It comes as no surprise that the recent release Kingpin has been rolling gutter balls at the box office. The promotional campaign for the film stresses the fact that Kingpin was directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, better known as the duo that brought you Dumb and Dumber. One might logically conclude that Kingpin aims for the same level of stupid humor as the witless Jim Carrey comedy, a film that prided itself on its appeal to the lowest common denominator. While Kingpin has enough silly slapstick and bodily function humor to avoid truth-in-advertising violations, the film also embraces some decidedly adult gags and abounds with unexpectedly clever satire. It ain't Fargo, but it's a damn sight smarter than Dumb and Dumber -- maybe too smart for its own good.
Screenwriters Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan have infused the Farrellys' film with numerous riffs on sports movies like The Natural, while also sending up a few popular non-jock movies as well, including a brief but inspired jab at Indecent Proposal -- which costarred Kingpin's leading man, Woody Harrelson. How many directors have the audacity to lampoon their star's previous work, and how many stars would play along? From the opening, a deft parody of the classic American "Hey-Dad-let's-play-ball-in-the-back-yard" scene, the Farrellys display a heretofore unseen subtle touch and a willingness to go for the pointed joke or the obscure reference (although plenty of the broader, crasser stuff is here too). Their film has a dark, perverse heart (although not as dark as Matthew Harrison's subversive bowling noir comedy Spare Me, which highlighted the first South Beach Film Festival in 1994); sexual humor, from sly to downright nasty, abounds. You can see why Michael Keaton, who was originally slated to play Harrelson's role, decided against doing the film -- it's too edgy and off-color to fit his nice-guy comic persona. Try to imagine Keaton vomiting into a toilet after performing cunnilingus on his snaggle-toothed landlady in exchange for rent. Harrelson may be Kingpin's leading man, but you could hardly call his a glamorous role. It's extremely unflattering; in addition to the above-mentioned disgusting sexual escapade, Harrelson's character ages none too gracefully, losing his hair (among other body parts) and growing a beer belly. Eddie Murphy made lots of money and garnered a few critical accolades for putting on prosthetic pounds and puncturing his own inflated ego in The Nutty Professor. But the character Murphy creates is a harmless, exaggerated cartoon. Harrelson looks like he's really gone to seed; the part won't win him any designer underwear endorsements.
The white man who couldn't jump plays Roy Munson, a one-time pro bowling phenom whose luck has run so bad that the phrase "pulling a Munson" has become synonymous with failing. Roy loses his golden right hand -- and his promising livelihood -- when a cheap hustle engineered by Roy's archrival Ernie "Big Ern" McCracken (Bill Murray in a frizzy-haired romp) goes sour. The hustle was all Big Ern's idea, but the sleazy, wily veteran escapes, leaving Roy all alone to face the cadre of angry bowlers he and Big Ern have just fleeced. They mangle Roy's arm by stuffing it down the ball return machine. Seventeen years later Roy, now a down-on-his-luck alcoholic, discovers a bowling natural, an overgrown young Amish man named Ishmael (Randy Quaid). Roy takes the sheltered kid under his broken wing, and the two of them head for a million-dollar, winner-take-all tournament in Reno, where the heavy favorite is none other than Roy's old nemesis, Big Ern.
Along the way the Farrellys and their screenwriters turn the road trip into a ten-pin The Color of Money played for laughs. Harrelson hasn't been this good since last call at Cheers; apparently the guy just has a way with endearingly dopey hick roles. And Bill Murray, who for some reason isn't even billed in much of Kingpin's print advertising (Murray doesn't star in the film, but his role is substantial), nails Big Ern's vile, lecherous, cutthroat essence while hamming it up mercilessly as the "Muhammad Ali of bowling." A little Bill Murray goes a long way for some people, but fans of the Saturday Night Live alumnus shouldn't miss this performance; it's vintage Murray.
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You have to wonder about a film that markets itself to an audience too young to appreciate much of its humor, and that omits the biggest name actor in its cast from its advertising campaign. Kingpin isn't a great movie by any measure, but it's sharper and funnier than its own promoters would have you believe. Kingpin's final score sheet tallies more strikes than open frames.
-- Todd Anthony
Written by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan; directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly; with Woody Harrelson, Bill Murray, and Randy Quaid.