Bowling for Dullards

Kingpin Directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly. Starring Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Vanessa Angel, and Bill Murray.

Boldly repugnant, Kingpin enters the summer movie fray like a breath of fresh swill -- and, honestly, given the state of film comedy these days, that's not such a bad thing. With multiplexes clogged with bland, virtually laugh-free comedies, Kingpin swaggers (or is it staggers?) in, drunk on its own excesses, and reminds us of the virtues of offending a sensibility or two.

Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly (yes, the Dumb and Dumber guys) are positively giddy in their willingness to alienate certain audience members, yet unlike a lot of filmmakers who make their trade in comedies aimed at the semiliterate set, these guys understand precisely why these gags would be censured in a rational society. While everyone else is only complaining how political correctness has tried to sterilize culture and should be stopped, the Farrelly boys are actually on the front lines, reinfecting everything with a crassitude that's pointedly different from the benignly mindless goofing that passes for entertainment these days.

Woody Harrelson (who took the role when Michael Keaton dropped out to appear in the cinematic Sominex that is Multiplicity) stars as Roy Munson, the sex symbol of the Pro Bowling Tour -- until an unscrupulous opponent, Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), betrays him and leaves him short one bowling hand. (The rubber prosthesis that eventually replaces his appendage wouldn't pass muster in a novelty shop.)

Seventeen years later, Roy awakens from a boozy stupor to discover the phrase "to get Munsoned" has entered the English vernacular as slang for the most royal of screwings. The pain of such ignominy is assuaged, though, when he discovers Ishmael (Randy Quaid), an Amish bowling phenom. Narrative convention halfheartedly dictates that there's a million-dollar bowling payday in the offing, so Roy must convince the lunkheaded naif to abandon his strict but honest ways -- while shoehorning in as many cheap Amish jokes as possible -- and embrace the high life of the professional athlete (and Michael Irvin thought he was living it up!).

Throw in the obligatory sex object (Vanessa Angel) and bring back Murray's character for the standard-issue "This time it's personal" faceoff, and you have the most tired of underdog plot lines rendered in stunningly insincere fashion, punctuated by bits involving bull semen, male prostitution (playing off Harrelson's hack-work participation in Indecent Proposal), bestiality, more vomiting than anyone needs to see in a lifetime, and the worst comb-overs in the history of cinema.

The actors go at this base material with gusto, particularly Murray, whose relatively small role allows him to go so far over the top he never bothers to look back. Harrelson also embraces his character's scuzziness, and Quaid adds another variation on the catalog of gormless yahoos he's essayed. Angel is serviceable; more impressively, she manages not to seem too insulted by her role.

The raunch is redeemed, if that's the word for it, by the sheer guilelessness with which it's delivered (the sexist jokes are the most notable failures, because they're largely the same anatomy-ogling boilerplate that was old back when Benny Hill was a wee, wee lad). At the same time, though, Kingpin is considerably meaner in spirit than Dumb and Dumber (which, frankly, was robbed at the Oscars in the category of sound-effects editing), as the Farrelly brothers seem interested in discovering just how far they can take their taste-free brand of entertainment before they lose everyone on the planet.

Where Dumb and Dumber trumpeted the life of the carefree imbecile, the denizens of Kingpin are frequently unpleasant and miserable -- think of the difference between Ace Ventura and the Cable Guy. The Farrellys may not care to cop to this, but it takes a certain level of smarts to come up with something this patently moronic, and the movie is nominally more sophisticated than the gutter-ball of an ad campaign it has received (granted, that's saying nothing).

Which is not to say that anything in the movie will be mistaken for genuine wit anytime soon. Like most comedies these days, there just aren't enough truly funny moments for it to be considered a good time; the laughs are strewn out just close enough to one another to take one's mind off how sloppily everything else in the movie is executed. The screenplay is credited to Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan, the writers and producers of the sitcom The Golden Girls, which is about as far from this in spirit as you can get and still be working in roughly the same genre; it would be interesting to see how the Farrellys worked over the writers' original material.

Just what were the filmmakers thinking? There's a scene in here that looks for all the world as if it were intended as legitimate pathos: Roy displays a heretofore unseen sensitive side to Angel's character; she responds sympathetically, and no rude bodily functions are involved at all! In a movie filled with weirdness, this faux-poignant moment actually comes off strangest of all.

Kingpin continues at area theaters.

 
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