Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Almost Heroes

The Adventures of Slow-ass and Jerk

Well, with it being 25 years old and its two leads now lost to time, I figured that it would be a good time to review this.

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Almost Heroes" (Warner Bros, 1998). Leslie Edwards (Matthew Perry) rushes to save explorer Bartholomew Hunt (Chris Farley) from the hangman's noose; the rotund pathfinder is about to be hanged for drunk and disorderly conduct.

Spoilers: Not the highpoint of Chris Farley's career.

Edwards needs Hunt's expertise for a particular purpose: He's trying to beat two other explorers (some losers named Meriwether Lewis and William Clark) to be the first "Americans" (I use quotes out of respect for native people) to make it to the Pacific Ocean overland.
Spoilers: Not the highpoint of Matthew Perry's career, either.

In order to achieve this feat, he employs a rag-tag group of misfits including an unhinged French trapper named Guy Fontenot (Eugene Levy) and his native slave-wife Shaquinna (played with unparalleled beauty by Lisa Barbuscia).
Eugene Levy always excels as an awkward character, even a misleading jerk.

Human perfection, or an incredible simulation?

Despite numerous setbacks brought on by the affluent Edwards's naivete and the group's collective congenital stupidity, they brave animal attacks, the elements, confrontations with natives, and rival explorers like the hair-obsessed villainous Spaniard Hidalgo (Kevin Dunn).
Kevin Dunn as the seemingly temporally displaced conquistador Hidalgo.

Some background:

This movie was directed by actor, comedian, composer, writer Christopher Guest, who is known for directing his "mockumentary" films like "Waiting for Guffman" and "A Mighty Wind," but who is probably best known as heavy metal rocker Nigel Tufnel from the parody group "Spinal Tap."

"My films go up to eleven."

I say this, because the man has some comedy chops, and combined with a great cast you would think that would spell comedy gold, but it just… Doesn't. More on that later.

I missed this film in theaters back in the day, and only saw it when it was released on VHS for rental so many, many years ago. After the runaway hits "Tommy Boy" and "Black Sheep" the world was clamoring for more Chris Farley, and this is certainly that... It's just too bad that he died before this film was released. Yes, this is one of the last pieces of media starring Chris Farley, and it's mostly forgotten, which breaks my heart. Matthew Perry was an established sitcom god at this point, as "Friends" was going strong and had just taken the top sitcom spot from "Seinfeld," which had wrapped recently. This was during the late 90s boom of large corporate video stores, and it seemed like any movie of this pedigree was able to make its money back in new release sales. Nowadays it seems like a lost film, but there might be ample reason for that.

The good

First, the good... I must admit that I'm struggling here to recall anything worthwhile in this film. There are moments that are funny and elicited a few guffaws from yours truly, but they are VERY few and VERY far between. In particular, I loved Don Lake as the general store owner, Elias.

I didn't recognize him at first, what with the hair and lack of mustache and glasses.

The Chris Farley pratfalls (several with an animatronic eagle) are somewhat visually interesting.
There aren't even as many animal encounters as you'd expect.

The absolute funniest moment for me was the senior citizen indigenous people who save the crew at one point.
These guys were my favorite part.

Lisa Barbuscia is basically eye candy in this movie, but wow, what eye candy she is -- I'm not trying to be sexist, but she is basically a flawless human form in this movie.
Mmm... I'll just leave this here. Don't worry: You also get to see Eugene Levy's cheeks.

You'll note here that I am not lauding how funny the movie's dialogue or overall comedy situations are. Yeah.

It's so bad...

This movie is pretty awful. I can't sugarcoat it, and I'm sorry. Matthew Perry's schtick throughout his career is that he's a witty and slightly sociopathic but otherwise normal white man who is put into awkward and insane situations. In this movie though, he comes off just as dumb and clueless as the other characters, who are ALL dumb and clueless, and the joke is mostly lost.

Yes, they're running on corn. Yes, it's supposed to be funny, somehow.

Most of the jokes are simple grossout humor that conveniently leaves out the gross reveals. As someone who mostly despises this, the lowest common denominator of humor, it's sort of a mercy, but with no visual payoff, why have the references to it in there at all? Chris Farley basically just does his overly physical pantomimes and extreme overreactions to normal circumstance, which can be entertaining but isn't particularly witty or especially funny if you've seen his better films. To top it off, the film doesn't even lean into the "exploration" aspect of its script, with very few shots of the epic vistas and travelling scenery one would expect.
The films spends so little time soaking in the scenery that you might miss it.

As such, even though 99% of the film takes place in the great outdoors, it feels very small and constrained despite the beauty of the scenery it was filmed in.

Safer for kids than you would probably think.

While this film is rated PG-13, there's almost no swearing (I think that the word "shit" is said a few times), and nudity doesn't get any more graphic than a buttock or side-boob.

Once more. Mmm... what was I saying?

There's no tobacco use to speak of (despite taking place during frontier times), although there is quite a lot of drinking and a persistent casual dismissal of alcoholism. There are numerous gunshots and some swordplay, but there is very little blood and no onscreen deaths (or deaths at all that I can recall). Honestly, I don't really understand why this film is PG-13 and not PG, other than overly cautious producers at the time. The cast is somewhat diverse, but the movie does reference slavery (and rightly should for the time period it occurs in) and refers to the native people as "Indians," but that was a common term used at the time -- just be aware of it if you're watching it with people sensitive to the situation.

Where can you find it (as if you'd want to)?

As of this review, "Almost Heroes" is streaming on a variety of platforms including the Roku Channel and Tubi, but I watched it on YouTube Premium at no additional cost. It's not essential, it's barely tangential, but it's there if you have a couple of hours and need something playing in the background.

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