Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

NO ENCORES: Strange Brew (1983)

1. Strange Brew (1983)
Director: Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas

Need I explain what “SCTV” was? Listen to my story. Long ago, in a mythical country known as Canada, a sketch comedy show grew out of the local Second City comedy troupe. The show would immediately become a cult favorite and ran for six seasons. It introduced a number of beloved performers to the wider world, such as John Candy, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis. In its third season, in order to satisfy Canadian broadcast standards that all shows must feature a certain percentage of “Canadian content,” Thomas and Moranis would introduce the characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie. A pair of stereotypical Canadian “hosers,” the McKenzies hosted a public access show, drank too much beer, talked about hockey or other trivial manners, and peppered their speech with plenty of “ehs” and “take offs.” The sketches were largely improvised by Thomas and Moranis.

Though created to mock Canadian stereotypes, the McKenzies would actually become very popular. “SCTV's” break-out characters, the brothers would inspire a comedy album, a pop single, commercials, an animated series, action figures, and, in 1983, a feature film. “Strange Brew” was produced by M-G-M, in the hopes that it would replicate the million-selling success of the comedy album. Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis would direct the movie themselves, after it was decided no one else could capture the specific tone and styles of the character. While Dave Thomas has directed several other films and television series, “Strange Brew” remains Moranis' sole directorial credit.

Following a misbegotten film-making experiment, full-time slackers Bob and Doug find themselves in need of some money. An attempt to con free beer out of a local liquor store ends with the brothers being employed at the Elsinore Brewery. After meeting up with Pam, the daughter of the company's recently descend owner, the two uncover a bizarre conspiracy. Brewmaster Smith is plotting world domination, by sneaking mind-controlling chemicals into the beer which he tests on the inmates of the neighboring mental institution. After Bob and Doug discover this, the Brewmaster does everything he can to discredit the guys.

The main reason I enjoy “Strange Brew” is the main reason I enjoy “Wayne's World,” the “Bill & Ted” films, and other movies about “dudes.” Watching two wacky guys be goofy together, going on rambling adventures, reminds me of a wasted youth with my high school friends. Though Bob and Doug choose beer over pot, the film has a similarly loose, “hang-out” movie appeal. In keeping with the tradition started by the “SCTV” segments, Thomas and Moranis improvised much of their dialogue. This is especially delightful in scenes where, when locked up in the institute or in a prison, they rough-house like kids or goof around while getting their mug shots taken. Moranis and Thomas are so totally relaxed with these characters and around each other, that sense of easy fun rubs off on the audience.

A producer on “Strange Brew,” who supposedly guided Thomas and Moranis as their first directing job, had previously worked on “The Producers” and Woody Allen's early, funny movies. So it's not surprising that “Strange Brew” also features some broader, more spoof-like gags. Luckily, quite a few of these work very well. There's an overblown van crash, which hilariously escalates, before Bob and Doug are shown to have survived in the most ridiculous way possible. This is then followed by a two second long intermission. Another solid gag has Bob and Doug's lawyer protecting them from the press in a very literal way. Some of this stuff is really silly, like how Bob survives being drown in beer, but the film usually stays on the right side of ridiculousness.

Also elevating “Strange Brew” is the delightful streak of surrealism that runs through most of the film. The plot is often bizarre. A ghost features occasionally into the plot, Pam's father appearing as a figure on a screen or a glowing red ball of light. This supernatural intervention appears out of nowhere. How Brewmaster Smith tests his mind-controlling booze is very strange. He gets the inmates dressed up in futuristic looking hockey armor and has them fight one another, while listening to droning electronic music. That feels like something out of “Rollerball” or a similar film. Lastly, one of the film's wildest gags involves a dog leaping into the air and flying totally without explanation. It's all honestly kind of bold in its abject silliness.

What makes “Strange Brew's” cavalcade of goofiness even more ambitious is that it's an adaptation of “Hamlet.” I mean, only sort of, kind of. Apparently, earlier drafts of the script was more explicit about this. In its final form, you can only see brief nods towards the Bard. Largely the subplot about Pam's uncle murdering her father and immediately marrying her mom. This stuff ends up being totally secondary to the movie's actual point. Yet the simple idea of trying to squeeze an adaptation of Shakespeare inside such a goofy movie is certainly another one of “Strange Brew's” good gags.

Anybody who knows anything about comedy knows that the best slapstick man in the world is nothing without a quality straight man. Since Bob and Doug are perpetually absurd characters, it's up to most of the other characters to tackle everything at face value. This is fantastically done. Lynne Griffin and Angus Machine, as Pam and the burly hockey player that falls in love with her, would be the heroes in any normal movie. Neither seem aware that they are in such a screwball film, making them perfect. Yet nobody is better cast than Max Von Sydow as Brewmaster Smith. Sydow plays the part totally straight, acting like a ruthless super villain, threatening to crush people's heads (which the film brilliantly pays off on) and megalomaniacally ranting about his evil plans.

Over all, “Strange Brew” succeeds in its very modest goals of being an affably wacky comedy. It's obviously designed to be enjoyed while intoxicated and prospers from rewatches, as the full absurdity of some of its jokes grow with repetition. For a film destined to be a cult classic, it made decent money at the box office. Thomas nearly made a sequel in 1997. It would've been called “Home Brew” and would've detailed how Dan Akyroyd got the McKenzies into microbrewing. As for why Moranis never directed another movie, despite the film's success, his mysterious and capricious nature makes it seem likely that directing isn't really his style. Either way, “Strange Brew” endures as a thoroughly entertaining bit of zaniness. [7/10]

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