Bowling for Dollars: Kingpin (1996)

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Farrelly Brothers movies are akin to family gatherings. They are filled with extreme neuroses, unexpected violence, and deep undercurrents of affection. Their films are even populated with friends and relatives from their Rhode Island home. Listen to any of their audio commentaries and you’ll find that half the actors are bankers and car salesman who grew up with them back east. Every time I see a Farrelly feature I think of how Manny Farber described Howard Hawks’ “weird mother hen instinct.” The Farrellys have it as well, just weirder.  Dumb and Dumber was their directorial debut and an enormous hit, a tale of ignorant male friendship that lowered scatalogical slapstick so far it went below lowbrow and out the other side. It’s also their first attempt at depicting the bonds of brotherhood, in which Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels perform a kind of radical acceptance of each other’s flaws — through complete stupidity, but still (they treated the same theme with greater complexity in Stuck on You, their greatest film and biggest bomb).  The long-gestating but certainly not maturing sequel, Dumb and Dumber To, comes out next month.

The Farrellys follow-up to the original Dumb and Dumber, though, will never get a sequel, though it did come out on Blu-ray last week. Kingpin is another tale of success-challenged males learning to live with the other’s failure, this time in the lacquered middle-aged crisis world of bowling. Though where Dumb and Dumber is an abstract performance piece, as Carrey and Daniels could have been performing in front of a blank wall to similar effect, Kingpin tries to embed its outrageous characters into a semblance of the real world. Each bowling alley and auto-body shop is lovingly detailed, and essential to the development of its sad sack characters. The lead failure Roy Munson, Jr. (Woody Harrelson) is from the made-up small town of Ocelot, Iowa, a corroded rust belt city where he was once its proudest son as State Bowling champion, while ending up in a pit-stained flophouse in Scranton, PA dodging his scrofulous landlord’s bill. He sees a way out in the smooth stroke of Amish naif Ishmael (Randy Quaid), who he thinks can win the big bowling competition in Reno, and take down his longtime nemesis Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray).

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Kingpin was not an easy project for the Farrelly’s to make. Dumb and Dumber’s massive success was attributed to Jim Carrey, and so the Farrelly’s could not get one of their own projects off the ground. So instead they pursued a script by veteran comedy writers Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan (both of The Golden Girls writing staff). As sports fans they related to the material – they always include bizarre athlete cameos, and the one in Kingpin is something else, Roger Clemens as a raging redneck named “Skidmark”. Since disgraced by Major League Baseball’s Mitchell Report for using anabolic steroids, his short scene as a rageaholic gains retrospective…resonance, let’s say. The lead casting was also problematic, with big stars not wanting to dirty their image with the Farrelly’s outrageous material. Peter Farrelly was roommates with Woody Harrelson during his Cheers days, and had tried to get him to act in Dumb and Dumber, but Harrelson thought the script was “too silly”. So on Kingpin Peter tried again, and finally clinched the deal on a pool hall pit – if Peter sank a complicated bank shot Woody would agree to take the part. Peter nailed it, and Woody did the movie.  They had targeted Chris Farley to play Ishmael, but he was tied up in another project, so they went with the more offbeat casting of Randy Quaid, who offered an aw shucks gullibility to the role. Farley would have been outstanding but more aggressive – Quaid’s meek interpretation and ungainly gangliness offered more of a match with Woody’s performance of low-key insecurity.

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Perhaps the biggest coup to Quaid’s signing was that he had Bill Murray’s direct number. Usually you have to leave a message at some automated mailbox to which he may or may not respond, but Quaid was able to call Murray and relay the Farrelly’s interest in having him on the film to play the womanizing bowling champ McCracken. In his enigmatic manner he agreed, and then sent no more communication until the day of the shoot, when he arrived in character in that teapot-lid comb-over. His hair is one of the biggest characters in the film, though it just makes fleeting appearances. It is pure stringy, thinning magnificence, and when the comb-over tips off his bald pate, it seems to reach three lanes over. Murray improvised all of his scenes, including the oft-quoted inspirational nonsense: “You’re on a gravy train with biscuit wheels”.  The Farrelly’s have famously loose sets, aided by their nepotistic ways as well as their belief that the actors should be allowed the freedom to experiment – and look ridiculous.

While the country was experiencing an economic boom in this period, the focus on the rust belt depicts the areas left behind. When Munson returns to Ocelot, they place an emphasis on the town’s decay, from the shuttered ice cream shop to the corroding gas station of Munson’s long-gone father.  Movies of third-tier sports have a tendency to capture America in decline, as in Robert Aldrich’s …All the Marbles, about struggling female pro wrestlers criss-crossing the Midwest. Munson’s home of industrial rot is contrasted with the unreal artificiality of Reno, which is depicted almost entirely inside the neon mall of the National Bowling Stadium. Ernie McCracken is the human avatar of Reno, a slick amoral womanizer who is worshiped for his amorality.

This doesn’t mean the Farrelly’s stint on their patented body-horror comedy – wringing endless jokes out of Munson’s prosthetic hand, which ends up in as many sticky situations as the Addams Family’s Thing. Their movies are ones of extremity, in which bodies and psyches are broken down.  Whether it’s idiots in Dumb and Dumber, disabled drunks in Kingpin, schizophrenics in Me, Myself and Irene or conjoined twins in Stuck on You, the Farrellys are obsessed with both physical and psychical deformity. There is a bit of the freak show in their work, something confrontational in how they present these debilities without a shred of pity or condescension. They are full fledged people with the equal ability to screw up as any of us. One of their favorite character actors was Danny Murphy, a quadriplegic who appears in Kingpin as a smirkingly violent goon who flicks on the bowling ball return that cuts off Munson’s hand. When you watch him in Kingpin, he is not “the guy in a wheelchair”, but “that asshole who chopped of Munson’s hand”. And that’s how he preferred it. Murphy appeared in all of their films from then on in a variety of roles, from sympathetic to villainous, until his death this past August.

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The exception in Kingpin’s parade of unusual physical specimens is Claudia (Vanessa Angel), a hard-bitten blonde who escapes her abusive hustler boyfriend to join Roy and Ishmael on their journey to Reno. She is unique because of her supposed physical perfection, which for Claudia ironically also keeps her outside of proper society. She is somehow too beautiful, so that no one can act normally around her. She then naturally uses her looks to manipulate people, since they are already manipulated before even speaking to her. She uses her body as a weapon throughout the film, to distract opposing teams, and then to beat the stuffing out of Roy in one of the film’s slapstick highlights.

Kingpin is a great bowling movie because it is a movie about failure. Neither Roy or Ishmael wins the big match in Reno. All of the training montages and team building exercises were for naught. At least by traditional metrics of success. But in the Farrelly world, the trio has endured each other’s flaws and accepted them, through ritualized exchanges of humiliations, mostly hook hands to the face and kicks to the balls. Translated through Farrelly slapstick-sentiment, it’s something like love.

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5 Responses Bowling for Dollars: Kingpin (1996)
Posted By a. saez : October 21, 2014 5:37 pm

best film of 1996

Posted By Doug : October 21, 2014 10:53 pm

I’ve been waiting for the Bluray; I will pick this up soon, and know that it will be good.

Posted By Martha C. : October 22, 2014 2:01 am

I’ll be getting this on BluRay, too! Funny movie… But I’m weird, I like most of the Farrelly bros stuff. :)

Thanks for a great write-up on an underrated film!

Posted By Richard Brandt : October 23, 2014 2:17 am

When Munson visits his old home town I realized that as absurd as the Farrelly’s movies may be, they’re absolutely serious about their characters.

Posted By Parallax ViewThe View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of October 24 – Parallax View : October 24, 2014 6:09 pm

[…] by Mubi’s Notebook are appreciations of some fairly disparate filmmakers. Discussing Kingpin, R. Emmet Sweeney nails the unblinking humanism that’s part-and-parcel of the Farrelly brother’s taboo-busting body humor. (“When you watch […]

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