"Roy, what do you think about new beginnings?"
"What is that, the feminine hygiene spray?"
There is no movie on earth that I quote more often or laugh just thinking about, than The Farrelly Brothers' 1996 comedy masterpiece Kingpin. Yes, masterpiece. I can't think of any movie that packs as many laughs into 113 minutes as this one does, and virtually every single joke works. I would wager to say there's only two jokes in the whole film that don't work, but we'll get to that later. In the summer of 96, there was no movie that I wanted to see more than Kingpin. The ad campaign was brilliant, referring to Bill Murray as "Big, Bad Bill Murray" certainly didn't hurt.
In 1979, the bowling world was introduced to a hot, new talent from Ocelot, Iowa by the name of Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson). After winning the Odor Eaters Championship over bowling legend Ernie "Big Ern" McCracken (Murray), Roy seems to be on a "gravy train with biscuit wheels." His fortunes fade when he teams up with McCracken to earn some supplemental income by hustling at shady bowling alleys. After one incident goes wrong, Munson loses his hand to some thugs, and we jump ahead 17 years to 1996.
Munson is now a hook-handed loser, languishing just outside of Amish country in Pennsylvania, selling supplies to bowling alleys, his glory days long since over. At one of these bowling alleys, he comes across a young Amish gentleman named Ishmael (Randy Quaid) who he thinks has as much natural talent as anyone he's ever come across. He decides to turn his fortunes around, and manage Ish, taking him to the National Championships in Reno, where the winner takes home one million dollars.
Of course, persuading an Amish guy to travel across the country with him is going to take some work, so Roy poses as an Amish man passing through Ish's community to help egg him on. When it's revealed that the farm needs half a million dollars to keep the bank from foreclosing on them, Ish agrees to join Roy on his voyage to redemption. Along the way, they meet up with Claudia (Vanessa Angel) who becomes a third partner in their venture after a hustle Roy tries to pull on her boyfriend goes wrong.
So, it's a buddy comedy, a road trip movie, a love triangle, a redemption tale and a bowling movie, all rolled into one. Tell me where else you get that kind of value for your money?
One of the things that I love about the film is that there's a lot of really mean spirited humor, all of which ends up coming back around on the aggressor. It's sort of a precursor to shows like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," where the characters are generally unlikable, but you're endeared to them because they always end up being the victims of their own mean-spiritedness. The film is also never better than when it attempts to be serious. It's never too far from your mind that you're watching a movie about bowling, so the scenes when they try to bring it down to earth and make things serious become that much funnier as a result.
The performances are all phenomenal. Harrelson has been better in other movies, but this is him at the top of his game. His performance is totally devoid of vanity, and he goes for broke like few other actors could or would. Randy Quaid has become something of a tabloid pariah of late, but he's hysterically funny in this film, playing up his character's naivete to comedic heights. There's a ton of great comedic actors in smaller roles like Lin Shaye as Roy's landlord, Willie Garson as the thief Roy hires to rob her & Chris Elliot as a "Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal-"esque gambler in Reno. I'll let that sink in so you realize the comedic value in it.
This brings me to Bill Murray, who is sublime. I think this is his second best performance ever (Rushmore being his best) and no one can play such an irredeemable character and still make him lovable like Murray. Apparently they had written this role for Jim Carrey, and Murray took the role on condition that he could re-write and improvise the entire character, and thank goodness they had the foresight to let him go hog wild. He has many of the best lines in a film filled with great lines. You can relive many of these line at this site which I spent a good deal of time at this morning. That Unified Fund commercial kills me every time.
So what are the two jokes that don't work for me? It's funny because they're often cited as people's favorite moments in the movie when I talk to people. First is the cow-milking scene. I didn't find it funny the first time I saw the movie, and I still don't. I sort of admire what they were going for, more than I think it's funny. The other joke is Ishmael shitting in the urinal. Again, I'm glad they were taking bold risks, but I just don't find it funny.
It's sad to me that The Farrelly Brothers' next film is the one that skyrocketed them to fame, as I find There's Something About Mary mediocre at best. It's nowhere near as clever or inspired as Kingpin, and the cast is nowhere near as good (Sorry Matt Dillon, you're no Bill Murray). But that's the way it goes, I guess. I don't think, as I used to, that Kingpin will one day be universally recognized as their best film, but to those that know enough to know best, it truly is their best film, and that's undeniable.