WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: At one time the next big thing in ten pin bowling, Roy Munson’s fall from grace is so spectacular that his name becomes a byword for catastrophic failure. The prodigious talents of Amish bowler Ishmael appear to offer Roy a way out of his nightmare, and things brighten up when they pick up svelte Claudia during a hustle. On the other hand (sorry), self-regarding star ‘Big’ Ernie McCracken stands between Ishmael, Roy and a cool $1 million prize.
In 1978, the world of ten-pin is at Roy Munson’s (Woody Harrelson) feet. The Utah State champion and regularly defeating the likes of Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), Roy makes the mistake of hustling with the cocksure but cowardly ‘Big’ Ern, who scarpers when a scam turns nasty and Munson loses his bowling hand in the nastiness. Years later, Munson – with an unsubtle metal prosthetic and unreliable rubber hand – barely scrapes a living doing favours for his landlady; but he spots an opportunity when he sees talented Ishmael (Randy Quaid) bowling in secret.
Though he’s not allowed to bowl, the community desperately need money, for example half of the million dollars on offer for winning the Reno Open; so they set off, with Roy desperately hoping not to Munson things up with his new charge. Whilst raising funds with high-stakes games, the pair pick up the beautiful but troubled Claudia (Vanessa Angel), who proves a welcome distraction even though she and Roy bicker endlessly. However, a fresh meeting with McCracken proves to be tragic for Ishmael and thrusts Roy back into the sporting spotlight. He couldn’t be the ultimate comeback kid. Could he?
Though they’re not directly responsible for the material in this case, there’s plenty of familiarly tasteless stuff to rail against the Farrelly Brothers’ Kingpin. Chief charge is the wanton misuse of Vanessa Angel’s Claudia, a very tall piece of very short skirt lumped with the clunkier-than-usual role of the hottie who falls for the shambling loser, whilst also suffering the (albeit obviously staged) indignity of being punched in the breasts – something I distinctly remember Barry Norman getting very cross about on Film ’96.
And she’s not the only one: Munson’s disability is played for laughs throughout, and goodness knows what the Amish have done to get caught up in all this – though I suppose they’re unlikely to be watching. They’re all caught in the middle of a comedy ride which bumps along for much of its two hours. The jokes are uneven both in terms of tone – occasionally gross-out, occasionally parodic, occasionally goofy – and quality: Claudia’s line “she said handsome, not hand-less” is a memorable dud.
At this point, it’s traditional (so I understand) to come in with ‘Thank heavens, then, for Bill Murray’. There’s no denying that Bill’s tiny little touches and considerable ad libs transform an unlikeable antagonist into a wonderfully despicable creation, and it’s true that the film only ever hits top gear when McCracken lets loose on screen (the hair! The hips! The unbelievably harsh put-downs!).
On the other hand, he’s far from the only thing about the film that works. There’s a feisty spark between the three leads: Claudia can hold her own, verbally as well as physically, and Angel puts in a much better performance than she needs to, given the lousy hand the script deals her (disappearing at the vital point for no adequately explained reason). Quaid, meanwhile, revels in his dopey role; and it’s testament to Harrelson’s often underrated skills as an actor that in a film almost completely lacking in subtlety, he manages to guide Munson on a graduated journey from selfish depravity to friendship and redemption. Call me soft, but I find the end of the film quite touching.
There’s more to like besides. The bowling – a sport which has never really been taken seriously in the UK – is dealt with in a fun and breezy way, while amongst the weakish material there’s a cute little Indecent Proposal riff which I enjoyed for its own sake, only realising the Harrelson connection afterwards. Dur. However, Kingpin won’t be remembered for anything clever, save Murray’s genius: whether or not you remember it with any fondness depends on your tolerance for the dumb, vulgar and wilfully stupid. Ordinarily, I’d say avoid like the plague, but I can’t help but have a soft spot for Munson, Ishmael and Claudia.