When Rodney Dangerfield died this past week, it left a gaping wound in the world of comedy. And if the memorials in the various papers and blogs around the world ensured that he would finally get some respect, even if only at the time of his death, it seems sad that we'll no longer have this icon around. Even if many of his films (Meet Wally Sparks, The 4th Tenor) were not particularly good, one could always count on the man for some good and bawdy jokes. But more lasting than his scattershot film work may be the continuing impact of his Young Comedians specials, the launching ground for dozens of comics who to this day remain at the forefront of the form. Whatever the legacy of Rodney Dangerfield may be, his eye and ear for talent have been keeping the world laughing for decades. His influence lives on in the work of Jerry Seinfeld, Janeane Garofalo, Ray Romano, and countless others.
Natural Born Killers remains the stunner among his films available on DVD. Cast against type as Juliette Lewis's abusive dad, Dangerfield comes through with one of the more terrifying performances of the 1990s, a testament both to the dark undercurrents in Dangerfield's own persona and to director Oliver Stone's visionary eye. Of Dangerfield's more traditional star vehicles, 1983's Easy Money is the most consistent and enjoyable—and with Joe Pesci as his best friend and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his daughter (set to marry character-actor hero Taylor Negron), it also boasts his strongest supporting cast.
Back to School was the first comedy to gross over $100 million back in 1986; it's generally enjoyable for a film that pivots around a climactic diving competition, if a bit too long for its own good. Still, it has a near-delirious Robert Downey Jr, Sally Kellerman at the peak of her erotic allure (reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Ulysses, no less), and Rodney's barn-burning cover of The Beatles' "Twist and Shout." And then there's the reason everyone remembers the film: Dangerfield discovery Sam Kinison as splenetic Professor Terguson. Say what you will about the late Kinison, but his Terguson is an indelible and indignant comic creation—further testimony to Dangerfield's eye for talent.
While Caddyshack didn't star Dangerfield, he is a vital and necessary part of its success. Some would say that Belushi's "Toga! Toga!" is film comedy's defining call to liberation and debauchery, but I find it too tied to a specific milieu and cultural perspective. When Rodney Dangerfield proclaims "Hey everybody! We're all gonna get laid!"—clearly he means everybody.
An unusual concept for an animated film, 1992's BéBé's Kids took the decidedly R-rated comic stylings of the late great Robin Harris (Do The Right Thing, House Party), removed one of his recurring themes (the continuing misadventures of the three bad-assed children of the unseen BéBé), and turned it into a surreal and daffy social issues family comedy. With Faizon Love (Fear of a Black Hat) performing Harris' voice, we get into the tumultuous story of how he, in order to win the affections of the lovely Jamika (voiced by Vanessa Bell Calloway), must take her, her son Leon, and the spawn of BéBé to the Fun World amusement park.
BéBé's kids are a threesome of terror: Kahlil, LaShawn, and PeeWee (the latter voiced by Tone-Loc, which just goes to affirm that few things are funnier than babies which talk with baritones). Whether they are a force of chaos and entropy, or whether they just need guidance and family structure, is but one of the many questions this film is bent on answering. It is a testament to director Bruce Smith and producer/screenwriter Reginald Hudlin (House Party) that a film only 72 minutes long can pack so much into its running time.
I will always give credit to Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman for their brilliant and unsettling songs in the South Park musical, but the Fun World anthem in this film may be one of the most subversive songs ever put in a film (hint: watch it with the captioning on)—and it was done almost seven years earlier. See also the rules of conduct for Fun World as posted (my personal favorite: "No reeling from the mindless emptiness of the world"). Or the throwaway moment between the kids at the personalized license-plate kiosk. Or the mysterious white-haired old lady who seems to exist in the film only to be horrified or nearly trampled. Much like Snowball II on The Simpsons, it is a safe bet that whenever that white-haired old lady is onscreen, she's doing something funny.
Paramount's DVD presents the film correctly in its hard-matted 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the colors and reproduction are good. The sound mix is suitably expressive, with the late Nell Carter's voice working the mid-range beautifully. There are no real extras to speak of, excepting the bonus cartoon "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," which played theatrically and on videocassette with BéBé's Kids. Of that, the only thing of interest is Jim Carrey as the voice of an exterminator. For the DVD's low price point, though, and its defiant strangeness and politically aware sass, it would be foolish not to give BéBé's Kids a try. For a slightly more adult perspective, Harris' only comedy album, also titled BéBé's Kids, is still in print and well worth checking out.
When Rounders hit theaters in 1998, it was received fairly well by critics and had decent legs on home video. It wasn't a huge hit, but it had a respectable rep as an entertaining little B, directed with no-bullshit professionalism by John Dahl and lit like a brass casino fixture by Jean-Yves Escoffier. Best of all, Rounders is acted with playfulness and savvy by Matt Damon and Ed Norton, with quirky (albeit annoying at times) supporting turns from John Turturro and John Malkovich. The movie's biggest problem is that it's too plot-heavy. David Levien and Brian Koppelman's screenplay reads like a research paper, with references to actual poker players, actual poker terms and even actual New York strip clubs that ground Rounders in a specific milieu but come off kind of showy.
The lingo-riffic dialogue seems even cornier now, since televised poker has become such a phenomenon, and seemingly everyone knows what "the flop" is. Six years ago, I would've found the idea of watching people play cards on TV patently ridiculous; but then last Thanksgiving I caught a marathon of Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown and found myself following the game more than listening to the table talk. A week later I tuned in to one of the countless reruns of the 2003 World Series Of Poker on ESPN, and watched Nashville boy Chris Moneymaker—an amateur who won his stake money in an online tournament—torpedo a string of champion professionals on his way to a $2,500,000 payout.
Rounders has been out on DVD for awhile—and advertised continuously and egregiously on Travel Channel's World Poker Tour—but thanks to the Moneymaker-fueled poker boom, Miramax has hustled out a new special edition, packed with a bland making-of featurette, some lame professional poker tips, and a crude Texas Hold 'Em game that defies sound gambling strategy. There's also a solid commentary track with Dahl and Norton. But the disc's real selling point is a second commentary by Moneymaker and fellow World Series champs Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Phil Helmuth and Johnny Chan (who makes a Rounders cameo).
The foursome watch the movie quietly during the dramatic scenes, but during the poker scenes they light up, discussing the characters' playing strategy and even engaging in spirited discussions about the difference between home games and casino games, and what's the best noodle bar in Atlantic City. Helmuth dominates the discussion (as anyone who's seen him play would expect) and has some fun with Moneymaker's "lucky novice" reputation. Mostly, though, they take each other and the movie they're watching seriously, expressing genuine concern when Norton and Damon slide into cheating scams. "Why can't they just beat the game straight," Chan groans, in a voice that—in a tribute to Dahl's gripping exposition—lets it be known he blames the characters, not the movie.
The foursome watch the movie quietly during the dramatic scenes, but during the poker scenes they light up, discussing the characters' playing strategy and even engaging in spirited discussions about the difference between home games and casino games, and what's the best noodle bar in Atlantic City. Helmuth dominates the discussion (as anyone who's seen him play would expect) and has some fun with Moneymaker's "lucky novice" reputation. Mostly, though, they take each other and the movie they're watching seriously, expressing genuine concern when Norton and Damon slide into cheating scams. "Why can't they just beat the game straight," Chan groans, in a voice thatin a tribute to Dahl's gripping expositionlets it be known he blames the characters, not the movie.