Thursday, August 4, 2011

Johnny Dangerously

The spoof is a delicate art.  You don't want to overload your spoof with pop culture gags, because your movie will feel dated almost immediately.  However, you aren't trying to tell a real story, either.  The spoof should, when properly done, act as an homage to something, even as it pokes fun at it.  Johnny Dangerously is a spoof of old-time gangster flicks, a genre that modern audiences probably aren't terribly familiar with.  Can a spoof be successful and funny, even if its spoofing subject is not well-known to its audience?  Let's find out.

This is a spoof, so I'm not going to spend too much time on the story.  Johnny Dangerously (Michael Keaton) is an up-and-coming mobster in his town, the beloved Number Two guy to crime boss Jocko Dundee (Peter Boyle).  Jocko, feeling the heat from his competition, hires some new guys, including self-described scumbag, Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo).  The funny thing about scumbags is that they're not very nice.  Or loyal.  Meanwhile, Johnny has kept his professional life very separate from his personal one; his gang doesn't know about his family, and his family doesn't know that he's a mobster.  That's not a big deal, really, until Johnny's little brother Tommy (Griffin Dunne) graduates from law school (which Johnny's illegal activities paid for) and starts a strong campaign to eliminate organized crime from their city, especially that infamous Johnny Dangerously.  Well, that's what happens when you pay for someone's schooling.
Johnny Dangerously: favorite mobster of the young and the elderly

So, the plot is pretty basic, if a little silly.  Is it funny?  It's not side-splitting or anything, but Johnny Dangerously is pretty enjoyable.  Michael Keaton is solid in the lead role; I wish more of his jokes relied on his natural comic timing and dialogue, rather than on physical gags, but he is better than average here.  The surprising performance in this movie is Joe Piscopo's.  Outside of this movie, I have never laughed at anything that he has done, but he is definitely the best part of this film.  And I don't mean that as an insult to the movie.  I can honestly say that I found his character's recurring gag and almost all of his dialogue extremely funny.
Proof that Joe Piscopo was funny once.  Once!
The rest of the supporting cast was a bit of a letdown.  I wasn't expecting comic gold from Marilu Henner --- and she wasn't bad, per say --- but she doesn't really bring anything to the picture.  Maureen Stapleton was more of a prop than a character, but she did deliver a few funny lines.  I was definitely disappointed that Peter Boyle didn't have better lines, even if he sold the hell out of the lines he was given.  Danny DeVito was okay as a sleazy District Attorney, but it was about as nuanced as his part in The Nightman Cometh.
Note: the words "troll toll" and "boy's hole" do not appear in this film.
Ray Walston has a bit part/recurring physical gag in this movie.  It took me a few minutes to realize why he would agree to such a small role, but then I remembered that he worked with this director in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and apparently owed her a favor.  I was disappointed in Griffin Dunne's performance; being the goody-goody character is a thankless task, but I was hoping he would add a little something more to the part.  That expectation is my own fault, I suppose.  This is only the second movie I have seen Dunne in, and he looked like this in the last one:
Oh, and Dom DeLuise makes a cameo appearance as the Pope, delivers one line and got prominently displayed in the opening credits.  I have no idea why he was ever popular.  It is also worth noting that Chicago Bears legend Dick Butkus played a supporting role in this movie.  He doesn't really do much of anything, but, as a Bears fan, I had to mention him.  Sadly, I could find no images of him (in Johnny Dangerously) on the internet.
I did find this using the search terms "Dick Butkus awesome"

Johnny Dangerously was only director Amy Heckerling's second film (the first was Fast Times...).  It's an interesting choice to make a period piece spoof for a sophomore work, but I think Heckerling did a good job.  I like the tone of the movie far more than I like most of the jokes.  There's just something fun and laid-back about this picture, so the little moments that should only be "cute" are more entertaining than they have any right to be (like Johnny addressing his old neighborhood).  The humor drops off in the final third of the film, as it relies more on physical jokes, but Heckerling managed to squeeze out a comprehensible plot from a spoof script.  She deserves some credit for that.

If there is one major weakness in Johnny Dangerously, it is that the script is kind of weak.  Aside from Michael Keaton's delivery and Joe Piscopo's dialogue, this film is lacking in funny jokes.  Don't get me wrong --- there are several funny one-liners and visual gags.  My problem is that this film has about as many funny moments as you would find in a romantic comedy.  That's a low joke quotient for a spoof; that means that way too much time was spent on the story and not enough on making people laugh.  Part of the problem is with the spoofing material.  Poking fun at a film genre that was at least thirty years old at that point?  Really?  And I thought Mel Brooks was late to the party with Spaceballs!  The jokes that playfully nudged the cliches of gangster movies weren't terribly clever or unique, probably because the conventions had already been pointed out by then.  "Well, maybe it's not supposed to be a spoof."  Then why doesn't the main character have a moment of sincerity in the whole movie, jackass?  Let me do the genre categorizing, okay?  Johnny Dangerously isn't a great spoof, but the two lead performances keep it funny and the direction gives it a light-hearted-enough tone so that doesn't really matter.  It's not a classic, but definitely worth a watch.


  1. You farging icehole, left out the third funniest character, Roman Moronie! It is a ridiculous character that accurately spoofs the genre and is genuinely funny. I recently watched this flick with some trepidation, knowing it would not hold up as well as my memories of many years ago. However, I was pleasantly surprised and I agree with your analysis. Good work, kid.

  2. Aside from the Sweden joke --- which is hilarious enough to qualify for third funniest on its own --- Moronie is one of my least favorite elements in the movie. Yes, it's an accurate spoof. I just wish there were more jokes like the Sweden one instead of mispronouncing curses.