Clueless Case File #185: The Stupids

Clueless Case File #185: The Stupids

Even famed comedy directors like John Landis—the man behind Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, An American Werewolf In London, Coming To America, and the amazing documentary Slasher—sometimes have to work up a furious flopsweat trying to get studio executives and audiences to understand their comic vision. But what happens when your own leading man, the guy with his name above the title, can’t quite comprehend why what he’s doing is so supposed to be funny? 

That was the situation Landis faced while directing 1996’s The Stupids, an ill-fated cinematic adaptation of the popular line of children’s books co-written by Harry Allard and James Marshall. When I spoke with Stupids star Tom Arnold for an upcoming Random Roles, he said that throughout filming he kept asking John Landis if what he was doing was supposed to be funny. Landis assured him that, yes, broadly speaking, what they were doing fell under the rubric of “comedy,” all evidence to the contrary aside. 

By the time Arnold signed up for The Stupids, he’d made a remarkable evolution from walking punchline/Mr. Roseanne Barr to popular sidekick in hits like True Lies and Nine Months to unlikely leading man. But first he had to overcome a formidable obstacle: the public’s fierce hatred of Tom Arnold. 

According to Arnold, when preview audiences for True Lies saw the opening credits, they broke into rapturous applause when the names James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jamie Lee Curtis appeared onscreen, then booed enthusiastically when Arnold’s name came up. He also said that the studio deliberately cut him from early True Lies commercials because they were worried he’d bring the stench of the trailer park to its shiny Hollywood blockbuster. Yet when the comment cards came in, Arnold was singled out as the audience’s favorite part of the film. (Though to be fair, “icky sexual politics,” “pervasive sexism,” and “that creepy yet hot and completely gratuitous striptease number” finished second, third, and fourth). The implication is that people only think they hate Tom Arnold, when in fact they find him informative and witty. The world’s widespread contempt for Tom Arnold was a running theme in our Random Roles conversation; everything he’s achieved he’s apparently accomplished over the loud protestations of people horrified at the prospect of being personally and professionally associated with him. 

Arnold doesn’t have fans so much as he has apologists. There’s a good reason for that: He has a genius for saying and doing the wrong thing, for losing friends and unwittingly alienating people. Yet I find him likable and ingratiatingly self-deprecating in comic roles, and blessed with an offhand vulnerability in dramatic roles like Happy Endings (which Arnold said his friend Don Roos wrote specifically for him, but he could only play after the Jeff Bridges of the world all turned it down), and Touch, in which he’s haunting as a Catholic extremist whose rigidly ordered world is torn asunder by the appearance of a slacker-dude with Christ-like powers. 

When Arnold first rose to prominence as the hillbilly quasi-boy-toy of one of show business’ most controversial, powerful, and despised women (the three tend to go together), few could have guessed that the tabloid fixture would go on to have a much more successful, eclectic, and high-profile post-Roseanne career than the brassy superstar to which he first hitched his wagon. Arnold has made a habit of surprising people and soaring above the incredibly low expectations people set for him. 

But, in keeping with the Peter Principle, Arnold precisely rose to the level of his incompetence. After graduating from sitcoms and supporting roles, he ascended to a role that audiences could not and would not accept: leading man. It was one thing for Arnold to add a little levity to the pyrotechnics of True Lies; but to actually ask decent, self-respecting people to pay $7 a ticket to go to see a Tom Arnold vehicle in public? That’s where audiences drew a concrete squiggly line in the shifting sands of confused metaphor island. 

Yet studios nevertheless groomed Arnold for stardom under the delusional belief that audiences were ready to take their surprise love affair with Tom Arnold to the next level. In a staggering display of misplaced confidence, the Tom Arnold/David Paymer vehicle Carpool and The Stupids were released on consecutive weeks (Carpool on August 23, 1996 and The Stupids on August 30). For a brief shining moment, audiences had their choice of which dire-looking Tom Arnold movie not to see. Studios imagined that moviegoers’ hunger for Arnold was insatiable; The Stupids’ dire gross (less than $2.5 million on an estimated $25 million budget) disabused them of that notion.

Not even a poster braying, “Tom Arnold Is Stupid” or the book’s built-in fan base could lure audiences into theaters. It’s never a promising sign when the star of a film can’t figure out why it’s supposed to be funny, but Arnold trusted the instincts of Landis and screenwriter/The Simpsons scribe Brent Forrester. 

In a way, Arnold’s cluelessness perfectly suited the performance. There is no ironic distance between Arnold and the blissful idiot he plays. He throws himself wholeheartedly into his character’s cheerful dopiness. The Stupids aspires to the wholesome, candy-colored simplicity of the children’s books that inspired it, and the performances are pitched at an appropriately cartoonish level. 

The Stupids opens with Arnold’s patriarch making a horrifying discovery: Someone has robbed his family of the trash his wife (Jessica Lundy) carelessly left out on the curb the night before. The humor of both the film and book is predicated on its central family of well-meaning dullards seeing fantastical conspiracies in the mundane. We’re invited to see the world through the Stupids’ miscomprehending eyes, so when Arnold sees men in strange, face-obscuring suits hauling away what he sees as precious cargo while driving a massive, bizarre-looking vehicle suited for nothing else but the nefarious task at hand, they really do seem like visitors from a strange and terrifying world. That’s the essence of the series’ and the film’s comedy: If you weren’t socialized to understand at a young age that people throw their waste into trash containers, which are then hauled away by men in trucks and taken to a giant landfill, the whole process would seem bizarre. 

For example, when Arnold goes missing, children Bug Hall and Alex McKenna assume he’s been kidnapped, so they leave a note telling their bouffant-sporting, perpetually smiling mom of their suspicions. Alas, Hall only jots down what he considers the essentials, so instead of writing that she should call the police because Arnold has been kidnapped, and signing the letter “The Children,” he reduces the message to “Police kidnapped children.” Lundy misinterprets this the way you might imagine. This, friends, follows the rule of comic escalation in a way that helps obscure the series’ one-joke premise. 

My other favorite example of escalation turns out to be less an exciting new twist than a frustrating dead end: A flashback reveals that Arnold used to work for the post office until he was fired for one day—sensing a dark conspiracy at play—pointedly asking a superior why this mysterious “Sender” person kept getting his mail returned. We’re led to believe, of course, that this is another instance of Arnold drawing the wrong conclusion. Only this time there really is a sinister, Satanic overlord named Sender who genuinely is intent on wreaking havoc by attaining a monopoly on the only resource fools never even think to protect: their trash. To make it even more awesome, Landis got Christopher Lee to play Sender. 

At this point, I expected the film to travel in a bold new direction: What if the Stupids really are right? What if it’s the world that’s mixed up, not them? Alas, Lee’s appearance is a maddening tease: We never see him again, and the film goes back to its regularly scheduled idiot plot, which involves Arnold accidentally mixing it up with a renegade army man played by Mark Metcalf—who may or may not be reprising his role from Animal House—intent on selling weapons to a rogue’s gallery of international bad guys. 

The Stupids is inherently limited by having characters who are, by definition, slow. That kills the film’s pace and comic momentum, but there are inspired moments littered throughout. In my favorite scene, Arnold tries to camouflage himself at the dump by festooning himself with leaves and branches and trying to get inside the mindset of a bush. The character has such a susceptible mind, however, that it only takes a few seconds for him to switch gears mentally from trying to think like a bush to thinking he really is the first bush in the history of evolution to have legs. 

Arnold’s monologue is a lovely example of, again, comic escalation: 

To look like a bush you need to think like a bush. Here I am, just being a bush. Just growing and hanging out. This is the life for me. Sure is a lot of soil around here. A lot of sunshine too. As a bush, I notice these things. What’s this? I have arms. I am a bush with arms. And legs. I am the first bush in history with legs! I can walk! Gaze ye non-believers upon this miracle, upon this walking bush. Half man! Half plant! He dwells in two worlds and is a master of both. Oh man-bush. You are nature’s greatest wonder!

That, friends, is a piece of writing worthy of a writer for The Simpsons and The Office, and Arnold plays the scene perfectly: His joy and surprise escalate into something resembling religious rapture once he decides that he’s not only an actual bush but nature’s greatest wonder. 

Yet The Stupids gets bogged down in pointless distractions, like a scene involving nose-picking aliens, a computer-animated cat and dog that barely figure into the narrative, and an enthusiastic sing-along rendition of “I’m My Own Grandpa” that the filmmakers apparently dug enough to bring back for the end credits. Listening to Arnold’s rendition I was reminded, as I am often, of the line from Ishtar about how you should perform songs people already know, so that way even if they don’t like you, they’ll have something to applaud. The studio didn’t seem to have any idea how audiences would respond to The Stupids (the DVD box prominently advertises a cameo from Jenny McCarthy, the saddest plug since Mac & Me’s poster shilled for Ronald McDonald’s guest appearance), so they apparently banked hard on the timeless appeal of the universally beloved Tom Arnold singing a treasured number from the Dr. Demento archives. 

Landis and Forrester give the film an impressive pedigree, but it’s an uphill struggle trying to convince audiences that a film called The Stupids that arguably peaks with Tom Arnold singing “I’m My Own Grandpa” on a trashy talk show isn’t bottom-feeding, lowest-common-denominator fodder.  

There’s something strangely seductive about the Stupids’ worldview, though. Their world is infinitely more exciting than ours; the conclusions they draw are always more dramatic than the right ones. Yet there’s a reason the comedy of misunderstanding has found more of a foothold in the quick-take world of one-liners, children’s picture books, and jokes than in feature films. Ninety-four minutes is a long time to devote to an endless series of misunderstandings involving defiantly one-dimensional characters. The filmmakers stay true to the spirit of the children’s books, but in stretching a series of 32-page books into a 94-minute movie, they’re dwelling in two houses and proving the master of neither. 

The Stupids probably received the best possible cinematic adaptation, yet the film surpasses a baseline of affable mediocrity only on occasion. For Landis, Forrester, and a star whose days as a leading man were rapidly coming to an end, it seems their best wasn’t quite good enough. 

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco

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