Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 25, 2016)
Why did I never see Strange Brew until its DVD release in 2002? Good question, one I’m not sure I can answer. After all, I fell strongly into the film’s target audience.
I followed SCTV literally since its mid-Seventies inception, so I knew of the McKenzie brothers from day one of their existence. Created north of the border, authorities told the folks at SCTV that they needed some uniquely Canadian content, and the stereotypical beer-swilling and hockey-loving McKenzies came as the series’ nose-thumbing result.
Who knew they’d become such a hit? Although I liked the characters and felt happy to see the prominence their success brought to SCTV, I never quite understood why they took off and the show’s other characters didn’t. (Martin Short’s Ed Grimley became fairly popular, but that didn’t occur until he’d moved to Saturday Night Live in 1984.)
Actually, I should probably resent the McKenzies, for I believe their popularity hastened the death of the show. However, I don’t feel too bitter. SCTV lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful corpse. Had SCTV continued, the quality probably would have declined, so I’m happy with the memories and videotapes of the original shows.
In any case, the Bob and Doug fad proved to be short-lived. In fact, the bloom was already off the rose when their feature film Strange Brew hit screens in August 1983. The McKenzies peaked in early to mid 1982, so by late 1983, much of the public had moved on to other comedic trends.
I hadn’t - I’m pretty loyal about these things - so I still have no clue why I didn’t see Strange Brew theatrically. This must remain unexplained, I suppose, but it remains a fact that I never checked out the movie until 2002.
Frankly, I wish I’d continued to pass on it. While not a total dud, Strange Brew seems like a fairly uninspired and bland affair that doesn’t do justice to the SCTV legacy.
Strange Brew does start promisingly, however. Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug (Dave Thomas) make their own movie, but it ain’t Strange Brew.
Instead, we see their sci-fi opus The Mutants of 2051 AD. This goes over poorly with the audience, and after the boys give away their dad’s beer money as a ticket refund, they need to find away to get him some brew. They attempt a scam that involves a mouse in a beer bottle, and it actually works much better than expected. In addition to some free beer, it lands them jobs at Elsinore Breweries as bottle inspectors.
Along the way the boys meet Pam Elsinore (Lynne Griffin), the daughter of the recently deceased brewery patriarch. She wants to exert her legal control over the place, but Brewmeister Smith (Max Von Sydow) and Pam’s Uncle Claude (Paul Dooley) - the new president of the company - oppose her.
They do so mainly because they plan to use Elsinore beer to take over the world via a mind-control drug. To experiment, they use residents of a neighboring mental institution. Accidentally and inevitably, the McKenzies start to stumble onto the scheme, so the baddies frame them. From there, the boys need to clear their names, stop the insidious plot, and also get drunk.
The McKenzies came from a modest place, and they deserved to stay there. Via their short “Great White North” programs on SCTV, they proved funny as we heard their warped provincial attitudes.
Brew mixes in some of those moments, but mostly it comes across like something created by a couple of guys with too much time on their hands. Moranis and Thomas directed Brew, which sounds like a good idea but probably isn’t. I get the feeling they tried too hard to make a big flick that offered all things to all people and forgot the comedic roots of the characters.
To my surprise, Brew includes no SCTV regulars other than Moranis and Thomas. Those folks constantly appeared in each others’ projects, so it seems odd that Moranis and Thomas didn’t carry over any of their old collaborators.
Perhaps this resulted from an attempt to do their own thing, or maybe they burned some bridges when they quit the show. However, I think the isolation hurts the project, as additional comic inspiration would have been useful.
Other than Moranis and Thomas, Brew includes a pretty lackluster cast. Actually, it features good performers in Dooley and Von Sydow, but neither stands out here. Dooley tries to hard to get his odd hair and dye job to act for him, while Von Sydow can’t decide if he should go for laughs or play it straight. Griffin seems like a virtual non-entity, as she demonstrates zero personality or charisma.
Overall, Strange Brew occasionally provides some laughs, but the expansion to the broad James Bond style plot doesn’t work for the characters. Instead, it overwhelms the modest charms that made them popular in the first place.
During one episode of SCTV, the network exploited the McKenzies’ popularity via a star-studded prime-time special. Inevitably, it tried to make them something they’re not and it flopped.
Moranis and Thomas should have learned a lesson from that program, but apparently they thought they could rise above those limits. Strange Brew proves that assumption to be incorrect, as it turns into a forgettable mess.