Why We’re Still Talking About 'Tommy Boy'

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Chris Nashawaty
·7 min read
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Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo credit: Shutterstock

There’s something oddly comforting about a big, stupid comedy about a couple of dim bulbs on a dumb-and-dumber quest oblivious to the wider world of adulthood. From Martin and Lewis to Cheech and Chong, right up through Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth, these idiot buddy movies are pure check-your-head-at-the-door escapism, offering the rare chance to regress back into childhood, when nothing seemed more important than the bond of friendship and nothing was funnier than a well-timed fart joke.

Let’s be clear: These are not movies for critics, they’re movies for the mob. Celluloid bread and circuses that tend to clock in at around 90 minutes and aim for the heart when they’re not aiming below the belt. As a movie critic, I’m supposed to scoff at these films and dismiss them with withering reviews as I adjust my monocle and pore over my dog-eared copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a pretty big soft spot for more than a few of them. And if I’m going into full confessional mode here, then now seems like a good time to admit that none makes me laugh quite as hard as Chris Farley and David Spade’s Tommy Boy. It feels good to finally say that on the record.

Released on this day in 1995, Tommy Boy should have been just another disposable, slapdash Lorne Michaels cash-grab. In the wake of the one-two box-office triumphs of The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack in the summer of 1980, the SNL impresario quickly recognized that there was piles of money to be made in farming out his legendary sketch show’s cast members to Hollywood in exchange for a lucrative producer credit via a sweet deal with Paramount. It didn’t matter if these movies came with a decent plot or any real for reason for being beyond greed, they came ready-made with the kind of proof-of-concept name recognition that made them stand out on a crowded multiplex marquee. More often than not, they were god-awful—The Coneheads, It’s Pat, Soul Man, A Night at the Roxbury. Which is probably why Tommy Boy feels like such a small miracle.

Penned by SNL staff writers Bonnie and Terry Turner, Tommy Boy had the decided advantage of not being based on an existing late-night sketch. Which is probably why it doesn’t feel like a five-minute idea taffy-stretched into feature length. Instead, it capitalized on the infectious Mutt & Jeff chemistry of Spade and Farley—a disarming comic duo that even looked like a visual punchline: the pint-sized weaselly smartass versus the stocky, big-hearted naif. Best friends off screen if not on, they possessed none of the private baggage or envious one-upmanship of say, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. They were funny together because deep down you could tell they actually liked one another. Their knucklehead brotherhood was palpable.

The plot (such that it is) revolves around Farley’s sweet-but-stoned Tommy Callahan, a Bluto-like frat-boy whose beloved auto-parts magnate father (Brian Dennehy) dies leaving his company in dire financial straits. Against the hissy-fit protestations of his dad’s wormy, uptight assistant (Spade’s Richard), Tommy is tapped to run the company and try to save it from collapse. Meanwhile, Tommy Senior’s new trophy wife (Bo Derek) schemes with her lover (a con man pretending to be her son, played by Rob Lowe) to ensure Tommy’s quick crash-and-burn failure. And that’s pretty much the whole story, folks. Inception, it ain’t.

But what makes Tommy Boy such a giddy and guilt-free guilty pleasure is the sublime push-pull joy-buzzer hilarity that shoots like sparks between Spade and Farley. As these two reluctant partners hit the road to check in on the reeling company’s ledger of loyal customers and try to keep their business, they keep royally fucking up like the two bickering half-wits they are. Like any classic road comedy, the biggest laughs come not so much from their Planes, Trains, and Automobiles journey, but rather from the pit stops along the way when Spade and Farley are allowed to passive-aggressively riff off one another like two guys who had each other’s numbers years before the cameras started rolling. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve watched Tommy try to cheer Richard up by breaking into his “Fat Guy in a Little Coat” routine.

That sort of commitment to even the most inane physical bit is what made Farley, yes, I said it, a comic genius. Like his famous SNL Chippendales audition dance-off with Patrick Swayze, he could disarm you with his athleticism and physical grace the same way that his idol, John Belushi, could. He was more than just a one-note big-guy-falls-down-and-goes-boom sight gag. He radiated an innocent joy and puppy-dog eagerness. And yet, there’s none of the neediness you might expect in his act. Whether he’s playing motivational speaker Matt Foley or the high-pitched Gap salesgirl or Tommy Boy, Farley is always a 10-year-old boy in a 31-year-old man’s XXXL body. To somehow bring pathos to that Baby Huey set-up, well, that’s a deceptively tricky highwire to walk. Disagree? Then all you have to do is look at the career of Kevin James. As for Spade, his smarminess has never been weaponized so perfectly.

If you allow yourself to drop your guard and submit for 97 minutes (including end credits gag reel), there’s an undeniable looseness and fun to be found in Spade and Farley’s Tommy Boy performances chiefly because they’re not so much performances as slightly heightened versions of their off-screen selves. Not surprisingly, critics at the time didn’t bother trying to see beyond the film’s low-brow veneer. Perhaps the harshest of all was Roger Ebert, who gave the film one star:

Tommy Boy is one of those movies that plays like an explosion down at the screenplay factory. You can almost picture a bewildered office boy, his face smudged with soot, wandering through the ruins and rescuing pages at random. Too bad they didn't mail them to the insurance company instead of filming them.

The movie is an assembly of clichés and obligatory scenes from dozens of other movies, all are better. It has only one original idea, and that's a bad one: The inspiration of making the hero's sidekick into, simultaneously, his buddy, his critic and his rival.

I’ll respectfully disagree. Audiences, for the most part, did too. Tommy Boy opened at No. 1 at the box office and went on to make $32.7 million on a budget of $20 million. That didn’t make it a huge hit. But over time, as the film slowly snowballed into a cult classic thanks to the appeals court of home video, it would make many, many millions more and become nearly as quotable as rewatchables like Fletch and Billy Madison. In the meantime, Spade and Farley would follow up Tommy Boy with 1996’s Black Sheep (no, I’m not going to make a doomed contrarian case for that one). Still, there’s so much that’s so good in Tommy Boy that two-and-a-half decades later, it’s a shame that Farley’s tragic drug-OD death in 1997 robbed us of the chance to see if he and Spade might have had a couple more Tommy Boys up the sleeve of that little coat.

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