I believe it was Shakespeare’s King Lear who said, “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” He was kind of a pill, that King Lear. Because let’s face it, what would life be without fools to keep us entertained and occupied, and make us feel smarter than maybe we actually are? It would be the PBS NewsHour, that’s what.
Of course, in real life we have no shortage of fools. (I’m not mentioning any names. Sarah Palin.) But what about in the cinema? In honor of April Fool’s Day, here’s a random sampling of film fools who may have spread their film foolery over the years.
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989). I’d already pretty much written off Mel Gibson after the whole anti-Semitic rant episode, but I really got upset when he mouthed off to that reporter in Chicago. Maligning an entire religion is bad enough, but don’t mess with journalists, Mel. You might make one of us mad, and then we’ll talk about you behind your back.
But while I’m loath to recommend any of Mr. Gibson’s work these days, no discussion of cinematic fools would be complete without Joe Pesci’s Leo Getz. Pesci had been little-seen since his intense role in Raging Bull (1980), and was still a year shy of his Oscar-winning turn in Goodfellas when he stole this movie right out from under Gibson and Danny Glover. Just think, if it weren’t for Pesci, we still might not know what they do to you in the drive-through.
Personally, I found the first Lethal Weapon to be an exercise in stupidity, from Gibson’s faux-craziness to his over-the-top hand-to-hand combat with Gary Busey (Gary Busey!) at the end. The sequel, directed like the first by Richard Donner, is cleverer in general, with better action and more suspense – but its best attribute is Pesci fast-talking his way toward comic genius; you can feel Gibson and Glover elevating their performances just to keep up. And if you don’t think it’s a legendary effort, just think about how many critics referred to Sean William Scott’s part in Cop Out as “the Joe Pesci role.”
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Peter Lorre is a classic cinematic fool, with his weasely looks, his halting laugh and vaguely indeterminate foreign accent belying the gears that always seem to be turning behind his eyes – he’s a fool with a plan, even if it never quite works out. (You’ll recall that things go particularly badly for the little guy in Casablanca, and not much better in The Maltese Falcon.)
In Frank Capra’s brilliantly funny Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant, Lorre turns his sweaty loser persona up to 11 as Dr. Einstein, reluctant aide and plastic surgeon to the homicidal Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey). Grant was of course a legendary leading man (An Affair to Remember) and one of cinema’s first great action and suspense heroes (Gunga Din, North by Northwest). But his skills as a comedian were his most lasting legacy, and he was rarely more manically hilarious than in this farce, adapted from Joseph Kesselring’s stage play.
As Mortimer Brewster, intended target of crazy brother Jonathan’s animus, Grant imbues the proceedings with an infectious comic exasperation, but I have a soft spot for his scenes with Lorre – they somehow take the typically hyper tone of screwball comedy to an even higher plateau of ridiculousness. And I mean that in a good way.
The Godfather, Part II (1974). Fools in the movies aren’t always the squirrelly, semi-pathetic sources of comic relief; sometimes they’re the squirrelly, fully pathetic objects of pity that Al Pacino kisses on the lips before (spoiler alert!) having a henchman kill them in a rowboat. Alas, poor Fredo … We knew ye a little too well.
Fredo was goofy enough in the first Godfather, fumbling his gun as he’s trying to protect Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone from the men who’ve come to kill him in the fruit market. (Although seriously, if you knew someone was out to kill you, would you go out on the town with Fredo?) But John Cazale’s damaged, deluded (“I’m smaht!”) younger brother to Pacino’s increasingly sociopathic Michael Corleone becomes in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic sequel one of the true great pathetic fools of the cinema.
From his transparent attempts to pass himself off as a player in Vegas to his sad breakdown in the wake of the failed hit against his brother, Cazale never fails to break our hearts (in a different way than he broke Michael’s) no matter how many times we watch. Cazale died of bone cancer after making only five films, but what films they were – all were nominated for Best Picture. Just try that, Rob Schneider!
Young Frankenstein (1974). While some audiences were enjoying (?) Fredo’s troubles in The Godfather, Part II, those seeking lighter fare may have been taking in what is still Mel Brooks’ most consistently side-splitting spoof, featuring one of film’s greatest fools, period: Marty Feldman’s Igor (that’s I-gor to you).
I’d put this one in my top five comedies – Brooks never again managed the deft touch he showed in this film, which works equally as satire, parody, farce and slapstick. Plus it’s just freakin’ hilarious. It seems almost unfair to single any one actor out, but Feldman always rises to the top for me – comic sidekick or not, he’s still the smartest character in the movie; he only gets the wrong brain (“Abby-something”) because that’s what henchmen are supposed to do.
I’ll also admit to being unable to disassociate this movie from a dream a co-worker on my college newspaper had during one of our all-night layout sessions; she woke up after a nap on one of our decrepit couches and announced she’d just had a dream in which she’d had relations with Marty Feldman in the typesetting room. Funny how that seems just as disturbing today as it did in 1988.
Caddyshack (1980). Was there any reason to expect Caddyshack to be as good as it was? And it really was good – how Harold Ramis managed to wring so many laughs, and even some heart, out of the old snobs vs. slobs premise is evidence of his skills as a comic director. If you don’t think that’s hard to pull off, just see Caddyshack 2. (Or better yet, don’t – I saw it so you don’t have to.)
The stellar cast didn’t hurt – I’m talking about Ted Knight, Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase (before he became, you know, Chevy Chase). But Bill Murray’s demented groundskeeper Carl Spackler is a fool for the ages; more than a sketch character, he’s a comic invention that raises stupidity to the level of brilliance. He’s a joy to watch.
His efforts to corral and then kill the fake little Kenny Loggins-loving gopher are of course the cornerstone of his character’s raison d’etre, but the scene that goes down in history is the 78 seconds where Murray acts out his character’s Cinderella story on some unlucky flowers. (“It’s in the hole!”) You’d have to be a fool not to laugh.