Off The Beaten Path

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Notable Cast Members: Andrew “Dice” Clay, Ed O’Neill, Wayne Newton, Priscilla Presley, Robert Englund, Vince Neil, David Patrick Kelly

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The Film:

There was a brief moment in time where just using four letter words in a standup comedy act almost guaranteed you success. While Lenny Bruce had pushed the envelope in his day and time, and legends like Richard Pryor and George Carlin had pushed the envelope even further, in the late 1980s and early 1990s a new wave of foul-mouthed comedians emerged and almost as quickly left due to a variety of circumstances. The most spectacular flameout would belong to Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay, a man who pushed the envelope like Bruce and Carlin except without the sort of intellectualism those two would bring to the comic world.

Spectacularly rising to the top of the comedy world with a combination of profane tirades, racist ramblings and an outright misogynistic look at women, Clay would stumble down nearly as fast because the shock value of his comedy wore off. Clay could fill Madison Square Garden with his obscene retelling of nursery rhymes and have tens of thousands chant alongside him for a brief period of time; once Clay’s material became repetitive and was exposed as being thin on content and heavy on profanity the mainstream passed him by. Trying to replicate the standup experience in cinematic form, his concert film Dice Rules wound up drawing a little over $600,000 at the box office. But in the middle of his career peak came his only starring vehicle as an actor in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.

Clay stars as the title character in what can be loosely described as a detective thriller. Fairlane, you see, is a ‘rock and roll’ detective; he works in the music industry doing investigations for all sorts of rock stars. Fairlane’s client, shock jock Johnny Crunch, has turned up dead and the trail leads to one name: Zuzu Petals. When the trail leads to a ruthless music executive (Wayne Newton) and a hitman (Robert Englund), Fairlane has to solve a mystery and save the day.

And at its heart this film is a celebration of the excess of Clay. Revolving around sequences meant to show off Clay as a sort of hybrid version of Eddie Murphy and Steve McQueen, Fairlane is Clay’s attempt at duplicating the runaway success of Beverly Hills Cop. Murphy vaulted himself into a permanent member of the top stars of Hollywood with the film, something that still reflects on his status today, and Clay wisely knew that going from being merely a standup comic to being a top comedic actor meant a longer career as well as a larger paycheck.

It was a spectacular failure both critically and commercially, failing to draw large crowds or praise from critics. But it showed that following Cop didn’t require much creatively but showed how special a talent like Murphy truly was; making an action comedy is easy but making a good one is difficult. The film, and its title character, are both cut from that same mold.

The film itself is so awful and over-bearing that it crosses the line from being bad and becomes good again. While Fairlane isn’t a very serious movie in both tone and storyline, even acknowledging that fact several times, it’s so preposterously bad from beginning to end that it’s somehow entertaining to an amazing degree. Much like the car wreck being passed on a freeway that people slow down to watch, but know they ought not to, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane does so little right and so much wrong that its hilarious on so many levels. Incorporating the usual sorts of action clichés, gentle-natured pokes at the music industry and a never-ending supply of Clay’s Neanderthal humor into something that vaguely resembles an action comedy, Clay’s presence somehow fits in with the tone of the proceedings.

Clay follows the example Murphy set to nearly perfection as he incorporates all his trademark bits in an action setting with a character similar to his standup persona; it isn’t a stretch for him as an actor to be the same guy as he was on stage. For his part Clay is very tongue in cheek in how he handles his part; he doesn’t do anything beyond what his fans would expect out of him in a film and his one-liners come out naturally. He’s entertaining on a certain level, but like time showed with his standup career he’s a bit over-bearing and repetitive in what he says. Clay does have a tremendous screen presence, though, as he doesn’t look or feel out of place as a star.

The other thing that stands out about this film is the zealous nature of its cast. When everything is pretty bad, from the premise on down to the dialogue, the cast involved realizes how bad the film truly is and just runs with it. It’s amusing to see a relatively deep cast of recognizable faces just going all out with the sort of banality they are to deal with.

Overall it’s a little remembered film from a comedian who was once on top of his profession. While serving as a reminder why his comedy career crashed and burned, and then burned some more, it’s a unique film that shows that when everything is horrible and you have a cast that realizes this but goes forward with a zealousness to be admired and you have a film that is shockingly entertaining.

The Story Behind It:

When Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay was at the peak of his popularity I was a teenager wandering around cluelessly, trying to find my groove in the Chicagoland suburbs. Standup comedy was the king of entertainment and to be honest I never really cared for most of it. I was, even then, a fan of more intellectual fair than the usual blue humor from guys like Clay as I was (and still am) a huge fan of George Carlin. Carlin curses a lot, I admit, but he always had an intellectual edge to him that even then I recognized as being something I could get into.

Well, needless to say that my pseudo-intellectual urges as a young teen didn’t exactly enthrall the rapture of my friends who preferred a much more guttural brand of comedy than I did. But then again I was the only person I knew who had seen almost every episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” at 15. Perhaps conformity and total acceptance amongst my peers wasn’t something I could reasonably attain in a group of meathead weightlifters whose image of comedic brilliance was a guy whose sole contribution to standup comedy was filling up Madison Square Garden with people paying money to hear “Jack & Jill” retold in a crude manner.

My friends fawned over Clay for one main reason and in hindsight it’s easy to see why. When on is a boy between the ages of 11 and 15 using profanity is comic brilliance in and of itself. You can entertain a group of seventh grade boys by just using the seven words you can’t say on television for no apparent reason and without any sort of context. It’s why entertaining them is so simple and yet so difficult; balancing out the urge to pander to their baser instincts while still being entertaining to people of older ages trends along that mythical entertainment line where Adam Sandler ends and Woody Allen begins.

So I had to deal with them repeating all the dirty nursery rhymes and the witty phrases like “transtesticle” for the brief time he was considered on the short list of funniest standup comic in the country. And when The Adventures of Ford Fairlane came out into theatres I avoided it, not wanting to have to deal with an audience filled with the same type of primates that comprised my friends in high school. Years later in college I was on a break for some sort of holiday; going to a Catholic College in Wisconsin they had some goofy holidays that we were given off, so I can’t remember when and where. All I remember is that I had to bum ride off some guy on my floor as I didn’t have a car. Since none of my friends from high school were home in the Chicago suburbs and being under the legal drinking age in a state where they actually care about that kind of stuff I was left to rent some movies at the local video store to kill a boring Saturday night. It was that or head out and find a party with some high school kids; needless to say being arrested for underage drinking wasn’t something I wanted to risk. So I went to the local Dollar Video and spent about 30 minutes looking for something to watch; as I walked through the aisles I stumbled upon Ford Fairlane and decided to give it a whirl.

And what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be, as I had figured it for a waste of my dollar and was surprisingly rewarded with a good film.

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