A fresh reminder that I’m old as hell, Tommy Boy turns 20 on Tuesday. To commemorate the movie that launched Chris Farley’s cinematic career, I threw on this middle-school favorite to figure out if the movie still finds that sweet-spot of broad comedy. I know I still love watching old Farley clips, but have no clue if his most cherished film is worth throwing back into the rotation.
Released on March 31st, 1995, Tommy Boy made a moderate financial impact, with Tommy Boy earning a perfectly fine and forgettable $32 million. It would turn into a cable staple in the mid-90s though, getting far more play than many of that year’s biggest hits, unless you live in some weird alternate world where Congo still runs on USA every Saturday.
The narrative follows Farley as Tommy Callahan, a kind and lovable idiot. Fresh off just barely graduating college, Tommy heads back to Sandusky, Ohio to work for his father’s auto-parts business. A man of few skills, Tommy finds himself on the road in desperate need to make a number of big sales of the company’s brake-pads. He is joined by Richard (David Spade), a sarcastic former classmate of Tommy’s whom knows every detail of the product, if little in the way of casual conversation. Along the way Tommy falls down, cars smash into things and Farley yells in the way Farley does.
Tommy Boy must have had some deal with HBO that required it to be played twice a day for all of 1996. I never owned the movie, though I am absolutely positive that I watched it around fifty times that year. Yes, I didn’t have much of a life for the back half of that year (yay Freshman year in a new state), but I gulped this thing down each time. Farley was gold to my mind, like the aforementioned Sandler, due in no small part to Comedy Central showing their runs on “Saturday Night Live” frequently.
I know Farley’s comedic styling wasn’t particularly highbrow. At the time, that wasn’t especially a concern. I wasn’t looking for clever commentaries on popular culture, inventive obscenities or really anything remotely clever. A fat guy getting hurt or ripping a coat in two due to his girth was sufficient enough. Oh the innocence. Let it resonate.
On the one hand, I have viewed a few of Farley’s other projects in recent years and found his physical comedy to be top-notch. On the other hand, I do fear director Peter Segal. I have disliked the vast majority of the man’s efforts since Tommy Boy, like Anger Management, The Longest Yard and, oh Jebus, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. Maybe those are bad films independent of Tommy Boy’s quality. Maybe those films I find terrible because I wasn’t thirteen when they came out and thus required a smidge of talent to find myself laughing at something.
I’m going to be hopeful. It’s true I pretty much loathe David Spade in, well, everything that doesn’t feature Farley. This has Farley and I have confidence his shtick has retained the warmth at its center that transcended it from merely being big guy fall down aka Kevin James.
I liked Farley’s Tommy. I disliked Tommy Boy. It turns out Peter Segal has always made bad movies, I just didn’t always have the knowledge base to realize that fact.
Perhaps bad is too strong; uninteresting perhaps. Tommy Boy is an uninteresting film. It’s the kind of movie that spends too much of its time setting up a thin and bland plot, a big no-no for comedies. The characters played by Bo Derek and Rob Lowe, who are trying to con the ol’ brake-pad business out of millions, are guarantees for non-laughter. They exist for the movie to have narrative momentum and nothing else, outside of the one scene where Lowe hangs out for an evening with his newfound brother-in-law Tommy.
The rest is a series of alright scenes, all pitched at the same comedic register. Jokes are either about Farley being loud, overweight or stupid. Funny things can be done with this, but the script by Bonnie and Terry Turner rarely do much with it. There are two quality jokes they ring from their doofus protagonist. The first is a running gag about Tommy’s inability to regurgitate his father’s sales line, “I can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking my head up a bull’s ass, but I’d rather take a butcher’s word for it.” The second is the film’s one good one-liner, in which Tommy defends his lengthy university experience. Tommy proclaims, “You know a lot of people go to college for seven years. “ Richard nicely retorts, “I know, they’re called doctors.”
Where that year’s Billy Madison had an edge and insanity to its styling, Segal’s picture is content to laugh at a man being hit in the nuts. Of its many, oh so many, set-pieces surrounding someone howling or being injured, the only one that hits is when Tommy is getting pulled over by the police and conjures the idea to pretend there are countless bees attacking him in order to hide the fact that there are open beer-cans in the car. Along with Richard, he hops out of the automobile and freaks that there are, “Bees! Bees everywhere!” Adding that, “Your firearms are useless against them.” The two officers, each terrified, amusingly run for the hills instead of helping.
The rest of Tommy Boy just bumbles along. This isn’t the kind of comedy you hate watching. Instead, it’s one I can see why others would enjoy. If people screaming about hijinks on the road, from hoods coming loose to deer being crashed into; then fine, Tommy Boy is for you. It isn’t for me anymore. Over ninety-seven minutes, there are easy gags that almost never build from moment to moment. There is no escalation to the humor for the majority of the running time. Add to that the level of safety to the material and it’s boring more often than not.
Farley is at least an enjoyable presence. There is a sincerity to his performances that keep the over-the-top nature of his work from being grating, or worse, cloying when the story leans into dramatics. You feel for Tommy because of Farley. You may not enjoy the wackiness he brings up himself and encounters, but because of Farley’s sweetness, that is less a bother than it would be in many other hands.