie is without question misogynistic, moving well beyond the usual offering of boob-and-nipple jokes. One scene has Harrelson vomiting, repeatedly, after (presumably) performing cunnilingus on his blowzy landlady in exchange for rent. I was surprised by the PG-13 rating; the movie deserves an R. Another scene (after Chris Elliot makes his million dollars proposition) has Randy Quaid lying on a hotel bed with his pants around his ankles while Madonna's "Like A Virgin" plays on the soundtrack. If all this isn't disconcerting to a 13-year-old, it should be.
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