Thursday, June 18, 2009

“Did you know your last name’s an adverb?”

1984’s Johnny Dangerously has been something I’ve been meaning to watch for some time now. When I found out it was on, I figured what better way to celebrate that serendipitous discovery than going to FYE and buying the DVD… Wait a minute….

A young boy growing up in early 20th century New York wants to be an honest kid, but needing cash to pay for his mother’s surgery leads him to helping out a local crime boss. Taking on a double life as Johnny Dangerously, he eventually becomes one of the most wanted gangsters in the city, but considers going legit when a new District Attorney arrives determined to bring him in. Also, Johnny falls in love with a beautiful nightclub singer.

It’s a straightforward plot that pretty much runs on its rails all the way to the end of its 90 minutes, but this is a farcical take on gangster movies, so really, why bother nitpicking it to death? Johnny’s courtship doesn’t hit many bumps after the initial ice and you never really feel like he’s in danger or not in control of the situation. But it’s a farce, like Airplane! and The Naked Gun movies.

Johnny Kelly/Dangerously: Michael Keaton plays a character that everybody in town except his family knows is a notorious nightclub owner/gangster/etc. Hell, he even hands the “friggin’ Pope” (Dom DeLouise) a wad of cash in one scene. Johnny’s kind of a marty-stu in that just about everybody loves him, he’s almost always right, and everything is about him. But Keaton plays it with charm and a knowing grin. He’s not taking things seriously as he hams it up across the film. You like Johnny, and you end up rooting for him, despite knowing he’s a crook, and despite/because of one of the funniest gang assassinations involving Danny DeVito and a bull I’ve ever seen. Keaton has to carry the movie for it to even hope to work, and he does. I have to admit, he is quite the badass in this film.

Lil: Johnny’s love interest (Marilu Henner). She’s a sultry singer with not a lot of character development, but she “gives good banter” when she meets Johnny, which is enough to get their relationship on the road.

Danny Vermin: Joe Piscopo is this film’s villain. A thoroughly unrepentant, self-aware psychopath with a really big gun (“it shoots through schools”) who likes crime for its own sake. Its fun watching him and Dangerously trying to out-ham each other on screen. He’s two dimensional, sure, but he’s funny as hell too.

Ma Kelly: Johnny’s mom, mostly played for laughs as the dirty old woman with an endless stream of medical ailments. Frighteningly competent when push comes to shove near the end of the movie.

Tommy Kelly: Johnny’s younger brother who goes to law school (not knowing he’s being funded by his brother’s criminal career) and becomes a D.A. determined to bring in Dangerously. He’s so full of “aw gee shucks” law-abiding honesty and idealism that it makes you want to puke. Fortunately, it makes almost all of the other characters want to puke too, and Tommy gets the crap beaten out of him (physically and verbally) throughout the movie. He also gets a character arc where he has to come to grips with the revelation of his brother’s criminal career.

Jocko Dundee: Peter Boyle plays Johnny’s crime lord mentor. A very fatherly father figure who eventually retires, leaving his empire to Johnny. Has a rivalry with…

Roman Moronie: Ok, he’s a fairly minor character who’s good for about one joke, but it’s a great joke. He mangles the English language so badly when he curses people out it comes out to something like “Its fargin’ war to cork-soaking icehole bastiches!” He gets written out of the movie by the second act, but damn was he fun to watch.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
It’s a “period film” so that means old-timey cars, guns, clothing, etc. Like I said, it’s a farce also, so a lot of anachronisms creep as well, some intentional, some not.

The directing by Amy Heckerling gives it a very “movie” feel. You know the kind, when you know that a lot of it is filmed on sound stages and the lighting is fairly uniform. It has that visual look and feel of a movie from the golden age of cinema when realistic sets were needed only so far as they looked enough like what they were supposed to look like without going into obsessive-compulsive detail. I believe that was an intentional choice for this movie.

Four writers for the film: Harry Colomby, Jeff Harris, Bernie Kukoff, Norman Steinberg. That’s quite a few writers for a 90 minute flick. Then again, there’s a rapid fire endless stream of jokes, visual gags and one-liners. Since the plot is pretty linear, the sheer number of jokes muscle the story onward. The thing is, when you rapid fire the humor, not every punch line is going to hit. Some of the jokes fall flat, or are so dated to 1984 that I didn’t get them, but overall there are more hits than misses. Being a PG-13 movie (one of the first, apparently) I was rather surprised by just how much innuendo and other stuff they managed to sneak in under the radar. I like getting those kinds of surprises in a movie.

There’s one scene where Johnny breaks the fourth wall to tell the kids watching that smoking isn’t cool, even though all the gangsters in the movie are doing it. I think on repeat viewings that might bother me, but the first time through it was just kind of a surreal moment that made me laugh in a puzzled way. The characters are a little bit two dimensional, but nothing that stopped me from laughing.

One thing that really did nothing for me was the framing narrative of Johnny working in a pet store. I get what they were trying to do, and some of the jokes, like using a price gun on puppies, were great, but the pet shop scenes just kind of dragged.

You know, I can’t remember any of the music aside from Lil’s song in the night club and the “Weird Al” Yankovic song “This Is The Life” at the beginning. Those songs were amusing.

I will concede that there are flaws with this film. Most characters are more like caricatures who don’t really develop, and the plot is extraordinarily vanilla. But you know what, I laughed. For the duration of the film. For a comedy, that’s mission accomplished, right there. Great one-liners, good gags and a lot of talented actors hamming it up in a genre that doesn’t have a lot of straight-up comedies. I can see why people might not like it, but I can’t see why it isn’t more popular than it actually is.

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