Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 21, 2010)
Back in 1988, Chevy Chase needed a hit. He didnít get one with Funny Farm, a flick that got mediocre to bad reviews and that found little audience at the box office. Iím going on 22-year-old memories here, but I maintain an impression that I kind of liked the comedy. That was enough to encourage me to give it a look on Blu-ray.
New York sportswriter Andy Farmer (Chase) decides to leave the rat race and live his dream. Along with wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith), he buys a rural spread in tiny Redbud, Vermont, where he plans to appreciate the quiet and write a novel. He and Elizabeth also plan to start a family.
From the very start, Andyís plans go awry. After they get lost, the movers arrive a day late, and Elizabeth discovers a dead body in her garden. Further strangeness shows up along the way, and Andy can't get his novel off the ground. Andy and Elizabeth cope with the reality of their ďparadiseĒ and see if they can cope.
I suspect a better title for Funny Farm would be National Lampoonís Farm Vacation. This flick certainly feels like kin to the Vacation franchise, as Andy is little more than a slightly less cartoony version of Clark Griswold Ė and thatís how Chase plays him. Like Clark, Andy is a man with a big dream who gets beaten down by reality. Granted, Andy lacks Clarkís obsessive resolve to accomplish his goals no matter what, but the similarities remain.
Farm doesnít demonstrate the broad comedic bent of the Vacation flicks, probably due to the presence of director George Roy Hill behind the camera. Back in 1988, Hill seemed like an odd choice for this sort of flick. Best known for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, he seemed like an odd choice for a comedy such as this. Sure, those flicks Ė and other Hill vehicles like Slap Shot - came with a mix of laughs, but Farm looked like a full-on comedy of the sort usually approached by directors like John Landis or Harold Ramis.
As it happens, though Andy Farmer may remind me a lot of Clark Griswold, Farm goes for a more subdued experience than the Vacation movies, and it eventually follows a dramatic bent that makes Hillís selection as director seem more logical. However, Iím still not sure heís the right choice.
In terms of tone, Farm does tend toward the understated side of the street. Even when we meet seemingly nutty townsfolk, Hill tends to keep things reasonably subdued. It reminds me more of the low-key wackiness of Newhart than it does the broad shenanigans of Vacation.
Which is good and bad. On one hand, I do appreciate Hillís gentle touch, as he doesnít beat us over the head with wild antics and jokes. Even scenes that could play big - like one in which Andy encounters a snake Ė go for laid-back laughs. Too many comedies play things up to the nth degree, so itís nice to see some signs of subtlety.
But on the other hand, I think Hill may go for a tone thatís too low-key, and this eventually impacts the story. By the third act, the movie relies on the notion that the townsfolk are strange and difficult. Thatís all well and good, but the film rarely demonstrates those notions.
Indeed, we barely get to know the locals. For the most part, they remain in the background, while we see Andy and Elizabeth on the farm. Sure, they make occasional, slightly nutty forays into town, but this isnít like Newhart where the eccentric residents of the small New England town create constant foils for the ďnormalĒ main characters. The inhabitants of Redbud are crazy/funny in theory, but we donít see this demonstrated much.
And that becomes a significant problem with the tale. Chase and Smith interact well, and he can play this kind of role in a satisfying way. Chase tends to do best with slow-burn characters such as Andy; again, the partís essentially a variation on Clark Griswold, but Chase still manages to give him enough flavor of his own.
I just wish he had more support in terms of other characters off which he could play. Funny Farm has its moments, and it manages to maintain our attention for a while. However, when it goes more dramatic in the third act, it starts to slow and falter. As a comedy, it has some merit, but itís just not a consistent effort.