Dir: Peter and Bobby Farrelly, 1996. Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Bill Murray, Vanessa Angel. Comedy.
Though they hit the big-time as screenwriters and directors with their first film, Dumb & Dumber, the Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, peaked commercially and critically with their third film, There’s Something about Mary. Their gross-out, dumb humor mixed with lazy sentiment became the standard for turn-of-the-century-era comedy; however, it was actually their less popular second film, Kingpin, which remains their best and funniest flick. It has the raunch, it has some heart, but most importantly, what makes the film special is the outstanding casting of its three leads: Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, and Bill Murray. Their performances, along with some of the supporting character actors, help the film rise above its sometimes weak script. Kingpin may not always bowl strikes but it is at least good enough to share a lane with the other best bowling movie ever, The Big Lebowski.

Back in the disco days of the late ‘70s, a young Iowan man, Roy Munson (Harrelson), looked like he was on his way to becoming a bowling god, until he hooked up with a conniving pro-bowler named Ernie McCracken (Murray) for a little hustling. The naive Roy didn’t realize that the sleazy Ernie, who drinks Tanqueray & Tab, was threatened by the younger bowler’s talent and leading him astray. A bad con with the wrong guys leads to Roy getting his hand cut off and the end to his promising bowling future. CUT TO: 17 years later. Roy now sports a prosthetic hand (over a hook) and a bad comb over haircut. He’s down and out, a drunk and bad conman forced to sleep with his hideously haggish landlady (Lin Shaye, brilliant) to cover his rent. Roy has hit the bottom until he happens upon a naive young Amish bowler, Ishmael Boorg (Quaid, the 40-something actor seems to be playing about 20). After much coercing and posing as an Amish cousin Roy finally convinces Ishmael to hit the bowling road with him to learn the con and eventually play for the big-time, where Ishmael can earn money to save the family farm.

Along the way Ishmael learns the way of the non-Amish world, becoming a drinker, a smoker, and getting a tattoo. Soon the two take on a partner, Claudia (Vanessa Angel), a sexy street-smart con woman, who helps them escape from a rich creep, Stanley (Rob Moran), whom they swindle. Ishmael takes a shine to Claudia but Roy has nothing but conflict with her. Their arguing breaks up the trio and in Reno, Roy returns to bowling, taking on his arch enemy, Ernie McCracken, and in the end losing to him by a hair. But back at his dumpy apartment, Claudia shows up; she bet against him and now they’re rich, and finally even seem to have a romantic link. They go and find Ishmael who returned to the Amish community with his tail between his legs and they give him his share of the loot and then bam, it’s a happy ending for all.

The big joke here is that Kingpin is a spoof of the pool world classic The Hustler; instead of the classic billiards, it’s bowling, a more clumsy game for working the hustle angle on. And even funnier, instead of Paul Newman as the hot shot kid, it’s the gumpy Randy Quaid with his ridiculous Amish haircut (an obviously goofy wig). The other spoofs in the film sometimes overreach (like an awkward scene with Chris Elliott that takes on another Woody Harrelson flick, Indecent Proposal). But when Kingpin sticks to the format of The Hustler, replacing the seedy pool halls with bowling alleys, it’s a solid comedy. And though Harrelson and Quaid are very funny and carry the film ably, anytime Bill Murray is on screen it’s a gem. He only pops up in the beginning and at the end which may explain why the middle sometimes feels a little saggy. His arrogant pro-bowler, Ernie McCracken, is a tacky middle-aged lout who somehow always seems to have a foxy lady on his arm. It’s another brilliant creation by Murray who, after his big run as a huge leading man of comedy in the ‘80s, has made himself the king of self-effacing characters ever since. Murray again proves no matter how little he appears onscreen he can turn a pretty good comedy into a classic.
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 6, 2012 5:07pm
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