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Comedy Double Feature - Funny Farm / Spies Like Us

Warner Bros. // PG // July 6, 2010
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 16, 2010 | E-mail the Author
In a rather perplexing marketing decision, Warner Home Video has packaged a number of their catalog titles as single and two-disc double features. These sets, which include Kelly's Heroes/Where Eagles Dare, Presumed Innocent/Frantic, and Grumpy Old Men/Grumpier Old Men, feature ugly packaging and are grouped under decidedly unimaginative headers: "Comedy Double Feature," "Action Double Feature," etc. Some are a real bargain, others real head-scratchers. Comedy Double Feature - Funny Farm/Spies Like Us pairs two Chevy Chase movies almost bipolar in terms of their comic sensibility, have no extra features and, in the case of Spies Like Us features an extremely poor transfer - more specifically an okay transfer of extremely poor film and sound elements. Unlike some of Warner's other double-feature sets, this one crams both movies onto one single-sided disc.

An unlikely star, Chase was the first Saturday Night writer-performer to Go Hollywood though from the beginning he's struggled and never quite found a particular niche, headlining everything from broad slapstick to genre parodies, social satires to (nearly) straight sci-fi / fantasy. Whoever wrote up Chase's Wikipedia entry describes him as a "genius of physical comedy" but, to put it mildly, that's going a bit far. Way back in 1975 writers pegged him as a potential successor to Johnny Carson, and his low-key, sardonic humor and good verbal timing supported this, but when with enormous hoopla in 1993 he was given his own Tonight Show-style talk show, the results weren't merely unfunny - Chase's painful awkwardness made audiences literally squirm.

Funny Farm (1988) was produced just as Chase's film career peaked, and it's an odd one. Sandwiched between the second and third Vacation film, and just prior to sequels to two earlier successes, Caddyshack and Fletch, Funny Farm is basically a slightly classier, extremely low-key Vacation movie without the kids, with Chase playing another perennially upbeat and optimistic character in the Clark Griswold mold. The story is in all but name a remake of The Egg and I.

As New York sports writer Andy Farmer, Chase stars with Madolyn Smith as his wife, Elizabeth. Together they decide to move to the country, where in classic tradition Andy intends to write the great American novel, or at least a bestseller about poker buddies robbing a Vegas casino.

Naturally, the transplanted city folk encounter all kinds of problems courtesy their country bumpkin neighbors. Elizabeth finds a corpse buried in their garden, and the city tries to charge them $4,000 to rebury the body. They can't make phone calls because the local operators keep insisting the Farmers deposit 20 cents, as if theirs were a payphone, then they disconnect the line entirely after the Farmers get upset over this. The local mailman nearly runs them down with his dilapidated pick-up truck, and when Andy tries fishing in the backyard pond he instead catches a colossal snake that gets loose in the house. And so on.

The low-key approach to the material by writer Jeffrey Boam (from Jay Cronley's book) and the direction by George Roy Hill (his last film) keeps Funny Farm interesting if not exactly funny. The picture works best when the comedy is muted, carefully building to a couple of larger guffaws that pay off here and there, such as the scene where at a diner Andy tries to break the local record of eating "lamb fries," unaware of just what it is he's consuming. It also helps that the script focuses almost entirely on Andy and Elizabeth; they obviously adore one another and their desire to please one another helps somewhat.

The story also has a few original satirical elements the movie almost but not quite pulls off. In the last act, the Farmers are so fed up with the town they decide to sell their home, offering its residents a big cut of the sale in exchange for projecting a Rockwellesque Americana to potential buyers. Of course, the townsfolk greatly overdo this, resulting in a few good laughs.

However, Funny Farm is as sluggish and predictable as it is offbeat. Despite a prestigious lineup of talent behind the camera (If.... and O Lucky Man! cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček!) the film is more an interesting failure than a partial success, though it's worth seeing once. (*** out of *****)

Chevy Chase is back, this time in a role first intended for John Belushi, then after his early death the part was next supposed to go to flash-in-the-pan SNL star Joe Piscopo. All things considered Chase adapts to this cast-off role surprisingly well.* The movie is a clever variation of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope "Road" comedies, especially Road to Hong Kong (1962), which this in many ways resembles, though Spies Like Us is real hit-and-miss and nearly drowns in its immense overproduction.

Penatgon codebreaker Austin Millbarge (Dan Aykroyd) and lazy, foreign service desk jockey Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chase) are suddenly promoted to GLG20s, spies rushed through training and carted off (literally) to Pakistan on a supposedly secret mission. In fact, spymasters Keyes (William Prince) and Ruby (Bruce Davison) sent them off as cannon fodder, to act as decoys so that the real spies, including Karen Boyer (Donna Dixon, Aykroyd's real-life wife) can complete their mission: launching a Soviet ICBM in order to test General Sline's (Steve Forrest) Star Wars-type anti-missile system (housed beneath the Lancaster Drive-In Theater!).

Eschewing the Hope-Crosby synergy - in which both men played greedy and lascivious shysters, their main difference being that Hope was stupid and naïve where Crosby was slick and even more unscrupulous than his partner - Spies Like Us instead casts Aykroyd as a somewhat shy egghead and loyal American while Chase is more the Hopesian rogue, devious, cowardly, and constantly lusting after women. Such a broad characterization was a departure for Chase and though not normally his strong suit, he comes off surprisingly well, his delivery of tried-and-true comedy situations generally on the money.

He's quite funny in fact early on, in an examination scene (supervised by Frank Oz of The Muppets fame), with Emmett cheating outrageously. (It's easy to imagine Belushi in this sequence.) Chase and Aykroyd also come off okay as a team, despite the fact that their screen personae would normally result in something closer to Abbott & Abbott rather than Abbott & Costello.

The picture is expensive-looking, and apparently was shot on location in Norway (standing in for the Soviet border territory) and Morocco (for Pakistan), even though Lancaster/Palmdale and Big Bear Mountain, just outside of Los Angeles, would probably have stood in just as well for a lot less money. The film indirectly aspires to James Bondian bigness: there are special visual effects (by Bond FX master Derek Meddings, who also acts in the film) of the missiles and whatnot, Andromeda Strain-like sci-fi elements involving the secret base under the drive-in where way too much time is spent with Forrest, Prince and Davison, away from the primary comedy.

Director John Landis is an extremely funny man in person with a good comedy sense (his recent documentary about Don Rickles, Mr. Warmth, is excellent), but he's also attracted to big, noisy action set pieces, and if indulged this affection tends to inhibit rather than enhance the potential of his films, much as colleague Joe Dante's affection for older character actors and genres tends to get in the way of his films. Landis's unusual mixture of comedy and big-scale action worked wonderfully in The Blues Brothers but in Spies Like Us it's like material for some other movie.

Video & Audio

  Both films are presented in their original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratios. Funny Farm looks okay, average, but Spies Like Us frequently looks terrible. The film elements sourced are dupey with blotchy color, at times resembling dailies or maybe the kind of 16mm prints the studios used to distribute for university screenings. Similarly, while the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 handles the music and effects tracks okay, the dialogue track on Spies Like Us is unforgivably hissy, again sounding like the dirty optical track of a 16mm print. It gets better after the first few reels but it's probably the worst looking Blu-ray title I've yet seen from a major studio. Audio on both films is English only, with optional English and French subtitles. No Extra Features, not even trailers.

Parting Thoughts

This set is a good deal for Chevy Chase fans but marginal for all others, and the lack of extras and especially the poor film elements sourced for Spies Like Us hurt a lot. Rent It.

* Compare this to his Spies Like Us co-star Dan Aykroyd, whose role in the appalling Loose Cannons (1990) was all-too-obviously conceived for Robin Williams.


Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.

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