Here is my contribution to this year’s White Elephant Blogathon, hosted once again by Philip Tatler over at Diary of a Country Pickpocket. To the person to suggested this- if you love this movie, sorry I didn’t enjoy it more. And if you hate this movie, sorry I didn’t dislike it more. Anyway…
What can one say about a movie so resolutely mediocre as Amy Heckerling’s Johnny Dangerously? I realize this question may come off as a cutesy lead-in to a dismissive review, but I’m honestly at a loss for what to say about a movie this run-of-the-mill. That’s not to say it’s unpleasant, but it’s the sort of movie meant to stumbled upon on basic cable in the mid-afternoon, and which you’ll watch for a few minutes while you wait for a phone call you’re expecting or for guests to arrive. It’s not terrible by any means, but it practically evaporates on contact.
Johnny Dangerously was one of a rash of gag-based comedies cranked out by Hollywood in the wake of Airplane!, hoping to replicate that film’s success. Here, Heckerling and her team of writers (the movie credits four), took on gangster movies, particularly the classic Warner Bros. cops-and-robbers pictures of the 1930s. Granted, this wasn’t a particularly fresh genre to spoof, but the movie’s lack of timeliness isn’t the issue. The real issue is that it’s not particularly funny.
That’s not to say it isn’t at least fitfully amusing. One of the movie’s best-remembered gags involves gangster Roman Moronie (Richard Dimitri), who spouts off phony curse words in a cartoonish, foreign-sounding accent. When he starts fuming and calling his enemies a bunch of “farging iceholes” and the like, it’s genuinely funny, and it’s even funnier when he’s called upon to deliver a prepared deposition before the District Attorney, and while it’s still full of faux obscenities (“the mouth on that guy!” exclaims his chief rival), it’s delivered in a perfectly flat voice.
But for every joke that hits, there are roughly a half-dozen that don’t quite reach the mark. Part of the problem is that Heckerling and her writers mistake “zany” for funny, as in a scene where the titular gangster (Michael Keaton) shows his law-student kid brother Tommy (Griffin Dunne) an educational film called “Your Testicles and You” in an attempt to steer him towards clean living. The shots of men walking around with freakishly bulging crotches (due to misuse, of course) is sort of amusing, but the movie doesn’t really do anything with this. It’s a one-off gag, and the payoff- an aghast Tommy proclaiming “I’m going back to law school!”- is weak.
Bits like this are typical of the movie’s approach to humor. Johnny Dangerously goes for obvious laughs, but doesn’t really go to the effort of making them really funny. Johnny’s chief rival Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo, best remembered as the guy who “wasn’t that bad- really!” on early-1980s SNL) has an oft-repeated catchphrase in which he responds to a perceived slight by saying that one of his family members did it to him “… once.” And that’s it. It’s not a bad idea for a running joke, but it feels like the first draft of the joke, not the final version. A lot of the movie’s humor feels like that, like the writers should have worked on their ideas a little more in order to make them sharper and funnier.
There are a few things I enjoyed. First off, the cast is good. Peter Boyle is solid as Johnny’s mentor, the benevolent crime boss Jocko Dundee, and Maureen Stapleton gets some good bits as Johnny and Tommy’s beloved Ma. At the time Stapleton was only a few years removed from her Oscar-winning performance in Reds, but she was enough of a consummate professional that she gave just the right comedic spin to the character, even in wackier moments like when she blurts out that she “swings both ways.” Though not even Stapleton could pull off the moment in which she dismisses Tommy’s do-gooder impulses by telling him he “sounds like a fag choir boy.” Jokes at the expense of homosexuals were an unfortunate tendency of 1980s-era comedy, and Johnny Dangerously falls into that trap, most egregiously with a District Attorney played by Danny DeVito, who gets a little too hands-on with Tommy and coos with delight over the gift of a red smoking jacket. And speaking of dating poorly, Vermin’s line that his custom made .88 Magnum “shoots through schools” would cause audiences to wince nowadays.
However, if Johnny Dangerously works at all, it’s because of Michael Keaton. Three decades, two Batman movies, and one talking snowman later, it’s easy to forget a time when Keaton was best known for being Hollywood’s funniest smirking wiseass, but he’s sort of perfect here. The character of Johnny Dangerously was inspired primarily by James Cagney, and Keaton captures Cagney’s puckish energy and cocky strut without resorting to impersonation or parody. Birdman be damned- THIS is the Keaton I miss, and seeing him in Johnny Dangerously, I despaired that he wasn’t given better material by the filmmakers. It’s an inspired performance, and if only the filmmakers had been working on that level of inspiration, this could’ve been a comedy classic instead of the largely forgettable time-waster it ended up being.