Unsung Cinema: Kingpin (1996)

When you think Farrelly Brothers movies, you think Green Book. Just kidding, you think Dumb & Dumber, and There’s Something About Mary. You think of Harry & Lloyd selling a dead parrot to a blind kid or Cameron Diaz with Ben Stiller’s jizz in her hair. Both those films were tremendous hits, and even twenty-plus years later, they invoke laughs. Sandwiched between these two mega hits was Kingpin from 1996. Kingpin was not as acclaimed as Dumb & Dumber, and There’s Something About Mary. It also produced middling returns at the box office. Over the years, Kingpin has gained a cult following, but it’s more deserving of its cult status and should be considered the Farrelly Brothers’ best comedy.

The year is 1979, and Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) is on top of the world. He wins the Iowa state bowling championship and departs home to turn professional. In his professional bowling tour debut, he beats established pro Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), who takes the loss badly and pursues payback. He convinces Roy to help him con some amateur bowlers. These guys catch on to the ruse, and McCracken abandons Roy. They put Roy’s left hand through the ball, returning losing his hand.

11/11/96 Woody Harrelson Stars In The Movie “Kingpin” (Photo By Getty Images)

Seventeen years later, Roy is a washout and a shell of what he once was. He has a prosthetic hand and is an unsuccessful traveling salesman of bowling equipment. Constantly harrassed by his landlady Mrs. Dumars (a genuinely memorable Lin Shaye), he is forced into sexual favors to pay the rent. One day on the job, he discovers a promising bowler, Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid), a member of the Amish community. Seeing a sign for a $1 million prize for a winner take all tournament in Reno, Nevada, Roy goes undercover as an Amish person (in some hilarious sequences, I suppose the Amish are easy targets) and eventually convinces Ishmael to come with him under the guise of an Amish mission. Roy acts as a coach and mentor to the childlike Ishmael. They go across the country earning cash by hustling bowlers. One night they defeat a wealthy opponent Stanley Osmanski (Farrelly Brother vet Rob Moran). Still, he discovers Roy has fake money to pay him if he loses, and as Roy and Ishmael escape, they are joined by Claudia (Vanessa Angel), Osmanski’s girlfriend he often abuses. There are some pleasant moments along the way, and Roy, Claudia, and Ishmael make a surprisingly effective comic team. All of this leads to the tournament in Reno against McCracken, only this time, it’s Roy with his rubber hand and all that bowls against him, not Ishmael, who has also hurt his bowling hand.

What makes Kingpin so funny is the Farrelly Brothers are not afraid to push for laughs. The best moments come when you least expect them. Like when Roy helps out on the Amish farm with an incident involving milking. Recurring gags involving Munson’s rubber hand. How Bill Murray’s hairpiece eventually comes off more and more during the final bowling match. The little comic nuances in Woody Harrelson’s performance. The comic timing of a would-be assailant getting hit in the face with coffee twice. The perfect casting of Randy Quaid as an innocent being led by others recalls his role in The Last Detail, the Hal Ashby film. Kingpin is a blast from start to finish. It’s got what many great comedies have: great comic timing. The Farrelly Brothers know how to get things on a comic role, especially with their use of comic montage.

The comedy performances in this film, from top to bottom, are excellent. Woody Harrelson is great in what’s essentially a comic straight-man role. He convincingly portrays someone down on his luck, and we come to like Roy because we feel bad for him. The Farrellys are known for their gross-out humor, but Woody Harrelson brings as much pathos to the role as possible. Randy Quaid is fun as the childlike Ishmael, and he’s entirely in his comic wheelhouse. Vanessa Angel brings more than just good looks to her role and proves herself a good comedy actress. There are also funny minor roles like Lin Shaye as the truly disgusting landlady.

The most memorable performance of the film, though, by far is Bill Murray as Ernie McCracken. It’s a mastery of smart-ass performance. Every time he’s on the screen, you can’t help but smile because he has this shit-eating grin the whole time and is full of shit. McCracken is a womanizing sleazeball through and through but has the guise of being a respected member of the bowling community. He’s the villain of the piece as he helped ruin Roy’s life in the beginning, he’s a scumbag, but it’s Bill friggin Murray. Of course, he makes it hilarious. It’s so much fun to watch. His hairpiece at the end getting worse and worse is deliriously funny. Of the many Bill Murray characters he’s known for, there’s none more memorable than Big Ernie McCracken.

Kingpin is not a profound film in any sense. It’s constructed as part parody, part embracing of sports movie tropes. It all builds up to the big match at the end, which surprisingly doesn’t go as you might think. The film has a freewheeling approach to the genre. It’s a part buddy film, sports film, fish out of the water, road movie, and clash of cultures. It’s not afraid to go overboard for laughs, not in an exhausting way, perhaps like the Farrelly Brothers’ 2000 film Me, Myself, & Irene. There’s nothing mean-spirited about the jokes, just bravery in how low they’re willing to go. It’s a film about many flawed misfits and underdogs who grow throughout the film. You can always turn things around in the end and change.

Postscript: Even though Kingpin received mixed reviews, Siskel & Ebert both loved it. Ebert gave it 3.5 stars, and Siskel even put it on his top 10 list of the year. I love watching the review because of the sheer exuberance they had watching a comedy in the theater where everyone laughs and is on the same level as the comedy.

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