Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s follow-up to the cult classic Dumb and Dumber (1994), Kingpin (1996), is my favorite of their filmography, which climaxed with There’s Something About Mary (1998) before following a crash and burn trajectory. After being disappointed with Me, Myself, & Irene (2000) and only catching glimpses of Shallow Hal (2001), I signed off on the duo. Their first three films were able to balance a heartfelt approach to characterization while simultaneously using those very characters as cogs in a gross-out comedy machine. Jeff Daniels’ Harry, Jim Carrey’s Lloyd, and Ben Stiller’s Ted are all loveable losers that evoke a larger spectrum of emotions from us precisely because they are unaware that they are loveable losers. As Roger Ebert describes Dr. Strangelove, “People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. The laughs have to seem forced on unwilling characters by the logic of events. A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But a man who doesn’t know he’s wearing a funny hat … ah, now you’ve got something.”
For me, and I have no doubt that this is a risky proposition, the best example of a Farrelly character that is trying to be serious and fails is not Ted Stroehnmann of TSAM but Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson). When we meet Roy in the summer of 1979, he is in the process of leaving small town life for the excitement of a national, Professional Bowlers Tour. In his first tournament, sponsored by Odor Eaters, Roy defeats the established pro Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) and is handed a check by a man in a giant foot costume. Yet, unbeknownst to Roy, his small town naivety is about to bite him on the ass. Ernie, pissed about losing to a newbie, sabotages Roy’s car and then swoops in to save the day by suggesting that Roy hustle the local bowlers for “supplementary income.” Or, as the dim Roy, slurping cereal out of a trough, best understands it, “Do you want to earn extra money?”
Roy accepts and the hustle goes awry. When the locals discover that he is the Iowa state champion, McCracken flees and the scorned bowlers turn on the young man, thrusting his hand into the bowling ball return and bestowing upon him a metal hook, which is occasionally hidden by a rubber hand. When the film flash forwards, we find Roy drowning his broken dreams in whiskey, scavenging his rent together from a series of short cons, including ripping off local bowling alleys with false invoices. While on one of these cons, Roy meets Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid), an Amish man with a gift for setting them up and knocking them down. Now, the worldly ignorance is, for the most part, on the other foot: Roy is the world weary mentor and Ishmael, after being roped into a cross country voyage to win a million dollars in Reno, is the clueless protégé. Unlike McCracken however, Roy isn’t out to screw Ishmael and they enlist the help of a voluptuous blonde (Vanessa Angel) to help stack the odds in Ishmael’s favor. Of course, complications inevitable ensue and Roy ends up taking Ishmael’s place in the big tournament, facing off against his former nemesis, now turned bowling tyrant.
The reason why Kingpin works so well is the mixture between character and performance. Woody Harrelson’s Roy is both despicable and lovable, defined visibly by the comedic combination of a metal hook, unsightly comb over, and asynchronous clothing styles. Having been burned in the past, he is dubious of any interlopers with their eyes on his Amish prize, he’s selfishly protective. It’s not that he cares for Ishmael, although he does grow into caring, he just needs his investment to pay off so as to free himself from being “Munsoned.” The arc that he’s given, and the contrast it plays to the prologue with Ernie, adds a structured symmetry to the film. It deepens the comedy because Roy does not exist in a void; we understand and, in some cases, anticipate the comedic effects because we are aware of the cause. Harrelson’s portrayal reminds me of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa (2003); both performances showcase actors who are more than willing to cross the line when it comes to using physical appearance to underline despicability, especially if it involves making the audience feel nauseous.
Bill Murray’s McCracken is the glue that holds this whole piece together. Surprisingly, while re-watching the film, I realized how little he is on screen. He’s present for the first couple scenes and then completely disappears. Then, like Orson Welles’s Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), he re-appears and captures the movie completely for himself. He’s the constant variable in the world of Kingpin, always leading to chaos while simultaneously being rewarded for it. A great example of this occurs when Roy sees the bane of his existence in a commercial for a Big Brothers, Big Sisters-esque organization. The public sees it as McCracken giving back to the community while we realize it is simply a ruse for him to get closer to the single mothers. Moreover, Murray isn’t afraid of matching Harrelson’s physical descent into his character. Prophetically, he tells Roy in the opening scenes that if Roy will pick up a 7-10 split on the same day McCracken’s hair will start falling out. Roy picks up the spare and, decades later, we’re given a demon faced Murray with disheveled, balding, locks.
Kingpin may not be a perfect film: Harrelson’s Roy is, unfortunately, more fleshed out than Ishmael and Vanessa Angel’s Claudia. This isn’t so much the fault of the actors, as Quaid can play naïve stupidity incredibly well (see The Last Detail for one of my favorite examples) and Angel is able to cross sexiness with world weary cynicism, inspired by spousal abuse (yeah, Kingpin kinda cranks it up a notch in its middle stretch, walking the tightrope of social discomfort). Yet, neither character is really given the attention or the space to blossom out the way Roy does. They are secondary figures in a battle between Roy and McCracken. Moreover, especially in the unrated cut (why do these unrated cuts always seem to hurt comedies?), some of the jokes land with a splat (the firehose/shower scene). Yet, it is incredibly funny and, like it’s filmic sibling in bowling, The Big Lebowski (1998), infinitely quotable: “What is it about good sex that makes me have to crap?”
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, Senses of Cinema, and Studies in Comics. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.