Peter and Bobby Farrelly aimed low and grossed millions with “Dumb & Dumber,” so it shouldn’t be surprising that “Kingpin,” their latest effort, offers a similar mix of pratfalls, gross-out gags and jokes about bodily functions. This time, however, the humor is darker, edgier and occasionally, even more scatological. So much so, that a mild controversy may erupt over the comedy’s relatively benign PG-13 rating. Pic has some undeniably hilarious moments, but it isn’t likely to score big and bigger B.O. numbers.
The Farrellys co-wrote (with Bennett Yellin) the screenplay for “Dumb & Dumber,” which Peter directed and Bobby co-produced. They are billed as co-directors for “Kingpin,” the first major studio release about bowling competitions since 1979’s “Dreamer.” Pic begins in the late 1970s, as bowling phenom Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) scores an upset victory over long-time champ Ernie (Big Ern) McCracken (Bill Murray, stealing every scene that isn’t nailed to the floor).
Unfortunately, the talented but naive Munson allows the oily Big Ern to talk him into making a quick buck by hustling players in a small-town bowling alley. Even more unfortunately, the losers get wise to the scam, and take their revenge by sticking Munson’s right hand into a ball-return machine.
It takes nerve to begin a comedy with such a grisly bit of business, reminiscent of themaiming of William Devane at the start of “Rolling Thunder.”
Wisely, they don’t dwell on the immediate aftermath. Instead, action jumps 17 years forward to introduce a balding and embittered Roy Munson, who still hasn’t quite mastered the use of a prosthetic hook. Occasionally, he hides the hook with a bargain-basement rubber hand, a prop that gets maximum use as a running sight gag.
While making a hard-scrabble living as a traveling salesman, Munson fortuitously spots a natural-born bowler: Ishmael (Randy Quaid), a sweetly ingenuous fellow who looks like a grown-up version of a Campbell’s Soup Kid. Ishmael is a devout Amish farmboy from the Pennsylvania Dutch Country — but not so devout that he doesn’t like to steal away now and then to roll a few balls down the alley in a nearby town. Munson resolves to become Ishmael’s mentor and trainer. And if that also entails being his corrupter as well, so much the better.
Munson and Ishmael eventually set their sights on the million-dollar jackpot at a winner-take-all tournament in Reno. To earn traveling money, they attempt the kind of scams that cost Munson ahand many years ago. They are so dangerously inept at hustling that they must seek help from a pro: Claudia (Vanessa Angel), a smart and sexy beauty who’s eager to escape the clutches of a brutal thug who’s out-bowled by Ishmael.
By turns silly and sentimental, “Kingpin” evolves into a kind of bowling-for-dollars road movie. Munson and Claudia overcome their initial distrust to fall in lust, if not love, while Ishmael continues to enjoy the trip as he falls from grace. At one point, this nice Amish boy gets a job as a female impersonator in a strip joint. Why? Well, there is no good reason, actually. But Quaid does look very funny in drag.
The predictable climax has Munson forced to come out of self-imposed retirement to bowl against the unrepentant and unprincipled Big Ern in the big Reno tournament. Murray makes the absolute most of his supporting role, playing the amoral champ especially mean and nasty.
The Farrellys, working from a script by TV sitcom vets Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan (“The Golden Girls”), have little shame and even less restraint when it comes to physical or verbal outrageousness. One particularly memorable scene has Munson repeatedly vomiting in disgust after sexually servicing his monstrous landlady (amusingly overplayed by Lin Shaye). The scene goes on even longer than Jeff Daniels’ diarrhea bit in “Dumb & Dumber.”
But wait, there’s more: In a later scene, Munson discovers, much to his horror, that he has mistakenly milked a bull, not a cow. Here and elsewhere, “Kingpin” displays a gleefully brazen willingness to risk turning stomachs while springing gags. Many mainstream moviegoers will be repulsed, but others probably will laugh until they are thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
Even if “Kingpin” were a kinder and gentler comedy, it would be hard-pressed to repeat the B.O. success of “Dumb & Dumber” without the marquee allure of Jim Carrey. But neither Harrelson nor Quaid can be faulted. Harrelson is especially good at adding a poignant dimension to Munson’s sad decline from a Disco Age polyester prince to middle-aged paunchy nobody. (He also proves to be a good sport when it comes to mocking one of his biggest movie hits, “Indecent Proposal.”)
As Ishmael, Quaid comes across as an amusing mix of Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump and Red Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper. Angel gets into the zany spirit of things with impressive ease and skill. Tech credits are average, though music supervisor Happy Walters deservessome praise for his well-chosen soundtrack of Top 40 favorites.
Lewd, crude and aggressively rude, “Kingpin” is about as sophisticated as a grade-schooler’s attempt at bathroom humor. On the other hand, that may be its chief selling point for audiences in search of a nothing more demanding than no-brain belly laughs.
“Kingpin” opened recently in some Australian and U.K. markets, but doesn’t hit North American screens until July 26.