73 Sports Movies In 73 Days: ‘Kingpin’

As some readers, Twitterers and strangers in my Turkish bathhouse have pointed out, there has been a very strange and presumably coincidental trend on cable TV lately, with the random HBO, Cinemax and Showtime channels airing some of these movies that I’ve written about for this 73 Sports Movies in 73 Days feature within a day or two of posting. Naturally, I’d love to take credit for being powerful enough to manipulate the powers of cable programming, but if networks are going to listen to me about anything, I’d prefer that it be my idea for a 24-hour sitcom network that airs nothing but Seinfeld, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Cheers and Wings. I’d call it “Good NBC.”

But today was the fourth time that a cable channel caused me to change my mind, as I was already in the middle of watching one sports movie when I realized that another was on. And since this one was the 1996 Farrelly brothers comedy, Kingpin, I stopped watching the amazing disaster of a film that I had begun and instead watched what I remember as one of the funniest movies of my awkward teenage years.

How has it aged? It is now simply one of the best films I’ve ever seen, period. Let’s explore why.

How I Remembered Kingpin From 1996

I can’t even think of the last time that I actually watched the Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray comedy, but I remember that for at least one semester in college, I had the poster on my wall, in between Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction, because I WAS SO F*CKING ALTERNATIVE. Seriously, I was a cliché wrapped up in a stereotype.

When I snuck into Kingpin in ’96 with my friends, we laughed so hard that it hurt, because it was one of the most ridiculous raunchy comedies that we’d ever seen. Case in point:

After all, the Farrellys helped usher in a new era of one-upmanship in dick jokes and sight gags, like pie-f*cking and pee-drinking, so of course the first thing that I wondered after watching Kingpin this morning was, “What the hell went wrong with the Farrelly brothers?”

But that’s another conversation that I’ll probably eventually have at FilmDrunk. In the meantime, this is a personal essay and discussion on how a movie about a bowling phenom on the brink of superstardom losing his hand, career and all-around reason to live because of his own naivety coupled with his rival’s bitter willingness to do whatever it takes to remain at the top affected my life.

The Moral Of The Story To A 16-Year Old

At its very core, Kingpin is a movie about how life sucks and nothing is really fair unless you’re willing to sacrifice your soul and humanity to do whatever it takes to crush the spirits and hopes of those around you. This, to teenage me, was absolutely hilarious, because seeing a grown man hit rock bottom and having sex with the most disgusting woman in the world is amazing, because there’s no way in hell that my life will ever be this bad:

After all, 16-year old me wanted to write the world’s best movies before becoming a powerful and beloved politician, and maybe I’d even get back in better shape and work toward playing baseball in college. There is no such thing as rock bottom to a teenager in the suburbs, because reality is all puppy dogs and bong water.

So Kingpin was essentially just a film that taught me:

  1. Amish people exist and they’re different from me, so make fun of them because everything different is strange.
  2. If someone tells me the grossest, most obnoxious joke that he can think of, tell it back to him, only grosser and more obnoxious, because that’s true comedy. The Aristocrats!
  3. Bill Murray is the funniest man on the face of the planet.

The Moral Of The Story To A 34-Year Old

The realization that life can be so terrible isn’t really as funny as it was almost 20 years ago. The finer points of Roy Munson’s plummet to rock bottom, Ishmael’s inability to overcome his sibling rivalry and save his family as the banks are trying to take their land and Claudia’s helplessness at the hands of abusive relationship after abusive relationship (not to mention her acceptance of the “whore” label) are just downright depressing now. That’s not to say that the same things that I laughed at 18 years ago aren’t still funny, but some of the scenes that once hurt my sides now actually hurt my heart.

Take, for instance, the final sequence of the film, as Roy mounts this incredible comeback against the same man who stole his hand and (in Roy’s misguided interpretation of past events) his entire life. Except, as you think that he’s poised to win the million dollars and renew his career as a professional bowler, Ernie McCracken once again rips Roy’s dreams and success away from him, but this time it’s in front of a huge crowd and millions of people at home. And in this scenario, Big Ern is everything that we hate rolled up into one horrible combover, as he taunts and gyrates in Roy’s face, before throwing his rubber hand into the crowd.

Watching Roy just sit there and take it as people celebrate his second demise is gut-wrenching, even as he’s the last man left in the building. Add to it the fact that both Ishmael and Claudia apparently deserted him, and his life is as empty as it has ever been. Can it get worse? Yes, because Stanley and his henchman still come after him when Claudia leaves them, and Roy gets a literal gut punch this time to go along with the lifetime of figurative ones that he’d been taking.

With that, Kingpin is a film that today taught me:

  1. Life is about decisions, and the more bad decisions that we make, the deeper we dig ourselves into a hole that we simply cannot climb out of.
  2. But there is an alternative to digging. Instead of trying to change the past, we can take what we have and build a ladder to climb out and start over. Sure, we’ll be dirty and have nothing left to hang our hats on, but it’s better than being in a hole.
  3. If you make the right decisions, good things will happen. Roy decided to get clean and focus on being a better person, and he received $500,000 from Trojan to be the Rubber Man. Meanwhile, Claudia came back to him so she could change her life as well, and together they gave the half million to Ishmael’s family to save the farm, because their personal faults almost destroyed who he was, too.
  4. Bill Murray is still the funniest man on the face of the planet.

Movie lines don’t get much better than: “It’s a small world when you’ve got unbelievable tits, Roy.”

Some leftover thoughts:

    • Some people will say Dumb & Dumber, some will say There’s Something About Mary. Some might even say Me, Myself & Irene. I still think Kingpin is the best Farrelly brothers movie, although I wouldn’t argue any of the others. I would, however, ask where it all went wrong. I say it was Shallow Hal, because I hated that movie.
    • In 1996, Bill Murray starred in Kingpin, Space Jam and Larger Than Life, which was a film about a salesman who inherited an elephant. I’m not saying that 1996 was Murray’s greatest year, but it was certainly up there.
    • I have never understood why Vanessa Angel didn’t have a better career. She’s incredibly beautiful and definitely wasn’t the worst actress. I mean, if Denise Richards could have a successful career as a leading lady for a few years, Angel should have at least had more of a chance. I blame Dan Aykroyd for pretending like a hot Russian soldier would have wanted to be with him after he and Chevy Chase saved the world in Spies Like Us.

    • Randy Quaid’s IMDB page is a horrifying thing. Don’t take crazy pills, kids.

  • Is Kingpin the greatest bowling movie ever made? There are certainly slim pickings in the genre, but I only ask because we also have to ask if The Big Lebowski qualifies as a bowling film, as some people believe it does. Also, I don’t think I can make any specific decision without seeing the Canadian horror film Gutterballs, which seems to be about human heads being used as bowling balls.

Final Grade: 5 rose bowling balls out of 5, because I always wanted to own one of these balls.

Also, this song is still on my iPod to this day, because I hate being an adult: