Words by Matt Poe

“Kingpin” (1996)

Netflix Star Rating: ★★★☆☆
Poe’s Star Rating: ★★★½☆☆ (the hair!)

A promising young bowler loses his hand, shattering his blossoming career. Decades later, he meets an Amish bowler who may just be his key to redemption.

Category: Comedy, Sport

Rated PG-13 for crude sex-related humor and a drug scene

Starring Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Vanessa Angel and Bill Murray

Written by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan. Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly.

Come in, stay awhile and get comfortable for another rousing edition of Poe’s Picks. We don’t have much to get into before digesting our next movie, but I did prepare a few words. (*Clears throat, pulls out folded piece of paper, straightens up.*) Lately, the blog has featured many good movies, but they’ve seemingly all been dramas in one form or another. You know I love a good drama, but with all the bat shit crazy things happening in the world sometimes you just need a movie that is downright silly.

The best movies challenge us to think about various aspects of our lives. Other times, something that will put a big, dumb grin on your face is called for. It’s not to say comedy is simple by any means. Hell, I will debate anyone that comedy is just as hard, if not harder, than drama and method acting. If you think otherwise, get a stage and a moderator and be prepared for me to take you down because I have the best words, terrific words. Anyway, let’s have at it.

“Kingpin” opens with Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) as a boy. He spends time with his father who teaches him how to bowl and about the lessons that young Munson can use in other parts of his life. Flash-forward 10 years where Munson is the talk of the town, a state champion bowler and a kid with a good head on his shoulders. He dreams of going pro one day and becoming the Ali of bowling.

All is going swimmingly until he crosses paths with the likes of Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken (Bill Murray), a shady bowler who takes Munson under his wing to teach him the art of the hustle to earn a quick buck. It goes well until the duo hustle the wrong men and the angry mob gets its vengeance on Munson. How? Well, they shove his hand down the ball return and with that, his dreams of becoming a pro are dashed.

Photo Courtesy of IMDB.

Again, we flash-forward almost 20 years to find Munson now an alcoholic and pessimist who can’t make rent in his tiny shack-like apartment. He hangs around local bowling alleys selling various parts and equipment when a stroke of fate brings him Ishmael (Randy Quaid), an Amish man who can bowl just as well as the young Munson once could. After much convincing, he and Ishmael decide to garner enough money to enter the Reno Invitational in hopes of winning the grand prize of $1 million.

The movie is directed by the Farrelly brothers, who brought us “There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Fever Pitch.” If you’ve seen any of these movies or others they’ve done, you know you’re in for some gross gags and lewd jokes, this one featuring a hilarious one-night stand, a tutorial on how to milk a cow and many cruder acts that result in some serious laughs. Kudos to the actors involved.

Harrelson’s Munson is a sympathetic figure at times but also does some really stupid and selfish things. (Fun fact: My dad knew him in college.) You can see how losing his hand changed him into the bitter man he grew up to be. He’s a good guy deep down who believes the world dealt him a shitty hand (pun much intended) in the form of McCracken and that it owes him something back. His character arc progresses nicely throughout the movie. Quaid also brings some big laughs as the doofus Ishmael who is turned upside down when he finally leaves Amish country for the harsh reality of the outside world.

Then, there’s McCracken. I can’t think of anyone better to play this type of character than the beloved Murray. He’s a timeless treasure who can do no wrong. Here, he uses that deadpan wit and humor to get people to do any outrageous thing he asks. They know he’s conning them, but he’s so convincing that they don’t care because he’s Bill Freakin’ Murray. I hope he lives forever. The movie sags a little in the middle without him, but when he shows up to face Munson in the big finale, it’s well worth the wait.

The movie takes a little time to get going, but I really enjoyed it upon finishing. Not all the jokes hit the target and some people may find the Farrelly brothers’ sense of humor to be childish, but I disagree. It has some good themes about redemption and accepting one’s actions, but it does so in such a ballsy, humorous way. Comedy does that. It can provide those same situations and themes presented in dramas, but poke at them with a big stick and find the humor in them. The actors play the material straight and that’s what makes it work so well.

“Kingpin” certainly isn’t the best movie reviewed on this blog. Regardless, it drew me in and made me laugh. We can expect too much from movies sometimes and “Kingpin” serves as a reminder that there are hidden gems out there everywhere, in film and life. Watch this movie. You will laugh. And you will thank me later.

Until next time.

In Good Films We Trust,

Matt “Roger Ebert wishes he was half the film critic I am” Poe