The unexpected ambition of the Farrelly brothers’ 1996 film, Kingpin, becomes clear when set against its spiritual descendant, 2004’s DodgeBall. The latter film contents itself with the joke of putting a non-sport on sports television and hyping it into a major media event. Kingpin certainly does the same for bowling, culminating in an absurdly outsized tournament deflated at every turn by the sport’s irrelevance etched into every frame. But where DodgeBall finds its fasçimile of ESPN’s visual style married to an unlikely subject the joke in and of itself, Kingpin aims higher, examining the way that sports channels and, more broadly speaking, society, treat sports as an inherently positive means of character development.
The Farrellys wider ambitions are underscored from the start, and they layer their more incisive comedy into a carefully timed visual style hidden in plain sight. The first shot sets its temporal setting in 1969, but the rural Iowan gas station it captures in an establishing crane shot, run by a man who looks like he was birthed from a corn stalk, is steeped in ‘50s middle-class contentment. The man’s young son, Roy, has innate bowling talents that fill the father with a pride that only seems silly because the word “bowling” has substituted for “baseball” or “basketball.” But the simple variation of sport is otherwise the only alteration in a series of cliché-ridden maxims and declarations, from the man’s assurance that the lessons Roy learns in bowling will teach him how to live his life to breathless praise like, “It’s as if angels came down from heaven and put a blessing on your three bowling digits.”
The loaded irony of such statements explodes with a mere cut forward in time and the flash of text reading “1979” at the bottom of the frame. The sudden immersion into chintzy glamour mocks the father’s view of bowling by reinforcing the true allure of any sport in its rewards of notoriety and money. Woody Harrelson immediately lends the adult Roy an air of innocence flecked with a capacity for duplicity, and he clearly basks in the adoration of the assembled crowd at a state championship, and he triumphantly brandishes the novelty $1500 check when he emerges triumphant. The setup makes light of the low stakes and rewards of bowling, but the deeper joke is that this is all sport can give a person who excels at it, a point never belabored through preachy dialogue but communicated primarily within the directors’ mise-en-scène.
Even the Farrellys’ noted penchant for exaggerated visual humor, with its ostensibly easy gross-out gags, relies on understated talents for blocking and cutting. When a hustle involving Roy and his bowling rival Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) leaves the former at the mercy of some vindictive rubes, an amusing dissolve links the bowler’s golden hand being fed into a ball return with a wood chipper spewing out mulch.
Later, a washed-up and broken Roy pulls a hustle of his own to avoid paying rent, staging his landlady’s mugging to appear heroic and buy himself some time. The fake robber comes into Roy’s place for his payment, and the blocking carefully places him by the window for when the landlady enters and discovers the ruse. The resulting gag, using fresh coffee where the staged action employed a cold cup, is obvious, but the shot of the burned man crashing through the window looks as if it could have come out of a silent film.
When it comes to characters’ appearances, the brothers nearly bypass caricature altogether for outright Expressionism. Having lost his livelihood, Roy deteriorates into a mess, Harrelson’s padded stomach providing a stiff paunch that pulls his already frayed clothing at the seams.
That outfit keeps Roy stuck in his past glory days, to such an extent that when he hooks up with Amish bowling prodigy Ishmael (Randy Quaid), the latter’s centuries-old fashion does not look as obsolete as Roy’s faded polyester. A full decade older than Harrelson, Quaid looks a good 15 years younger, his face always twisted in an aw-shucks grin or the good-natured consternation of a sheltered person discomforted and reshaped by his exposure to the world but collected enough not to make a fuss about it.
The hair also helps. The hair makes the characters in this movie: Ishmael’s sun-bleached blonde locks are made yet more childlike by the utile, vanity-free hairdo he brings with him from the Amish community. Roy, on the other hand, keeps strips of thinned hair matted to his skull with the help of ever-present flop sweat that gives him the impression of having not slept since 1979. You can practically see the grease of untold numbers of convenient store hot dogs oozing from the pores in his face. Most outlandish of all is Ernie, whose bramble patch of ‘70s hair gives way to a wig that comes increasingly undone during the film’s final tournament. By the time Murray throws his last ball, his wig has morphed into the greatest hairdo Rudolf Klein-Rogge never got to wear.
The climactic showdown is a masterclass in comic filmmaking, pushing sports movie techniques to the limit to lend a sense of heightened drama to the proceedings. Floor-level shots use wide-angle lenses to stretch the lanes in a comic exaggeration of suspense somewhat undone by the absurd look of the two archrival bowlers.
To drive the joke home, a shot perpendicular to Roy utterly deflates the focus and seriousness in Harrelson’s face, flanking him with a ball return proudly branded with “Reno National Bowling Stadium” that only serves to further point out that the crowd of adoring fans is boxed in by a room no bigger than a convention center auditorium, never mind “stadium.” An on-screen cameraman looks as if he has not moved the whole time, irritatingly shining a light from a few yards away to try and brighten up the “action.”
Unlike the majority of the Farrelly brothers’ output, Kingpin does not feature the duo’s name among the writing credits. Nevertheless, the broad but intelligent visual setups twist gags into identifiably personal humor that syncs perfectly with the filmmakers’ other, partially self-penned efforts. The listed writers, Bobby Fanaro and Mort Nathan, came from television, primarily known for their work on The Golden Girls; nothing in their CVs before or since would lead one to believe that they could have made a film like Kingpin without the expert interpretation of a gifted director(s).
Take one of the funniest throwaway bits, a montage of Roy and Ishmael’s world-weary tagalong, Claudia (Vanessa Angel), helping in cash-raising hustles by sultrily distracting other players into screwing up their games. The sequence culminates in the woman having no effect on a group of farmers, prompting Roy to scrounge up a sheep to ensure the hicks’ distraction. On paper, the joke is funny, but the Farrellys reveal the joke almost elegantly, starting on an unflappable farmer suddenly stumbling as he throws, then looking back as the camera reverses to reveal the sheep. Then, the brothers go one further, cutting back to the actor flashing an affectionate, coy smile that shows the extent to which the two will take any joke even as the extra shot provides a perverse warmth to the jab.
The Farrellys also sell the greatest subtleties of the script’s commentaries on the lessons of greed and self-aggrandizement contained in sports, values that do not conflict with social views of same so much as provide a path to their fullest display. Notably, their brief recreation of 1979 fits with the pop cultural memory of the ‘70s much better than the open in the ‘60s. The ‘60s are remembered as a time of political and cultural upheaval, but you wouldn’t know it looking at that Iowa gas station, the implication being that the anti-Establishment message of the hippies never really escaped intellectual centers, while the narcissistic consumerism embodied by disco made its way even to rural towns. The ‘70s aesthetic may seem miles removed from the conservative vision seen just before, but it is only the logical endpoint of that prosperity-affirming comfort,
Consider also how they handle the climax. To return to DodgeBall for a moment, that film constantly fakes out the audience over the outcome of its final match, teasing the possibility of the heroes’ loss before at last giving them a win to affirm feel-good formula. Roy, on the other hand, simply loses in the final frame, and as he slumps back in shock the Farrellys further tease him by painting a laser-light star on Ernie’s back as the victor hails the crowd (holding Roy’s fake rubber hand, no less).
Even so, Kingpin ends on a note of triumph, precisely because Roy and co. still get paid. Claudia steals the winnings her ex-boyfriend made by betting against Roy, while Roy’s unfortunate “Rubber Man” nickname gets him a condom endorsement that pays enough to cover the expenses to save Ishmael’s threatened Amish community. (That someone would demand the Amish raise $500,000 to avoid their land being seized for private development is in itself a dark joke about unchecked capital.) Roy may not get a new ring to replace the faded trophy of his state championship, but he gets enough cash to live in comfort, and Kingpin’s unsettling parting message is that the viewer would undoubtedly prize the cash over the achievement.