If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. That must have been what David Landsberg and Lorin Dreyfuss were thinking when they sat down to write Detective School Dropouts, which would turn into a starring vehicle for themselves. The fact that the film turned out to be a commercial failure doesn't take away from the fact that Landsberg and Dreyfuss created an entertaining bit of silliness that makes me want to smack my head with one hand and clutch my gut with the other.
The 1986 film travels under the guise of a mob-mystery to deliver some of the broadest (and cleverest) slapstick I've seen in quite a while. Landsberg and Dreyfuss play the titular dropouts although to be fair, Landsberg is the only dropout since Dreyfuss is already a full-fledged detective...sort of. You see, Paul Miller (Dreyfuss, Richard's brother) runs his own detective agency but doesn't spend too much of his time detecting. Most of his energy is focused on pulling small scams, dodging creditors and scrounging together enough money to keep his surly secretary, Carlotta (Annette Meriweather), from killing him. If this means that he has to take advantage of the occasional rube to keep his cash flow alive, then so be it.
Meet Donald Wilson (Landsberg), the perfect rube. Shuttling between dead-end jobs, he entertains thoughts of becoming a detective just like the hard-boiled ones in the books he's addicted to. Taking a class with Miller seems like the gateway to making his dreams come true. Unfortunately the class turns into an excuse for Miller to nickel and dime Wilson out of his life savings (apparently a Sherlock Holmes-style Deerstalker is a pre-req for becoming a detective, now available for the low, low price of 75 smackers). Once Wilson gets wind of what's going on, Miller makes him a full partner in the agency in order to appease him. From there, the buffoons quickly become enmeshed in a mystery featuring star-crossed lovers (Valeria Golino and Christian De Sica) and the mob boss (Alberto Farnese) who wants to keep them apart.
I could go on about the rivalry between the Falcone, Lombardi and Zanetti clans as they stake their claims in the Italian Cheese industry. I could talk about how impractical it is for Wilson and Miller to not get the cops involved in the early stages of this mess. I could but that would be missing the point. Landsberg and Dreyfuss simply want to string together as many laughs as possible, no matter how cheap or shameless they may be. If they manage to tell a semi-coherent story in the process then that's merely an added bonus. Sight gags, word play, cross-dressing, comically sped-up chases and pratfalls are all present and accounted for. Besides being varied, the jokes also fly at a furious pace. This means that even if you encounter the occasional groaner, the memory of it will soon be replaced by a genuinely funny gag. (And let's face it, even the groaners make us smile on the inside.)
The performances of our two leads are a big part of why the film works at all. Staying out of their way must have been director Filippo Ottoni's prime directive. Landsberg and Dreyfuss understand their characters so completely that their every interaction seems genuine and unforced. This is especially impressive considering the film was Dreyfuss' acting debut. He comes through like a champ...a smarmy, scheming champ. Similarly, Landsberg does an excellent job selling his character's nebbishy nature. Few other performances stand out in the film but special mention must be made of George Eastman who plays a stone-faced thug that keeps getting injured in horrific ways but always comes back for more.
This was the first of two films featuring the pairing of Landsberg and Dreyfuss. The other, Dutch Treat, remains unseen by me. Based on how much I enjoyed Detective School Dropouts, I hope I get to rectify that some day.