My Year Of Flops Norm MacDonald’s Film Career Died For Your Sins Case File #133: Dirty Work
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Since Chevy Chase broke America’s heart and shattered its will by leaving Saturday Night Live halfway through its second season, the show has conducted a sort of open-ended, decades-long casting call for the Next Chevy Chase. Prerequisites for the gig include conventional good looks, height, smugness, and an almost blinding level of whiteness.
Charles Rocket was the first and most tragic of these faux-Chevys, a “Weekend Update” anchor tapped for Chase-like breakout status during the show’s darkest hours. Alas, Rocket’s career nosedived when he flagrantly violated the show’s strict prohibition against doing anything spontaneous by swearing during a “Who Shot J.R?” bit. Rocket’s career never recovered, and after decades playing what I like to call the “Chad” character—the sleazy cad the heroine leaves in a romantic comedy so she can be with her true love—Rocket committed suicide by slitting his own throat in 2005.
Contenders to Chase’s smirktastic throne could naturally be found in the anchor chair of “Weekend Update”: twitchy sentient ball of sarcasm Dennis Miller, hunky Jimmy Fallon, and most spectacularly, the star of Dirty Work, Norm MacDonald. (Thanks to commenter Dr. Venkman PhDs for suggesting Dirty Work for My Year Of Flops. Incidentally, I was originally going to do this as a double entry with Screwed, but it was running long, and Screwed is just a terrible fucking film, in spite of a cast led by MacDonald, Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, and Elaine Stritch. It really doesn’t merit being dug up just to be buried all over again.)
As anchor, MacDonald took Chase’s air of Zen comic detachment to wonderful new extremes. MacDonald embodied a sublime aloofness that made him a little dangerous. At the same time, MacDonald won fans and enemies by regularly acknowledging facts that pretty much everyone in pop culture knew but mostly tiptoed around: that Michael Jackson was a pedophile, and O.J. Simpson a brutal double murderer. As “Weekend Update” anchor, MacDonald was a riveting combination of schoolyard smartass and angry-white-man truth-teller.
He was also a whiz at impressions. He did a definitive Burt Reynolds and a Bob Dole that usurped even Robert Smigel’s impersonation as the gold standard. Then in 1997, something unexpected happened. Norm MacDonald got fired because an NBC executive named Don Ohlmeyer didn’t think he was funny. Briefly, it seemed like getting fired by “The Man” in such bizarrely public fashion was the best thing that could have happened to MacDonald.
Being fired by some fat-fingered, scotch-swilling, Cuban-cigar-smoking, comedy-illiterate cad in an Armani suit threatened to transform MacDonald from a divisive cult comedian into a full-fledged cult hero. According to NBC’s curious logic, MacDonald wasn’t funny enough to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live in late ’97,but he was big enough to host the show in 1999.
MacDonald seemed to be failing upward, especially when he scored his own big-screen vehicle in 1998’s Dirty Work, which he co-wrote. He seemed primed for Chevy Chase-like cinematic stardom. Alas, after a few too many Chevy Chase-like bad decisions, he was widely seen as a Chevy Chase-like has-been. These days, MacDonald pops up in sad Chevy Chase-like thankless supporting roles in dumb comedies (Senior Skip Day, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo) while plotting a comeback and cultivating his contempt for humanity, Chevy Chase-style. MacDonald lurched briefly back into the public eye during a roast of Dirty Work director Bob Saget with the following bit of brilliant, perversely wholesome meta-comedy.
But for a brief, shining moment at the tail end of the Clinton era, greatness seemed within MacDonald’s boozy grasp. Does anything take you back to the halcyon days of 1998 quite like a movie prominently using “Semi-Charmed Life” in its first 10 minutes? For those who don’t remember ’98, every film that year was legally required to use the ubiquitous Third Eye Blind hit, even Holocaust dramas and documentaries. Especially Holocaust dramas and documentaries.
Like they say about the Age of Aquarius, if you remember ’98, man, then you weren’t there! ’Cause if you were there, you would have abused so many psychotropic drugs that they would have completely destroyed a lot of your cognitive functions, especially regarding memory retention.
Dirty Work scores a trifecta by using “Semi-Charmed Life,” Better Than Ezra’s “Good,” and Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” in its first 15 minutes. Had it thrown in The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshman,” the cheap nostalgia receptors in my brain would have exploded from overwork.
In Dirty Work,MacDonald plays a put-upon loser whose only joy in life comes from enacting revenge on people who’ve done him wrong. After he’s fired from his 14th job in three months and is kicked out of his apartment by his angry girlfriend, MacDonald and best friend Artie Lange decide to combine business with pleasure by starting a revenge-for-hire business.
In its hilarious first half, Dirty Work embodies a curious cinematic subgenre I’m beginning to suspect exists only in my mind: the ironic dumb comedy, the slyly postmodern lowbrow gag-fest that so lustily, nakedly embraces and exposes the machinations and conventions of stupid laffers that it becomes a sort of sublime bit of meta-comedy. Doctor Detroit and Boat Trip are other examples of ambiguously ironic dumb comedies that constantly call attention to their own arch stupidity.
Also, Dirty Work is funny as fuck. In the early going, at least. MacDonald and co-writers Fred Wolf and Frank Sebastiano make no effort whatsoever to hide the hilariously transparent nature of their setups and payoffs. Before finding their calling as professional pranksters, for example, MacDonald and Lange get jobs at a movie theater run by Don Rickles. Does Rickles’ movie-theater boss treat his employees with the respect and dignity they so richly deserve? Does he listen patiently to their concerns and work to foster an open, mutually symbiotic relationship between management and labor? No, he most assuredly does not. On the contrary, he hurls invective and abuse his employees’ way, almost like some sort of professional “insult comic” heckling his audience.
To get revenge, MacDonald and Lange swap out a print of Men In Black for the similarly titled Men In Black Who Like To Have Sex With Each Other, a film with telltale dialogue like the following:
“Hey, it’s an alien. We better have sex with each other.”
“Hey, this alien looks like a hot guy.”
“You’re right. We better have sex with it.”
But the setup/payoff for MacDonald and Lange’s ill-fated movie-theater gig is subtle and seamless compared to the glorious, glorious scene where MacDonald learns that the cute girl he likes works as an accountant for a sleazy car dealer (David Koechner) who, in a funny, seemingly random twist, is about to become the first businessman in 40 years to film a live television commercial.
Has anyone taped live commercials since TV made the big switch from black and white to living color? Yet for the sake of a gag, live commercials are back, and Koechner is doing them without bothering to, I dunno, hire security so that some tall, lanky goofball gifted in the dark arts of revenge doesn’t wreak comic havoc on his set. MacDonald takes advantage of Koechner’s appalling lapse of foresight by moseying onto the set, insisting that there’s something wrong with the trunks of Koechner’s cars, then watching in delight as Koechner opens trunk after hooker-filled trunk.
But why take my word for it, when you can watch the legendary hookers-in-trunks scene yourself? On Saturday Night Live, Norm MacDonaldcame to own the word “whore” the way Too $hort owns the word “bitch.” A drinking game could be devised from the many, many times Dirty Work derives titters of amusement from utterly gratuitous references to whores, dirty and otherwise.
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If a great movie is one with two great scenes and no bad ones, then Dirty Work is half a great movie. It contains more than its share of bad scenes, but it does have two brilliant ones. There’s the setpiece above, plus the genius sustained gag where MacDonald and Lange get revenge on a dude’s loud, obnoxious neighbors by sticking dead fish all over their tacky new mini-mansion.
The revenge-happy slackers’ delight turns to horror, however, when they overhear the house’s mobbed-up inhabitants respond to the horrible new scent by brutally murdering each other in increasingly elaborate ways. As the bloodshed escalates from garden-variety killing to way-beyond-Scarface ultra-violence, MacDonald and Lange’s expressions go from child-like glee to absolute mortification. I love how MacDonald and Lange maintain the same comic-book pose (greedily clutching giant fish like characters in an old Looney Tunescartoon) as their innocent little prank turns deadly.
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Dirty Work also boasts what may be Chris Farley’s finest big-screen performance, as a man whose life is defined by having had his nose bitten off by a Saigon whore. (He’s still a little bitter.) And there’s a rare return to form from Chevy Chase—who praised MacDonald as the only “Weekend Update” anchor to “do it right”—as a gambling-addicted doctor who sees everything through the filter of his imminent demise at the hands of enraged bookies.
MacDonald’s commitment to his character begins and ends with not insisting that everyone call him “Norm MacDonald,” but that really doesn’t matter, as Dirty Work is essentially a series of blackout gags, inspired one-liners, and non sequiturs stitched together with an arbitrary plot involving an evil real-estate mogul with a silly little dog he may or may not be fucking (professional heavy/Chad Christopher McDonald) and the daffy duo’s attempts to raise $50,000 so they can afford to pay Chase to perform a shady operation on their desperately ill, whore-obsessed father (Jack Warden).
After a certain point however, Dirty Work stops being a sly, funny meta-commentary on slobs-vs.-snobs comedies with stock characters and stupid plots, and becomes what it’s ambiguously spoofing. In its weak third act, Dirty Work devotes way too much time and effort to a plot it’s better off ignoring. But while it ultimately devotes too much time to trying to get audiences to care about its aggregation of one-dimensional joke machines, it still finds ways to undercut its plot’s sentimentality by making Warden a horrible, foul-mouthed bastard and by having everyone ignore the earnest speeches of a philosophical homeless man played by veteran Saturday Night Live writer Jim Downey.
MacDonald isn’t much of an actor. He basically has two moves: an “Ain’t I a stinker?” smirk/grin, and an abashed, little-boy-with-hand-in-cookie-jar look of contrition. But Dirty Work doesn’t call for anything more. It lives and dies on a gag-by-gag basis, but that’s no problem when it has lines like the following:
“I understand you’re upset. Maybe you’d feel better after we had some dirty sex.”
[To frat boys.] “Now you go back to doing something latently homoerotic.”
“That’s a picture of you and my mom having sex. Why would you show me that?”
“Back then, we didn’t have fancy birth-control methods, like pulling out.”
“If someone was taking bets on your father’s bout with death, I’d put everything I own on death. It’s a good bet. The odds are he’ll probably die.”
“Are you telling me you bet on the fight in Rocky III and you bet against Rocky?”
“I’ve never seen so many dead hookers in all my life.”
“It’s either from sleeping the wrong way, or bookmakers throwing me out of a car.”
“You know how I feel about the homeless. They’re human beings and they have no homes.”
“Good Lord, I’m in whore heaven.”
But my favorite line in the film approaches slacker profundity: “Note to self: no matter how bad life gets, there’s always beer.” That line alone is enough to bump this half-genius, half-moronic comedy from Secret Failuress to Secret Success.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success