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There’s a balance at play when mixing drama and comedy that few films truly make work. Think how well the Coen Brothers keep plates spinning, keeping the laughs and the mayhem almost always just on the edge of toppling the whole experience over. With George Roy Hill‘s Funny Farm, the plates are aplenty and while the mayhem might not be as horrific, the laughs are deadly good.
It starts with a goodbye. Andy Farmer (Chevy Chase) is a newspaper sportswriter with a dream. He longs to be a novelist and after getting a healthy advance from a publisher, bids farewell to his colleagues and heads off to the back-country town of Redbud with his lovely wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith Osborne). What could go wrong?
Well, everything of course, or else there wouldn’t be much a movie. From lost movers to signposts thieves to eccentric neighbors to a dead body in the back yard, things just don’t seem to click. Actually, it’s a disaster. What makes it all work though–as the potential for goofy gags threaten to tip it on its side–is how perfectly tuned each joke is set up and executed, from a Dutch door that seems positively out for revenge to a dog on the run to a kitchen phone that requires coins to work. Never milked, they aren’t just visual gaffs either, like a Zucker Brothers film, but prop up the plot well and actually become sustainable.
Based on the book of the same name by Jay Cronley, the premise is fairly simple and might first seem like a reworking of 1985’s Tom Hanks comedy The Money Pit, but is, and not to take away from that film, a bit more sophisticated, leaning more on authenticity than absurd, even as the pandemonium escalates. What truly separates this though is that while the house is the setting, the house is never the problem, just everything around it. A far more character-driven film, the story is more about the relationship of Elizabeth and Andy and how they are tested throughout.
Using exaggerated but genuine moments of chaos, the film moves along at a quick pace as the two encounter one stumbling block after another. None on their own make much of a difference to the plot but together help weave a pattern that creates the downfall of sorts for the couple, this hinging on the fact that of the two, it turns out Elizabeth is the better writer. When she sends a draft of a children’s book about a squirrel to a publisher and gets a contract, it drives a wedge between them that leads to his further breakdown, a devastating betrayal, and at last a decision to split and sell the house. But to do that, they need the help of the people they’ve come to despise. You can bet it won’t be easy. Or cheap. Or unfunny.
Chevy Chase is a master of physical comedy and in the 80s was at his height, never really trying to create differences in his characters, pretty much playing the same person in all his film, which actually worked to his benefit. Here, he tones it down a bit and as the film is ostensibly a drama, and actually delivers what might be considered his best performance. Yet as good as he is, it is Madolyn Smith Osborne who steals the show, her supporting role a brilliant comedic turn that absolutely sells it, who, if you watch carefully, revels much about what to look for as the story unfolds. She’s a marvel to watch.
The whole thing culminates in an epic Norman Rockwellian tour-de-force from the townspeople that again, should have pushed this over the edge, but instead shifts the film into a moment of bittersweet truth that is funny and touching. It’s a smart movie even if it’s not so heavy, and is one, if you haven’t, you should watch. Cue the deer …