Let’s find some common ground first: John Candy was quite possibly one of the funniest men on the planet. Not just on the improv stage (The Second City comedy troupe), but also on TV (“SCTV”) and movies (The Blues Brothers, Stripes, Splash); this man was a triple-threat! And even if the projects he was in stunk up the place, you were always guaranteed an unfailingly hilarious performance in John’s large, unassuming presence.
I have always been a fan of the man, even as far back as seeing him doing various characters back on “SCTV Network 90″ – I knew then that this guy was funny, made the most of his screen time, invested every line with enough character and personality to make the casual viewer pay attention and, most importantly, could turn even the most flat line into a double-barreled laugh riot. And that laugh of his… kind of a hearty cackle… was terrifically infectious. In short, I would have watched anything with this guy in it.
As a matter of fact, I just about HAVE watched anything with John’s photogenic mug in it because, damn it, he was funny.
Now, by the time the Eighties were coming to a close, John had been in so many comedies that one could be choosy as to which kind he was best at; outright slapstick comedy (Going Berserk) , heartfelt family comedy (Uncle Buck), road trip comedy (Planes Trains And Automobiles), animated sci-fi/action/adventure comedy (Heavy Metal)… you name the type of comedy, chances are you could find him in it.
…but what about comedies that were attempted copies of far-more-successful originals?
Someone else who was effortlessly and consistently funny was Peter Sellers, as he proved in the Pink Panther series of films, playing the unflappably bombastic and self-confident Jacques Clouseau. He was so great in these films, in fact, creator/director Blake Edwards even tried to continue the series after his star had died. Who could blame him?
And yet seeing as even Alan Arkin couldn’t fill Sellers’ slapstick shoes, what choice did anyone else have? Not that past attempts were anything of a learning experience for Hollywood, since someone got the great idea to Americanize Clouseau, change his name, make him gain some weight and turn him into even more of a buffoon than he already was.
Enter John Candy. And enter Who’s Harry Crumb?, too: the film that one would think had everything in the world going for it in the bumbling sleuth department… save for the fact that Leslie Nielsen had already succeeded in this field a whole year prior (The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad).
But hey; this is John Candy we’re talking about here. He can be funny in anything. Surely he can pull this one off. Right?
Let’s investigate the plot: the eldest daughter of rich and powerful P.K. Downing (Barry Corbin) has been kidnapped and he and his new wife Helen (Annie Potts) turn to family friend Eliot Draisen (Jeffrey Jones), head of Crumb And Crumb Detective Agency, wherein Eliot recommends the last descendant of the Crumbs, named Harry (Candy). The unfortunate thing is Harry is something of a dunce who misuses words, collects the wrong facts from the clues given to him and consistently gets himself and/or innocent bystanders in embarrassing situations. Even so, Harry is soon on the case and getting help from P.K.’s younger daughter Nikki (Shawnee Smith) to follow various people of interest, including Helen (GASP!), Eliot (DOUBLE GASP!) and sleazy tennis pro Vince Barnes (Tim Thomerson), all while police detective Casey (Valri Bromfield) believes Crumb’s confidence in his own abilities is unfounded, which in itself doesn’t take a detective to realize.
Director Paul Flaherty is familiar to anyone who’s seen various episodes of “SCTV”, “The Tracey Ullman Show” and such movies as… oh my God, he directed 18 Again! and Clifford, two movies which are about as funny as psoriasis. I guess the best thing that can be said about his direction here is that he doesn’t interfere much with Candy doing what he does best. Just makes the widescreen setup as accommodating as possible and lets him do his thing.
Which is more than the script does. Writers Robert Conte and Peter Wortmann have less than 10 credits apiece and, even more telling, Who’s Harry Crumb? is their collective best-known work. It would seem that the verbal gags have a lot less going for them than what you would expect for a John Candy. Allow me to give you a few examples for what passes as comedy here:
“My reputation precedes me. Otherwise I’d be late for all my appointments.”
“It was you who was having an affair with your husband all along!”
“Bamboo is my business.”
“We’re both travelling through life… IN A CAR WITH NO BRAKES!”
“I have a black belt in Aikido… and the boots to match.”
“I know the score of THAT game: forty-love!”
As you can probably tell, the writing is about at the level of Death Valley.
And while many of the others here are only as good as their writing allows them to be, we have a few exceptions. One of them is, of course, my main man who I have given props to on more than one occasion. Mister Tim Thomerson, folks – The Grand Old Man Of B-Movies himself. This is a man who has so many credits in these kinds of movies that he deserves his own wing in Hollywood’s Great Hall Of B-Movie Actors. As the swaggering tennis pro Barnes, Thomerson delivers lines with broad bravado, arched brows and gleaming white teeth, all while making each of the limited moments he’s onscreen shine like a mechanic who knows just how to tune his own lines till they hum.
Annie Potts is a lady whose own career has been chock-full of memorable characters herself. Movies to her credit such as Corvette Summer, King Of The Gypsies, Heartaches, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II, Pretty In Pink, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the first two Toy Story films are only half her story, as she was also in such successful TV series as “Designing Women”, “Love And War” and “Any Day Now”. Playing a femme fatale seems to fit her as she slinks about, gives everybody the evil eye and delivers her lines with the right balance of sleaze and cuteness.
Jeffrey Jones, another successful “That Guy” actor who has been in so many movies big and small that you can spot him easily in just about anything, is a past master of the slow burn, as was so eloquently evidenced in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Here, as Eliot Draisen, he spends most of his time playing off Candy as the Hardy to his Laurel. Even while most of his part consists of surveying the disaster wrought by Candy as he destroys dinosaur eggs, takes incriminating pictures of him and says the most obtuse things to Draisen in a way that suggests Crumb might possibly suspect something that he dares not say outright. This IS Emperor Joseph II and Ed Rooney we’re talking about; playing second banana to John Candy isn’t the most humiliating thing he’s done (that would be playing second banana to John Leguizamo).
There’s even a very small part of a cross-eyed butler named Tim, who is played by character actor Wesley Mann with enough quirk and interest that he should have been a much-bigger part in the proceedings than his three small scenes herein would lead us to believe. I would much rather have seen Tim join up with Crumb to solve the case together but, unfortunately, that would have been much funnier than Flaherty and company would have allowed.
Unfortunately, the parts for Shawnee (who was in The Blob a year before), Corbin (whose roster of roles is almost as impressive as Thomerson’s) and Bromfield (who is an accomplished comedienne but doesn’t get much of a showcase here) are so underwritten and poorly-developed that they remain side characters and – far worse – uninteresting. This is a harsh thing to say about actors that I enjoy watching, but it seems that their involvement here is simply to act as a counterpoint to the real star of the show.
Which leads me right back to Candy; Who’s Harry Crumb? is his baby (as if his Executive Producer title wasn’t a tip-off), and he dons so many costumes, accents and modes of transportation that he does his best to make Who’s Harry Crumb? a one-man show. During the course of this film we will see Candy become a Don King-inspired window washer, a bald hairdresser of indeterminate European origin, an Indian air conditioner repairman and a horse jockey, all the while getting his hands barbed with fishing hooks, spinning around at top speeds on a ceiling fan, get involved with no less than two car accidents, get hit on the head with fruit, get hit in the face repeatedly, be oblivious to direct insults to his character and/or intelligence that it would indeed take a Jacques Clouseau and a Frank Drebin to convince him he should chuck this gig and just be a forest ranger or something.
Yet again, John Candy could do no wrong in movies. While some projects were unutterably bad (Masters Of Menace, Delirious, Once Upon A Crime, Hot To Trot), there were so many others that were really good (Home Alone, Only The Lonely, JFK, Cool Runnings) that the bad just didn’t matter. Not to the many millions of fans he had all over the world. They didn’t care if there were gags in his movies they’d seen multiple times within the last five years. they didn’t care if some of his lines were wincingly dumb. They didn’t care if he was far above what poorly-written character he was playing. This was their Johnny. And they would watch him regardless.
I guess what I felt while watching Who’s Harry Crumb? was a growing sense of familiarity. Not that familiarity’s bad, but it DOES breed contempt, especially when you expect to watch something different in comedy terms, not the same thing you’ve seen Leslie Nielsen or Peter Sellers do before. And when your brand new movie has many gags that you’d seen just the last year (fish attacking man’s hand in fish tank, a door slamming into some poor guy’s face, pompous detective oblivious to his own stupidity), it’s more than deja-vu: it’s laziness.
And if there’s one thing a John Candy movie should NOT be, it’s lazy. I wanted to like – no, LOVE – Who’s Harry Crumb? more than you can possibly imagine. This starred JOHN CANDY, a man for whom being funny was not only his occupation, but his very essence that he left us as human beings. You can see it in scenes where he interacts with Smith as they mix together odd ingredients in a blender or as he tries to explain his complicated work ethic to an intrigued Corbin. But then they go an create over-sized splashes as Crumb falls off a pier, or have him fly through the air with a judo flip, creating an awkward feel of ineptitude in how they present their lead. Is he a goof who sets off Rube Goldeberg-ian chains of disaster everywhere he goes, or is he at the whims of a jerky script that lurches from an opening nude scene of the kidnap victim to a leering kidnapper who threatens her with a cattle prod? I wish I knew, because Who’s Harry Crumb? sure doesn’t.
Apparently this was the end result with everybody who saw this in theaters, seeing as its tally of a little over $10 million couldn’t possibly have covered the expense involved with a John Candy movie with this many recognizable actors and big sets and props. They figured that if they had Candy in their movie, all they had to do was copy a script from somewhere, get Candy to mug his way through and it would all work out. If that was only all that it took, then we’d have the greatest comedy ever made on our hands.
What we have instead is a movie that almost makes it out from under its own flimsy concept to become something special and, in spite of itself, fades away from view far too quickly.
I really wish I could have liked Who’s Harry Crumb?, but even with John Candy at the core, all I got out of this film was a feeling that I had seen it before.
And you know what? I had. More than once.