From The Parallax Review Vaults: Funny Farm (1988)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Funny Farm was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

 by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Encore

Funny Farm boasts a surprisingly impressive pedigree for a light Chevy Chase comedy. It was directed by George Roy Hill, a man who delivered two certifiable masterpieces in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid among other very good films (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse-Five). It boasts a screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, ace screenwriter of such films as The Dead Zone, Innerspace, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Lethal Weapon 2. With this collection of unusually talented people behind the scenes, it’s not terribly surprising that the film turned out as well as it did. That praise isn’t to confuse it as a great film, but it’s an enjoyable comedy with a few big laughs.

Andy (Chase) is a sportswriter in New York City who is embarking on his dream of moving to the country and writing a novel. Armed with an advance from a publisher, Andy and his wife, Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith), buy a house in rural Vermont where they expect to live a relaxed existence straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But this being a Chevy Chase vehicle, nothing goes according to plan.

Not only are there annoying bugs constantly biting them, but the locals are also less than inviting. And then there’s the ugly fact that the novel Andy is writing is terrible. In a great scene, Elizabeth reads the first few chapters and delivers the type of critique no writer wants to hear from their spouse: “Burn it.” This sends Andy into a downward spiral of drinking too much and ramping up a feud with their drunken, insane mailman. Andy’s decline is further pushed along by Elizabeth’s budding writing career as she sells a children’s book about a bumbling city squirrel lost in the country; a character Andy can’t hep but feel is based on him, especially since the squirrel is named — wait for it — Andy.

I grew up in a very rural area and it’s always amused me when people who grew up in urban centers idealize country life and talk about a retirement that involves buying a farm or some such nonsense. I always try to tell them that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. You have to be able to deal with isolation and roads and other infrastructure that’s often not up to snuff. And then there’s the uncomfortable reality that rural communities are often very insular. The residents are usually very distrustful of “outsiders.” It’s not that they are rude to new people, but they’re usually not made to feel very welcome. I’m sure this last statement will strike some people as unfair, but it’s the truth as I see it. Funny Farm, for all its silly Chevy Chase physical comedy, gets this last part right. Through some disastrous interactions with the residents of the local town, Andy and Elizabeth quickly find themselves not being welcomed as members of the community and treated as hostile enemies by specific neighbors.

If this all sounds rather stupid, I’m sure Chase’s presence doesn’t help sell it as an effective comedy. Funny Farm marked the beginning of his downward trend at the box office. It’s now unfairly seen as one of his worst films, a title to be uttered amongst dreck like the ill-advised sequels Caddyshack II and Fletch Lives, not to mention Nothing But Trouble, Cops and Robbersons, and Man of the House. Funny Farm is far from a classic, but it’s much, much better than the films it’s often lumped in with.

But if Chase’s name is now seen as a detriment to the film, he’s perfectly cast as Andy. He brings the perfect sense of naïve enthusiasm and eventual arrogance to the character. While his trademark physical bumbling is on display, it’s used sparingly. This makes it more effective and honestly funny when Hill trots out scenes of Andy unsuccessfully trying to knock out a panicking fisherman who has a hook lodged in his neck or roll a boulder down a hill to take out the mailman’s truck in a Looney Tunes-inspired gag. These sequences wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining if Chase didn’t know how to sell them or if the film relied too heavily on them.

I don’t wish to make Funny Farm sound better than it is. There are serious story problems in the second and third acts that involve marital strife between Andy and Elizabeth. This turn of the plot is escalated too quickly and wrapped up in a completely unearned bit of sentimentality. But the film is often very funny with great running gags and an inspired Chevy Chase turning in one of his better performances. It holds up fairly well and made me laugh. That’s more than I can say for most studio comedies of the late ’80s.

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