Screenplay : Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Woody Harrelson (Roy Munson), Randy Quaid (Ishmael), Vanessa Angel (Claudia), Bill Murray (Ernie McCracken), Chris Elliott (The Gambler), Lin Shaye (Landlady)
It has always been said that funny is a matter of taste. "Kingpin" is a matter of being funny by being tasteless.
"Kingpin" is a gross, screwball comedy sprinkled with social and cultural satire, then loaded with bathroom humor and a whole heaping of cinema in-jokes and movie spoofs, plus one good sheep joke. If anything, "Kingpin" features a great competition between two characters for the worst comb-over hairdo in the history of cinema (you know, the kind where a man grows the hair on the side of his head really long so he can comb it over to hide his bald spot).
Starting with a spoof of Robert Reford's "The Natural," the movie tells the story of Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), a natural bowler who becomes the town's hero by winning the Iowa State Bowling Championship in 1979, dethroning the previous champ, Ernie McCracken (Billy Murray). To get even, McCracken talks Roy into hustling some tough guys for money, then ditches him when things go wrong. Roy ends up losing his hand in the ball return, and the once great champion spends the next seventeen years in a drunken haze.
When we catch up with, Roy is a balding drunk who sells bowling equipment with a rubber prosthetic hand covering his hook, and has to pay the rent by sleeping with his utterly repulsive landlady. One day he runs into a naive Amish man named Ishmael (Randy Quaid), who Roy immediately recognizes as a natural. After a hilarious sequence where Roy pretends to be Amish (most of which is a direct stab at 1985's "Witness"), Roy talks Ishmael into going with him to Reno to compete in a $1 million bowling tournament. Ishmael's Amish family thinks he's going on a mission trip, and they have no idea that by the time it's over, Ishmael will have taken up drinking and smoking, dressed in drag, partied all night, and gotten several tattoos among other things.
The middle of the film is a road trip movie with Roy and Ishmael making their way to Reno with little or no money. Along the way they hustle a rich mobster, and end up taking his girfriend, Claudia (Vanessa Angel) along with them. When they arrive in Reno, they find that McCracken is still a two-timing con artist, but he's also the current champion and everybody's hero. From here, "Kingpin" turns into a bowling showdown that is more or less a commercial for ESPN.
"Kingpin" is the sophomore effort of Bobby and Peter Farrelly, the two brothers who wrote and directed the hilarious "Dumb and Dumber." "Kingpin" is in this same vein, but this time they're working from a script by first-time screenwriters Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan. The screenplay is filled with Hollywood in-jokes and asides, including a not-so-subtle spoof on "Indecent Proposal" with Chris Elliott standing in for Robert Redford. For the most part, the whole plot is taken directly from the Tom Cruise-Paul Newman vehicle "The Color of Money."
One of the strongest aspects of "Kingpin" is the performances, especially those of Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid. This could have been just brainless juvenile film, but Harrelson and Quaid bring human qualities to their roles, making them genial characters. Quaid has the same kind of naive affability that he had in films like "The Last Picture Show." Once you get over how goofy he looks in his Dutch-boy blond wig, he really grows on you like a big, overgrown kid who just wants to be friends.
Harrelson is picture-perfect as Munson, and he shows the same kind of comedic flair he had in his stint on TV's "Cheers" and in films like "White Men Can't Jump." Physically, he's pathetic-looking with his beer gut, retro-seventies wardrobe, and his awful comb-over hairdo. Most of the time, that mop of hair is either sticking straight out or falling the wrong way, and by the end of the film it's become something of its own character. Of course, not to be outdone, Murray shows up at the end with a comb-over that's twice as bad. You have to see it to believe it.
Unfortunately, "Kingpin" is a little too long, and somewhat uneven, as the laughs tend to come in large spurts at random points in the movie. There are a few dead spaces where not much happens, and the finale is a little too much in the tradition of "Rocky" for my tastes. Nevertheless, it is a funny movie that is much better than it had to be.
©1997 James Kendrick