Funny Farm

January 25, 2012

Does the prospect of another Chevy Chase movie fill your heart with trepidation? Make your toes curl? Prompt you to look around for a place to spit? Believe me, my friend, you are not alone.

Chase has made a lot of bad movies over the years, and lately he’s also been bad in them, his once-fine sense of timing apparently gone. However, Chase seems to have cleaned up his act a bit (including a much-publicized layover at the Betty Ford Clinic), and his new film, Funny Farm, finds him in surprisingly good form.

Maybe that’s because Funny Farm isn’t a “vehicle” but a real movie, with some semblance of story, structure, and character, qualities that have been treated cavalierly in some of Chase’s previous outings. There’s even a top-line Hollywood pro, George Roy Hill (The Sting, The World According to Garp), in the director’s chair.

Hill, unlike many of Chase’s directors, is actually capable of setting up a shot so that the camera angle is an enhancement of the joke (and is sometimes the joke itself). This is true even of the moments in the film that are clearly designed to take advantage of Chase’s slapstick reputation (all of which are gathered in the movie’s awful coming-attractions preview). And Hill is not a sketch director; he requires that some sense of character be evident for the comedy to work.

The premise itself is none too original; it’s the one about the successful city couple who decide to chuck it all for the simple country life. Andy (Chase) is going to create that novel he’s always meant to write, and Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith) is going to fix the place up and start a family. Right. Everything, of course, goes wrong; the movers get lost, the neighbors are nasty, the corpse of the previous owner turns up in the garden.

This is well-worn comic material—you half expect Ma and Pa Kettle to come wandering out from behind a tree, ready to teach the slickers a thing or two—but it’s well-worn because it usually works. The neat twist here is that while Andy suffers from serous writer’s block, Elizabeth writes a warmly received children’s book. Her book is about a squirrel from the city named Andy, who endures a series of misadventures in the country, and is run over by a truck at the end of the story. Of course her husband is thrilled.

Chase assumes his proper place in the universe: not as a mugging funnyman, but as a regular guy to whom bad things happen. At least as important in the film’s comic scheme is the performance of Madolyn Smith as his wife. She’s got an expressive face and body for comedy, and she matches Chase step for step. I’ve been waiting for this actress to break through in movies ever since she laid an unbelievable kiss on John Travolta in Urban Cowboy, and I’m happy to report that this starring role may just do the trick.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The film turned out to be a surprise box-office flop, so nothing much happened for Madolyn Smith, who doesn’t have many subsequent credits; Chevy Chase retreated to some sequels, but the decline set in about a year later. It was also George Roy Hill’s final picture. But darn it, this is actually a credible movie, and the kind of thing Chase might’ve saved his career with if he’d started a while earlier. Sometime in the decade I remember him speaking wistfully about how critics always bombed his movies but adored Steve Martin’s quirkier projects. There’s a reason for that, and Funny Farm is what might have been.