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In terms of pure physical comedy star power in 1990s, two names were at the top: Jim Carrey, who had burst on the scene with three explosive box office hits, and Saturday Night Live veteran Chris Farley, though certainly standing in the former’s shadow, unfairly or not. While Carrey earned a lot of well-deserved praise for his sinewy rubber-like presence, for sheer manic madness, none could do better that Farley. His rotund appearance, shock of tussled hair, and powerfully expressive face made him a dynamo of unmatched comedy antics, and he managed to bring that talent from the sketch television format to the big screen with not just ease but unbridled lunacy.
In Tommy Boy, he plays Tommy Callahan Jr., an awkward, socially inept college graduate (after seven years) who is the heir to the town’s big brake pad factory, which has been run by his industrialist father Thomas R. “Big Tom” Callahan, Jr. (Brian Dennehy) for years. After Big Tom unexpectedly passes away, just as he was hoping to get his boy ready to take his place, questions arise about the company’s future. We learn it’s going to go belly up unless Tommy can get out there and sell a ton of special products. But he won’t go alone. Along rides Richard (David Spade), Tommy’s father’s right hand man and old classmate of Tommy. Needless to say, Richard is not keen on the partnership.
So the two head out on a classic road trip, allowing them to get mixed up in a number of zany madcap adventures and of course, bond. There are a lot of quick sight gags and easy one liners, and no, not all of them work and the overall story lacks a sense of urgency that Farley desperately tries to keep lit for most of it, though his total commitment to the spastic, manic role, lead to plenty of solid laughs, even if some are at his expense.
Directed by Peter Segal, what works best about the relatively simple plot is the evolving relationship between Farley and Spade. While Spade tends to play deadpan a little too wryly, and his snobbish, belittling attitude wears thin fast, he is a perfect straight man to Farley’s rampaging acting style. Watch carefully has he remains nearly motionless in his scenes, using calcualted, small gestures and well-timed eye movements. This serves as a perfect balance to Farley’s over the top, highly animated-breathless character who seems unable to find comfort in even a moment of stillness. Farley is exhausting to watch, but never once not interesting.
There is a great moment early in the film when we see a bit of the Farley genius at work, and I don’t say genius lightly, even understanding that Tommy Boy is itself a fairly tepid movie. He is in the office of an auto parts dealer trying to sell the owner on a this new line of brake pads that he his desperate to unload. If he doesn’t get orders for 500,000 pads on this trip, his dad’s rival Ray Zalinsky (Dan Aykroyd), is going to buy them out. While Richard is a top salesman, he lets Tommy do a bit of talking, and Farley puts on a classic display. Using the auto dealer’s treasured car models adorned on the desk, he goes about demonstrating what would happen if families didn’t buy the new pads. It ends with fire.
It feels silly but is actually a sensational bit of work by Farley who seems to go right off script and improvise, weaving a tale of a fun family adventure on the road that quickly descends into immolated horror, and he does it with such fervor, it’s impossible not to watch and recognize the clear lines of comparison that link the story with his own current situation. As he tells the story, batting plastic cars about the desktop, he himself is like a fragile model very near destruction, and Farley deftly handles the physical comedy with exasperated glee. To watch him work is to feel breathless all the time. The way he builds the scenario is clearly a recipe for epic disaster, but in his hands, it is like watching a master sculpture shaping his greatest art.