Sad Sack Case File #188: The Wrong Guy
More My Year Of Flops
Dave Foley once seemed destined for greatness. He was funny. He was smart. He was boyishly handsome. But more than anything, he was likable. We rooted for him. We identified with him. We wanted him to succeed. We wanted him to get the girl and the happy ending. We wanted that for his characters, but we also wanted that for the affable Canadian playing them.
The Kids In The Hall was never going to be a Saturday Night Live or Second City-style training ground for future cinematic superstars, but if anyone in the cast had a shot at carrying films, it was Foley. (I can’t even imagine what a Kevin McDonald vehicle might look like. Maybe you can help me out by proposing theoretical vehicles for each of the Kids In The Hall in an alternate universe where they’re all as big as Adam Sandler.) Foley hit the ground running: He was the standout Kid, then upgraded to leading one of the greatest ensembles of all time as the star of Newsradio. The cast included Phil Hartman, Andy Dick, Maura Tierney, Joe Rogan, and Stephen Root, but Foley was unmistakably the star.
So how did the man whom everyone was rooting for, whom everyone was convinced was destined for big things, become the tortured soul who goes on podcasts to wring pitch-black humor out of what a sick joke his life has become? Foley has long had the vaguely melancholy air of an All-Canadian boy gone to seed, but I didn’t comprehend the full extent of his situation until his darkly fascinating interview on WTF With Marc Maron.
There is a strange zen to knowing you’re completely fucked, a curious freedom in knowing there’s no point in trying to extricate yourself from a particularly perilous position, since no amount of furious exertion will ever be enough to get you out of the shit. That seems to be the mindset Foley was in when he talked to Maron. He had the pitch-black gallows humor of a man forced to laugh at the Kafkaesque nightmare he finds himself in because the only other option is crying, and once the tears start they won’t stop.
Foley got divorced in the mid-’90s, when he was still a big television star, with the money and status that entails. His ex-wife wanted to be kept in the manner to which she’d grown accustomed even after Foley’s income plummeted along with his career, and prestigious roles in high-profile fare like NewsRadio and A Bug’s Life gave way to accepting bit parts in whatever promised to keep the lights on that month.
The Kids In The Hall veteran owes $17,000 a month in child-support payments and now owes over a half million dollars in back payments. If Foley returns to his native Canada without paying off what he owes or working out an arrangement, he very well could be arrested. There are few things in the world more embarrassing than getting arrested for back child support. It combines the humiliation of arrest with the disgrace of being perceived as lacking in the parenting department. Us rubberneckers in the WTF listening audience aren’t privy to the innermost details of Foley’s strange situation, but it’s pretty clear that he’s fucked. On WTF, Foley noted that even if he died, his estate would still owe the child-support payments; not even the sweet release of the grave could help him.
Foley’s performance in Uwe Boll’s Postal betrays that sense of world-weary exhaustion, the zen of having given up. When Foley’s pot-smoking, debauched, sex-crazed cult leader (to make things even sadder, Foley’s character is named “Uncle Dave”) gets up from a bed and his naked, flaccid penis makes its onscreen debut, he seems to implicitly be saying, “There. You’ve seen my penis and seen me take a crap onscreen. In a Uwe Boll film! My humiliation is complete. There is nothing more anyone can do to me. I have reached my personal and professional nadir and have decided to stay here at the bottom indefinitely. Heaven knows I can’t go back to Canada.”
Where did a glorious future turn into an ugly present and then a traumatic past?
Where did it all go wrong? One could certainly argue that Hartman’s death was a catalyst for the end of Newsradio, and with it Foley’s television career (among myriad other things. My God is that man missed). But for the sake of this Case File, I am going to propose something different, that it actually went wrong somewhere else.
On Doug Loves Movies, one of the many podcasts where Foley appears to plug his stand-up comedy gigs (fun fact: Foley became a stand-up comedian solely to raise money for back child-support payments!), Benson asked Foley which film he was proudest of. Foley’s response was immediate: The Wrong Guy.
1997’s The Wrong Guy was supposed to launch Foley’s career as a leading man and as a screenwriter. As a test balloon to gauge the commercial viability of a Dave Foley vehicle, it was a distinct failure. The film was never released theatrically in the United States and had to struggle to receive even a half-assed video and eventual DVD release.
Yet it’s easy to see why Foley is proud of The Wrong Guy. It is a film of modest but considerable charms, an old-school farce of mistaken identity. It’s a featherweight trifle, so I don’t want to oversell it; but it is a clever, winning little cinematic orphan eminently worthy of critical and public rehabilitation.
Foley stars as a genial, ceaselessly chipper idiot with a one-track mind leading straight to the executive boardroom. Everything in Foley’s life has been leading up to the moment he’ll be promoted to boss: his marriage of convenience, his schooling, everything. So when Foley learns that the promotion is going to the employee who married the boss’ favorite daughter, he grows predictably apoplectic, angrily saying things that might seem suspicious later such as, “Go to hell you bastard! I swear. I will kill you! You are dead to me!”
So when Foley discovers a knife plunged into the boss’ back, he freaks the fuck out. In a neat bit of escalation, every step Foley takes to correct the situation makes matters worse, until he finds himself careening through a hallway with a crazed look while carrying around a bloody knife and wearing a bloody shirt. What Foley doesn’t realize is that the cops know who killed the boss all along: They have surveillance footage of a highly skilled super-killer played by Colm Feore committing the deed, then elegantly lifting himself back up into the air grates after the task is completed.
David Anthony Higgins, who co-wrote the screenplay with Foley and The Simpsons’ Jay Kogen, costars as a cop who habitually sports the default look of intense concentration/contemplation seen on determined cops in movies and television shows. Only in this case, the look is a front for a shameless opportunist who seems to have gotten into law enforcement solely for the perks. So Higgins’ search for the killer takes him on a long, circuitous, and suspiciously expensive (and expense-accounted) journey involving French restaurants, impromptu trips to St. Louis to visit a sister he hasn’t seen in eight months, and climactically, a trip to New York to see a musical based on Moby-Dick alongside a blonde Asian escort. In one of my favorite gags in the film, Higgins commandeers an old man’s scooter so that he literally will not have to walk 20 feet. The cotton candy he’s eating while riding is a nice touch.
The Wrong Guy takes the form of a thriller with some crucial differences: The wrongfully accused hasn’t actually been accused of anything, and the head cop isn’t particularly interested in catching the killer. The Wrong Guy is consequently something of an anti-thriller, since all the thriller elements have been reversed or negated.
Foley falls in love with the romance of life on the lam. His entire identity had been wrapped up in getting a promotion; the absence of said promotion leaves a hole where his identity should be. Why not recreate himself as an outlaw? Calling his girlfriend from a pay phone, Foley finds himself both dreading and furtively looking forward to what he imagines his new life will entail when he very dramatically reasons, “I must live in hiding, never able to rest, never a moment’s peace, startling at every noise. ‘What’s that?’ I’ll say. ‘Oh, only an alley cat with an empty tin. How like that mangy Tom am I, forever searching….’” Part of Foley wants to be that guy and live that life.
Foley was The Kids In The Hall’s resident straight man. Here, that dynamic is reversed. Foley lurches through the film a flailing, manic mess, leaving everyone else to react to his increasing mania with various levels of deadpan. When Foley ends up in a hospital bed, for example, the film finds two new variations on an old gag: In a mad bid to come up with a fake name, he looks around the room for potential hints before coming across two likely candidates and announcing himself, “Enema Bag Jones.” The perfectly stone-faced doctor understandably has a hard time believing his hastily improvised moniker, so Foley scans the room for another name and unfortunately settles for the one on the doctor’s nametag. Needless to say, she’s not buying that Foley is named “Dr. Emma Harris,” either.
Eventually we end up at the home of Joe Flaherty, an honest, humble, hard-working banker besieged by greedy famers out to take his land, and Flaherty’s narcoleptic daughter (Jennifer Tilly), who has a tendency to fall asleep just when Foley is trying to reveal his true identity. The screenplay gets a lot of comic mileage out of the conceit of farmers as greedy, predatory parasites out to ruin the lives of innocent businesspeople. There’s a great moment where the head farmer delivers the threat, “I don’t care if that shopping mall has been in your family for generations. Soon that land will be a pasture for dairy cattle. And there’s nothing you can do about it” with the perfect note of cold-bloodedness.
The Wrong Guy loses a little momentum in the third act, but remarkably manages to sustain a premise that would be thin for a sketch over 94 consistently funny, inventive minutes. In the last Case File we explored Run, Ronnie, Run, a cursed film by sketch giants that ultimately didn’t prove worthy of the time and energy the fans and creators invested in getting it released. It’s no lost masterpiece, but The Wrong Guy definitely deserves to be seen. Foley isn’t just waxing narcissistic when he describes it as his best film. The Wrong Guy should have marked a beginning for a glorious career as a leading man/screenwriter for Foley. Instead it marked a dead end in a life and career that would soon be full of them.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success