Movie Of the Week: Kingpin (1996)

Peter and Bobby Farrelly direct Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid and Vanessa Angel in this sports comedy road movie where a broke, one-handed bowling failure shows an Amish apprentice the hustling ropes.

Sandwiched between the far more financially successful Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, if you told anyone in the 1990s that Kingpin would be the Farrelly Brothers’ release that would stand the test of time they’d spit their bull semen right in your face. An unsubtle, unlikely mash-up of Witness and The Color Of Money this feels like it should run out of ideas after the first act. But joke for joke, gag for gag it is a titan. Stupid, silly, gross, inspired. It just makes you laugh a lot. And when most mainstream comedies hit the 90 minute dip, this flick picks up a spare. Kingpin reintroduces Bill Murray as Big Ern McCracken, the star’s most malevolent and vain creation. A truly hissable antagonist worthy of any sports movie finale, the genius is off-the-leash of having to drive the story, he dances a ballet of scumbaggery. The directors have openly stated Murray ad-libbed virtually every line he spoke, including his stand-out infomercial. He would read over the script, get the general idea, and then discard it.

It was around 1996 I first heard a film reviewer (Mark Kermode?) state that if a comedy made you laugh out loud 10 times then it was way ahead of the pack. I must have bellowed at Kingpin way too much. I took a girl on a first date to see it at what was then the Hammersmith Virgin. When I called her next weekend to see if she wanted to meet up again I was given the excuse that her grandmother was ill. Many of my first dates were responsible for a whole spate of sick grandparents in my mid-teens. I’m surprised the NHS could handle the pressure at such full capacity. I didn’t let the disappointment jade my feelings toward Kingpin though. It has become a firm favourite.

Quaid and Harrelson have a lovely rhythm together. Playing even the daftest moments relatively straight. They have a chemistry and clearly seem comfortable even with the groaniest, nastiest digressions. They trust the material even when they shouldn’t and it pays off dividends. Harrelson had only just shed his Cheers following by this juncture in his career and was being courted as a serious actor around Hollywood, so it feels especially brave in retrospect to reverse back into a comedy that is, on the surface, far dumber than the classy sitcom he made his name in. Yet the gamble paid off, I’d say Kingpin was the first time he was the dominant side of the buddy pairing or the love triangle. Box office wise, this might not have fluctuated his ranking on the A-List but it proved he could carry a movie without a Wesley / Demi / Juliette. And, much like Kingpin, in the long run he made whatever the opposite of “a real Munson” is from out smart plays like this.

“What is it about good sex that makes me have to crap? I guess it’s all that pumpin’. Pump and dump. You really jarred something loose, tiger.”

A joy.


Perfect Double Bill: Semi-Pro (2008)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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