Directed by Peter Farrelly, Robert Farrelly. Starring Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Vanessa Angel, Bill Murray, Chris Elliott, Richard Tyson, Rob Moran, Lin Shaye, Zen Gesser, William Jordan. (1996, PG-13, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 26, 1996
From the writer/directors of the Jim Carrey vehicle Dumb and Dumber comes this new entry into the arena of stunningly ridiculous filmmaking that's not only dumber, but also far more entertaining than the duo's previous outing. While D&D's pairing of Carrey and Jeff Daniels provided scattershot comedy at best, Kingpin's teaming of Harrelson and Quaid works surprisingly well, aided by an above-average script that makes the most of an wonderfully ludicrous situation: Roy Munson (Harrelson) is a washed-up pro bowler-cum-balding-loser who lost his game hand, his dreams, and most of his hair circa 1979 thanks to a conniving rival -- the thoroughly unctuous Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken (Murray). These days, Roy divides his time between hawking bowling supplies to regional lanes that neither want nor need them, and dodging his scrawny, emphysemic landlady (Shaye, in a role that injects new relevance into that old Dead Kennedys song “Let's Lynch the Landlord”). While hanging out at the local lanes one night, he meets a young Amish man, Ishmael (Quaid, sublimely goofy in flowing golden locks), who seems to have all the hallmarks of a natural-born bowling pro. Spying his chance for a comeback and one final bid at his dream of tenpins immortality-by-proxy, Roy wheedles the naïve Amish man into accompanying him to Reno, Nevada, where the two will take the national bowling championships by storm (theoretically). Along they way, they hook up with the gorgeous and streetwise Claudia (Angel), who's fleeing her abusive bowler boyfriend, and once in The Biggest Little City in the Country, the unlikely trio meet up once again with the infamous “Big Ern” McCracken (who, like Roy, is similarly follicle-challenged) in a pro-bowling über-match. Ridiculous? In the extreme, which is what keeps Kingpin from sinking into the mire that has trapped so many other seemingly “outrageous” comedies of late. The script by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan is packed with surreal, stupid gags that thankfully work far more often than not: Among the best are some spontaneous, clever throwaways, one of which -- a brief homage to The Graduate -- may have you running for the restrooms laughing (and gagging) all the way, and another which brilliantly parodies that Seventies-era environmental television ad featuring the “Sorrowful Native American by the Roadside” (whether or not this will even register depends entirely on your age). Quaid and Harrelson play off each other here like old pros -- they're no Martin and Lewis, sure, but there's definitely more than the typical Carreyesque mugging-for-the-camera going on. For one thing, Kingpin's story is remarkably well-written (comedically, that is -- this isn't For Whom the Bell Tolls, you realize). Gags flow from each other in a ceaseless barrage, and the Farrelly Brothers' direction is more than competent. On top of that, the whole film is buoyed by a remarkably well-chosen soundtrack that features everyone from Jonathan Richman (onscreen, no less) to The English Beat and Freedy Johnston. Kingpin is no classic, but I've got to admit that after sitting though a number of the film's less-than-inspiring previews over the last few weeks, I wasn't exactly expecting the second coming of Laurel and Hardy. That it isn't, of course, but it is head-and-shoulders above any number of American comedies I've seen in the last year, and for me, that's saying quite a bit. I may even go bowling this weekend.