‘Tommy Boy’ 20th Anniversary: Roger Ebert, And 10 Other Critics Who Hated It

Tommy Boy
came out 20 years ago tomorrow, during my childhood’s peak impressionability. Between that perfect timing and the fact that it always seemed to be on cable, I’ll always secretly believe it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Which is why it’s so shocking to read reviews written by critics at the time, most of whom hated it. Ugh, adults were so lame back then, you guys.

Critics objected to a whole host of things. Almost to a person they singled out the running gag about messing up David Spade’s car. They hated the plot, which they interpreted as a rip-off of Wayne’s World and Billy Madison. They saw it as a celebration of stupidity, they hated that there were genuine moments alongside broad slapstick, they hated that Rob Lowe hooked up with Bo Derek and it was gross – but most of all, and most unfairly, they hated that Spade and Farley weren’t Aykroyd and Belushi. As San Francisco Examiner critic Walter Addiego wrote, “There’s a frat-house scene that clearly winks at John Belushi,” even though the scene in question is set at the rugby house at Marquette, which was based on… you guessed it, Chris Farley, who had played rugby at Marquette (fun fact, “Matt Foley” was an old teammate of Farley’s, who later became a priest).

Reading these, part of me does wonder if, 20 years from now, some pissed off pre-millennial (probably named Adler or Brayleigh or Huntington) will be taking me to task for not understanding the genius of Paul Blart. Which looks to my old eyes like a ransom note (Kevin James stars in Paul Blart 2: Please Don’t Hurt My Family). But for now, I’m just going to savor this retrospective of old farts not getting what we understood intuitively.

Siskel and Ebert in 1995, in the most 1995 of pictures.
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Siskel and Ebert in 1995, in the most 1995 of pictures.

1. Roger Ebert
“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.  […]

No one is funny in “Tommy Boy.” There are no memorable lines. None of the characters is interesting except for the enigmatic figure played by Rob Lowe, who seems to have wandered over from “Hamlet.”

2. Brian Lowry, Variety
Stupid is apparently in, so Paramount stands a good chance of attracting a solid share of the low-I.Q. demographic with this latest “Saturday Night Live”-derived comedy. –

3. Caryn James, New York Times
…the very poor cousin of a dopey Jim Carrey movie… As mismatched-buddy teams go, Felix and Oscar have nothing to worry about here. …a blunt reminder of all the recent criticism “Saturday Night Live” has taken for having descended from its glory days into comedy limbo.

4. Desson Howe, Washington Post
“Tommy Boy” roots like an uninspired hog through the old swill of other, more successful movies.

5. Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly
By any reasonable standard, Tommy Boy is stupid, disreputable junk.

6. Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle
This Tommy Boy is no pinball wizard, but you may leave the theatre wishing that the character were at least deaf, dumb, and blind. –

This also belongs in another piece, “Hot Takes Of Yesteryear.”

7. Chris Hicks, Deseret News
While these guys have comic talent, they need to tone it down for the big screen.

8. Teresa Esser, for the MIT Tech
If Academy Award nominee Before the Rain can be symbolized by gourmet goat cheese, high-quality French films (Blue) can be seen as gourmet brie or bleu, and genuinely exciting domestic flicks (Last of the Mohicans) can be likened to Vermont sharp cheddar, then the mass-produced crowd pleaser know as Wayne’s World would resemble Velveeta. Unfortunately, Tommy Boy is the intellectual equivalent of Cheez Whiz.

That’s not to say that the film will fail to please its target audience. In fact, Tommy Boy is custom-made for those customers who line up to buy nachos in our public stadiums. Indeed, the majority of the people who attended the WAAF 107.3 FM advance screening seemed to truly enjoy watching the film. “I loved it,” shouted a student from Emerson College. “I mean, hey, they gave me a free tee-shirt!” He was referring to one of the ten or fifteen blue-collar grease-monkey-type work shirts that were emblazoned with the words “Tommy Boy” on the front right pocket and distributed prior to the screening of the film.

9. Mike Clark, USA Today
Woe be the comedy that can’t get mileage out of Rob Lowe pretending to be Bo Derek’s son. The star here is actually kaput Saturday Night Live regular Chris Farley, whom the dastardly duo schemes to cheat out of a family fortune. SNL’s David Spade is Farley’s road-trip partner in repartee that’s dumb, dumber and even dumber than that.

10. Empire
And even as one hears oneself chuckling at genial slobbishness, the thought is never far away that it really is a sorry comment on the film industry and audience acceptance that this passes as mainstream cinema entertainment.

11. Leah Rozen, People
My father, a man in his seventh decade, has for almost 20 years adhered strictly to one movie-viewing rule: He avoids all films starring Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd or, more recently, Dana Carvey. This, he claims, has saved him countless wasted hours and brain cells.

I think that Dad might want to add Farley and Spade to his list. In Tommy Boy, these two members of the current Saturday Night Live cast fare no better—and no worse, which isn’t saying much—than most of their SNL-to-celluloid predecessors.

Oddly enough, there were critics who gave it negative reviews, who seemed to get it even as they professed not getting it. The two that struck me the most were Walter Addiego, the same guy from paragraph two, and Owen Gleiberman.

Addiego (2 out 4 stars): Chris Farley is like the class clown who grates at first but finally wears down his schoolmates with his relentless eagerness to please. He’s loud, he’s physical and he wants to be loved by the 12-year-old in all of us.

Gleiberman (C): Has there ever been a fat-guy comic more willing to look like a complete sweat-hog mess than Chris Farley? When you see him on Saturday Night Live, his La-Z-Boy grossness — the tiny eyes and anvil head, the gut dripping in layers over his pants-is so unpretty it’s almost painful, and, indeed, his tubby dishevelment might be too much to take were it not for the energy he pours into his routines. A mastodon in a china shop, he’s a far wilder physical comedian than, say, John Belushi, who looked (and moved) like a gymnast by comparison. Farley, with his twisting torso and insanely emphatic vocal rhythms, harks back to that speedball hippo Curly of the Three Stooges.

At the time I probably would’ve just gone with “Chris Farley rules,” but I can’t say “speedball hippo” is inaccurate. RIP, you beautiful sweat-hog mess.