The Farrelly Brothers tend to be remembered for their 1994 directorial debut, Dumb and Dumber, or their 1998 romantic comedy, There’s Something About Mary. After hitting it big with those films in the 90’s, the Farrelly Brothers haven’t been able to recapture that success. The duo’s most recent directorial effort in 2014, Dumb and Dumber To attempted to cash in on everyone’s love for the original. The end result was a desperate, underwhelming, and even slightly depressing film. Also, it wasn’t funny or good. It’s the prime example of a sequel that came out too late while also being made for all the wrong reasons. The Farrelly Brother’s career slump aside, this year marks the 20th anniversary of their best film to date. What film might that be? Why it’s Kingpin of course!
Kingpin follows Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), a former star bowler whose career was abruptly cut short. Roy takes Ishmael (Randy Quaid), a talented Amish bowler under his wing and together they trek across America to Reno, NV, where a bowling tournament with a $500,000 grand prize is being held. Claudia (Vanessa Angel), a mistreated (and sketchy) woman joins Roy and Ishmael on their trek.
The best thing Kingpin has to offer is its protagonist, Roy Munson. His character is fully developed and he has a great character arc. The film starts off in 1979 with Roy as young and ambitious bowler who’s destined for greatness. Calvert Munson (Danny Greene), Roy’s father who taught him the game has especially high hopes for him. However, Roy’s flaw with being young is that he’s gullible, and Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), a rival bowler exploits it. He talks Roy into hustling some folks at a bowling alley and leaves him to deal with the consequences when they figure out they’ve been hustled. The “consequence” for Roy is the loss of his bowling hand, which effectively ruins his career and practically his life. Cut to 17 years later, and Roy is now a bitter, deadbeat alcoholic living in Pennsylvania. He works as a novelty salesman, but none of the bowling allies want to buy from him. It’s heartbreaking, but thanks to strong writing from Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan and Harrelson’s strong acting ability, you can still find a lot of humor in Roy’s predicament. Bill Murray is top notch as Ernie McCracken, the bully and the antagonist of the film. You don’t like him, but thanks to Bill Murray’s irresistible charisma, you don’t hate him either. It’s clear Murray was having a lot of fun in the role, and entertaining antagonists make for the best ones.
Despite Roy’s hopeless situation, including having to do his landlady Mrs Dumars a “personal favor,” to avoid being evicted (and staying out of jail), the film remains funny and poignant as it progresses. Roy’s attempt to convince talented Amish bowler Ismael to team up with him is mean spirited at first, but later it’s humorous. Roy makes for the most unconvincing Amishman ever, but he manages to get Ishmael to join up with him. Ishmael’s family is need of money to save their farm, so he sees it as an opportunity to prove himself useful and worthy. Ishmael’s childlike understanding of the outside world makes him an instantly likeable character and is where a lot of the humour in the film lies. The chemistry between Harrelson and Quaid is great, and the two of them together reminds you of that dumb (and dumber) duo in a previous Farrelly Brothers’ film.
Like with Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin transitions into an effective road film. Roy teaches Ishmael about bowling (and how to hustle), and along the way he gets to experience some satisfaction that he hasn’t felt in 17 years. Claudia, a sweet yet sketchy woman joins them on their journey to get away from her abusive boyfriend, Stanley (Rob Moran). Roy and Ishmael’s attempt to hustle Stanley proves that they’re desperate, and Claudia is there to help them on their way to Reno for the big tournament. Although she’s really mean towards Roy at first (he himself is distrustful of her too), a connection forms between the two, with Ishmael as their moral center. Vanessa Angel is great as Claudia, and her struggle for independence is relatable and feels true to life. One of the best and most heartfelt scenes the film has to offer with Claudia and Roy is when they revisit Ocelot, Iowa, Roy’s hometown. The emotion is raw and genuine throughout that scene, and it doesn’t drastically change the film’s tone either.
Where Kingpin really shines is with its subversive third act. Once the trio makes it to Reno for the bowling tournament, things unfold in unexpected and comical ways. Roy is given another chance to experience what he always felt was the “good life,” and the ridiculousness of a certain antagonist’s hair is turned up to 11. Despite the unexpected and bad turn of events, there’s still that slight glimmer of hope for both Roy and Ishmael.
Although the initial reception for Kingpin was lukewarm in 1996, time has been kind on this film. Thanks to home video and cable TV, it’s gotten the praise and recognition it deserves. Sure, the humour can be mean spirited at times, especially with Roy (come on, give the man a hand…), but it never gets too mean spirited. Also, despite the depiction of Amish life being played mostly for laughs, it never becomes insulting. In fact, it portrays just how more hard working the Amish are than normal folk. “You work 8 hour days, we work 12 hour days. We do everything you do, plus half,” as Ishmael puts it. This Amish philosophy is humorously tied in with the bowling too. 20 years later, Kingpin remains one of the funniest, entertaining, and endearing comedy films of the 90’s and the Farrelly Brothers’ best work to date. Personally, I consider Kingpin to be one of the best comedy films ever and Roy Munson to be Woody Harrelson’s best role to date. Also, did I mention it has the best replay value? Why aren’t you (re)watching it yet?