Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Against all odds, the event-movie movie season is in full swing, so it’s time once again to look back on unsung summer blockbusters—the flops, the critical bombs, or the merely forgotten Hollywood spectacles that deserve to be rescued from the trash bin of movie history.
In retrospect, the summer of 1988 looks like a turning point for Chevy Chase’s big-screen career. After spending the first half of the ’80s starring in big comedy hits like Vacation and Fletch, Chase had to face an unusually strong line-up of summer comedies in ’88 in all shapes, sizes, and styles: Coming To America, A Fish Called Wanda, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Midnight Run, and Married To The Mob had all hit theaters by the end of August. Meanwhile, Chase’s big summer movie, Funny Farm, was kneecapped by opening the same weekend as Big, and the weekend before Crocodile Dundee II. The next year, Chase put out two sequels; Christmas Vacation became a perennial, but it would be the last gasp of his peak ’80s popularity.
It’s easy enough to see why Funny Farm underperformed in the face of all that competition. The idea of New York sportswriter Andy Farmer (Chase) decamping for the country to write his novel, only to find himself ill-prepared for life in small-town Redbud, Vermont, sounds a bit like off-brand Clark Griswold. It’s also easy to imagine audiences confusing Funny Farm with the Dan Aykroyd/John Candy camping comedy The Great Outdoors, released mere weeks later—and perhaps opting for neither, though Outdoors made a bit more money. Funny Farm’s reputation may have improved marginally in the years since, but it’s still under-recognized as one of Chase’s very best movies. (For what it’s worth, both Siskel and Ebert were on board with this notion.)
A lot of city-to-country comic narratives involve slick big-city types becoming frustrated by and then endeared to a charming, communal small town—you know, the Doc Hollywood program. Andy and his wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith) aren’t clueless about the differences between city and country life. They’re just weak and human enough to be momentarily defeated by Redbud’s maddening quirks. Funny Farm, based on a novel by Jay Cronley (who also wrote the source material for Quick Change, another under-appreciated career highlight from an SNL alum), is especially clever in playing up how those quirks start to approach acts of aggression. A few outright cross into it, as with the Farmers’ mailman, who chucks their mail out of a speeding truck while cackling madly. (By way of explanation, the sheriff notes that the Farmers’ house is five miles off from his regular route, meaning that he’s “pretty liquored up” by that point in the day.)
With running gags, including an inspired ongoing contrast between two different dogs adopted by the Farmers, and plenty of blackout slapstick scenes, Funny Farm isn’t any less of a vignette parade than a Vacation movie. On the basis of director George Roy Hill’s previous films, including Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Sting, and an ambitious adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, he seems overqualified to guide Chase through some more pratfalls. Even if he was, though, the slumming paid off; the episodic material flows more naturally than it does in other Chase vehicles because Hill is a more precise framer of comic action than many comedy directors of this period. He knows that Andy attempting to bash a snake with a rock is funnier when framed through a window, with his oblivious wife in the foreground, and that seeing the snake escape into the Farmers’ house is funnier when cutting to the tail-end of the action, rather than lingering.
It’s remarkable how much better Chase is when the movie around him tightens up. Here he’s neither contemptuously smarmy nor dazed into indifference. Smith, who only made a few feature films, also does skillful work as a foil beyond the usual hand-wringing-wife reaction shots. She and Chase have to carry a number of scenes because the movie is disciplined about not allowing any of the bit players to develop into de facto sidekicks. The residents of Redbud, from the sheriff who can’t pass his driving test to the fisherman who maintains a visceral hatred of Andy to the spiteful phone operators, are too caught up in their own foibles to assimilate the Farmers into their community.
When everyone does band together in the spirit of idyllic togetherness, it’s under the direction of Andy’s scheme to sell the Farmers’ house before the new owners realize how gleefully inhospitable Redbud really is. It’s deeply satisfying to realize that the movie is committing to its loopiness, rather than softening up for a round of hugging and learning. The clearest lesson is a harsh one: Any writer who’s ever harbored a fantasy about getting more done if only there was a bit more time and a nice little house in the country will cringe at Andy’s stalling. Siskel compared the movie to the work of Preston Sturges, and while it may not quite reach the satiric heights of that master at his best, it’s certainly the only Chevy Chase vehicle to come within spitting distance.
Availability: Funny Farm is currently streaming on Starz. It’s also available to rent or purchase from the major digital services.