20 Years Later: Were We Dumb For Loving ‘Tommy Boy?’

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Tommy Boy is one of those movies I watched roughly 1200 times growing up, and its mention always puts a dumb smile on my face while I remember my stupid childhood. I want to believe I love it because it’s objectively good, but let’s face it, for all the heated arguments over which SNL cast was the best, yours is virtually guaranteed to be whoever was on when you were 12 or 13 (provided that wasn’t the Joe Piscopo year, you poor son of a bitch). Farley? Awesome. Dan Aykroyd? Eh. That’s what I believe, along with 90 percent of Gen Y.

Tommy Boy, in addition to being Chris Farley’s coming out party, also had the benefit endless airplay on cable, repeat viewings that make a film seem more memorable and allow you to sort of check in and out on your own time and focus on your favorite parts, without holding anything that doesn’t work against it too much like you might if you were watching it in a theater. The Shawshank Redemption accounted for 151 hours of basic cable in 2013, and it’s the highest rated movie on IMDB. Coincidence? Doubtful. It’s a great movie, but it’s Ted Turner who kept reminding us.

I’ll always love Tommy Boy, but I also want to believe I’m more than just a gullible demographic, a slave to circumstance. I know what the haters had to say, and I want to be honest with myself – whether that means sticking to my guns or putting childish things away. So, on the 20th anniversary of Tommy Boy‘s release (which was yesterday, I couldn’t quite finish this in time), I gave it a rewatch to see if I could separate quality from nostalgia, virtue from repeatability.

Arguments Against Tommy Boy Being Great

That score. Oh God, that score. Remember in the 90s, when every comedy movie had to have horrible, cheesy, overbearing music in every scene? The music in Tommy Boy is even more aggressive than in Liar Liar (another movie I love, incidentally), a benchmark in over-scored comedies. For just a small taste, check out how it switches to sexy sax music during the Bo Derek pool scene, just to make sure that the audience knows that the woman emerging from the pool in slow motion is meant to be sexy.

Now, I call this an argument against, but it’s just as much an explanation – there’s a lot of Tommy Boy that probably would’ve come off less cheesy to critics at the time if the scene in question didn’t have the 90s equivalent of Yakety Sax blaring through the whole thing.

Derivativeness. Almost every critic who hated Tommy Boy made sure to point out things supposedly ripped from other movies. While I will fight anyone who tries to say Chris Farley was ripping off Belushi, I do have to admit that Farley and Spade singing along to The Carpenters in the car does look a lot like the singing-in-the-car scenes from Wayne’s World (1992). The running, demolished-car gag did seem a lot like Planes, Trains, And Automobiles from 1987 (as does a lot of the plot). And the man-child-rich-kid-makes-good plot does seem a lot like Billy Madison (released a month before Tommy Boy, which the critics hated almost as much). None of the critics I read mentioned it, but even Rob Lowe constantly getting hurt is also reminiscent of Ken in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). That said, how could a road trip movie not have a singing-in-the-car scene? That’s what you do on road trips. And again, Billy Madison came out a month before Tommy Boy, so it’s not exactly a ripoff. But you can imagine how two movies about stupid guys making good coming out a month apart, and with Forrest Gump having been awarded best picture just four days before Tommy Boy‘s release, it must’ve felt like some kind of strange propaganda campaign (“Initiate Operation Dumbass. I repeat, initiate Operation Dumbass”) instead of just a weird accident. Still, you wouldn’t be wrong calling it a mish-mash of other movies.

A few too many klutzy hijinks gags. For me, Farley’s over-the-top physicality and commitment to even the most throwaway reaction shots justify almost any plot point he’s involved in. There’s no logical reason to make Farley and Spade have to impersonate flight attendants to get to Chicago for the climax (between this and the multiple fake hijackings, there’s a good third of the film that doesn’t work in a post-9/11 world), but watching him stab himself in the throat with pen tempers that negative somewhat. But he isn’t the only one hurting himself. We probably didn’t need throwaway gags of Rob Lowe pissing on an electric fence, or Tommy getting slobbered on by a random hitchhiker’s dog, or David Spade vacuuming moths… Eh.

Arguments For

It’s the most Chris Farley of Chris Farley movies. A lot of the criticisms of the movie – that it’s schmaltzy, that it’s clownish, that it’s needy – are almost criticisms of Chris Farley. Yes, Tommy Boy is a man-child comedy in some ways, but being an overgrown little boy was such a key part of Chris Farley’s appeal that it could really only be that way. Even the negative reviews say things like “He’s loud, he’s physical and he wants to be loved by the 12-year-old in all of us” which are dead-on accurate. Chris Farley’s appeal wasn’t that he was doing any kind of smart satire, it was that he would throw himself so thoroughly and so recklessly into dumb bits that you not only couldn’t help laughing, you had to love him for it. “But it’s just a fat guy falling down!” Sure, but when Chris Farley is the fat guy falling down, a fat guy falling down is more than just a fat guy falling down.

Kevin James can smirk and look put upon and sad when people make fat jokes, but he’s… coy. Like he’s trying to put something over on us. Farley was transparent. He was honestly hurting himself with those bits and he’d disguise neither how far he’d go to make you laugh nor how much it hurt (physically and emotionally) to do so. He’d eagerly crash through a table and you could feel real pain when he howled about it.

He could do broad bits that would be awful in anyone else’s hands, but in Chris Farley’s they were infused with such dorky genuineness. He was so straightforward in his neediness – “yes, I will literally throw my fat body through a plate glass window like a bowling ball to make you smile” – that the bit itself became secondary. You simultaneously wanted to hug the guy and wondered what the f*ck was wrong with him. If there was one Chris Farley quality that Tommy Boy nailed – “did you eat a lot paint chips as a kid?” “God, you’re sick.” – it was that. He seemed like he really was that corny-but-irresistibly lovable Midwestern party boy. It’s telling that Farley opened the film wearing the same Marquette Rugby jersey he’d worn in real life (not that I knew this at the time of course). Schmaltzy? Sure. That was part of the appeal. Farley somehow infused schmaltz with honesty and pathos.

The casting is perfect. Aside from the obvious salty-sweet pairing of David Spade and Chris Farley, everyone, everyone in this movie is perfectly cast. Brian Dennehy as Tommy’s loud, gregarious salesman dad obviously comes to mind (it should, it’s a role Dennehy was born to play) and even the Tommy Boy haters mention Rob Lowe. As Roger Ebert, who gave it one star out of four wrote, “None of the characters is interesting except for the enigmatic figure played by Rob Lowe, who seems to have wandered over from ‘Hamlet.'”

Rob Lowe is intriguingly dark and brooding, but the casting brilliance doesn’t stop there: the factory workers at Callahan, Helen the waitress, the kid at the bank (“Oh right, it was some other real fat guy with a tiny head”) – they all fit their parts perfectly. If Tommy Boy was made in 2015, I guarantee Helen would’ve been played by some famous New York or LA comedian (a la Hannibal Burress playing the cop in Neighbors, or Ron Funches as a gangster in Get Hard, or insert famous person cameo here in a Judd Apatow movie). It would’ve felt like “comedian play time!” instead of a scene in a diner. The world of Tommy Boy could be ridiculous, but the characters didn’t treat it like it was.

It wasn’t just filmed improv. You want your comedy actors to be loose and have fun, but a lot of comedies today feel loose to the point that they’re artless and unstructured. As much as Tommy Boy let Farley and Spade dick around, and included the requisite gag reel at the end, you could tell director Peter Segal had just come off directing a Naked Gun movie. There was always a method to his staging. Every character makes a memorable entrance. Rob Lowe pulls up on a Greyhound bus, whacks a little kid in the face, tosses his empty milk carton into a baby carriage and walks off. You’d be hard pressed to find a character intro more perfect than that.

It’s not the only one. There’s also that tracking shot of Brian Dennehy walking down the hall of portraits of great Callahans, that stops when Chris Farley pops his head into the shot, and a few others. Corny as Tommy Boy got, there was always a level of craft to it.

Chemistry. I mean, obviously. To pick on Ebert yet again, but he writes of the Farley/Spade relationship: “[Tommy Boy] 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.”

To me that’s one of the things that works so well about it. The “Richard” story arc basically mimics Spade’s (and the audience’s) reaction to Farley in the Matt Foley sketch. It’s not as if it’s a brilliant or complicated premise. There’s a guy, he’s a motivational speaker… that’s pretty much it. It’s dumb and obvious and you don’t want to like it at first. But Chris Farley just wears you down with his relentless commitment, he charms you in the way of a salesman where you know exactly what he’s doing but he’s so good at it you don’t care, and it builds and builds until eventually you just can’t hold it together anymore. Their relationship in the movie works the same way. The strength of Tommy Boy is that it’s almost impossible to separate your reaction to the movie from your reaction to Chris Farley’s entire persona.

And that, I think, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, is where I come down on Tommy Boy. It’s quite possible I was dumb for loving Tommy Boy, but not for loving Chris Farley.

Vince Mancini is a writer and (average at best) comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.