I am full knowledgeable of the dismissive attitude many cinephiles have to the entirety of comedy for the decade of the nineties. Sure a ton of it is entirely entrenched within toilet humor and crude, terribly thought out jokes, or in the opposite spectrum the films are too highbrow and pretentious to the point of being distancing to anyone who is not an English major at a prestigious Ivy League school. Fortunately, the era was not a complete wash and occasionally a film would come along that meets the middle ground on the comedic divide, one such film that I have championed for on this blog was Stuart Saves His Family in its clever commentary on the nature of familial trust, self-help and depression, while also being uproariously funny. From the same year, the Chris Farley and David Spade vehicle Tommy Boy exudes the same thrill and fascination, allowing for it to be both a staple of mid-nineties yuppie disillusion, as well as a larger film about friendship and moving beyond the shadow of one's predecessors. Tragically, anything with Chris Farley has come to take on an unfortunate life of its own, considering that his last months before an untimely death were fueled with wild drug use and an irreversible downward spiral of self-loathing. Here in Tommy Boy, however, Farley is at his finest, I would argue even more so than in his iconic "van down by the river" sketch, moving between the wild and unruly antics that would earn him his comedic reputation and delivering some poignant and moving lines of dialogue that show a very real understanding of frustration and failure. It also helps that the film is not so invested in an on-the-nose commentary about the nature of small business as to become shadowed by its sweeping sense of importance. Sure it is a great narrative about sticking it to the big cats and supplanting corruption, but that is secondary to the pseudo-coming of age tale that unfolds for the title character. It also does not hurt that the film seems to have an uncanny resemblance to the world of Twin Peaks, and if all else fails one cannot help but love the iconic moment of Farley dancing about in Spade's sports jacket, it is clear in this scene, as well as many others, that at the very least the two were having the time of their lives making this film.
Tommy Boy focuses, obviously enough, on the experiences of Tommy (Chris Farley) a recent college graduate who had been on the "seven year plan," which involved heavy drinking and drug use, although with an inspired D+ on an American History final he succeeds in finishing with his degree, subsequently planning to return to work for his father Big Tom Callahan (Brian Dennehy) at his auto parts factory. Of course, Tommy is extremely inept at anything remotely productive, however, he is adored by all the factory workers, particularly Michelle (Julie Warner) the shipping manager for Callahan's who seems to see past Tommy's foolish demeanor for the stand-up guy beneath. In the opposite view stands Richard (David Spade) Big Tom's righthand man who had been prepping to take over his position, assuming that Tommy would never complete college. Both Richard and Tommy are taken for a spin, however, when Big Tom has a heart attack during his wedding to his new young wife Beverly (Bo Derek) leading to the bank demanding that the company account for their loans. In an act of thoughtful desperation, Tommy offers his shares in the company and the factory as leeway on the loan asking that he and Richard be provided time to sell the necessary shipments to pay off the loan. Richard is fearful of the success of such a wild plan, as well as for his life, knowing the reputation Tommy carries along with him, which is asserted during their first sales pitch, which literally goes up in flames. It is not until the duo get into a furious argument on the side of the road that Tommy appears to have a wake-up call, one that ignites a suppressed ability to sell his product, without entirely relying on the crutch of his late father. It then appears as though Tommy and Richard will save the business, however, a shipping error that is onset by Beverly's son Paul (Rob Lowe), who turns out to be far closer with his mother than anyone expected, results in the company, nonetheless, going bankrupt and being bought up by the competitor Zalinksy (Dan Akroyd). At this point, Richard assumes defeat, yet Tommy refuses to give up after he has come this far and uses his idealistic antics to worm his way into Zalinsky's office, while also uncovering the duplicitous nature of Beverly and Paul in the process. Tommy saves the company, forms a real friendship with Richard, gets the girl and fondly remembers his father, which is a stark contrast from the figure that emerges in the opening moments of the film.
While I hesitate to overanalyze something as seemingly simple as Tommy Boy, I do find there to be a real consideration of the relationship between authenticity, salesmanship and ethics working throughout the film. The obvious examples emerge in figures like Zalinsky, who claims to be a working class man selling working class parts to working class people, but when confronted with his own statement, he clearly rejects that notion and only cares about his own personal advancement. Indeed, it is what one seeks in personal advancement that seems to play into notions of authenticity in this film, Paul and Beverly are seeking unethical gains therefore their relationship as a mother and son is not only lacking n authenticity it is completely contradictory to their actuality. Yet for characters like Richard and Tommy it is far harder to claim that either is lesser apt for the job than the other, because while Richard certainly knows the parts and business of Callahan's he is a stiff suit who is going through the motions and is completely oblivious to the amiable nature necessary to sales. Tommy is highly likable and extremely friendly, however, it is impossible for him to really comprehend the guidelines for proper salesmanship, ones that are arguably breakable, but not to be completely ignored. Indeed, it is not until the duo realizes that their respective approaches to proper salesmanship possess degrees of the authentic that business begins to boom. However, there is also the underlying notion that the two are both ethically sound characters, Tommy in his youthful idealism that assumes all persons are inherently good and Richard who plays by the rules, therefore, assuming everyone else does, allows for the two to come of clean, even when they pass as flight attendants or fake holding up a bank. All of this coalesces wonderfully in the first big successful sale by Tommy where he debates the ethics of a slapping a guarantee on a piece of paper with a prospective buyer. As Tommy notes, it is only a person who is unsure about their product that would feel it necessary to provide a guarantee, in the mind of Tommy, which affects his worldview, a guarantee should be a given, calling attention to it is frivolous and of suspect. Much like the business he now owns, Tommy thinks that good and authentic behavior is a given and should not need to be noted, only proven.
Key Scene: As much as the "fat guy in little coat" number is the most notable scene from the film, the failed sales scene that ends in Tommy lighting a desk on fire is the highlight of the film, if only to watch Spade struggle to keep a straight face throughout.
Tommy Boy is available on Watch Instantly, you should set some time aside and check it out, or in some cases revisit the film. It certainly stands up and is a light and entertaining film.