The ads for Kingpin make it look extremely cruddy — within farting distance of Police Academy 3. On the other hand, it’s gotten some raves; no less an authority than Roger Ebert awarded it three-and-a-half stars. (What drugs did Ebert take that made Kingpin “a very funny movie, and sometimes even funnier than that”?) The truth lies somewhere in between. Kingpin doesn’t suck; it has some solid laughs. It also throws many gutter balls.
The movie gets off to a great start, actually. It opens in 1969, briefly introduces us to budding bowler Roy Munson, then flashes forward to 1979, when Roy (Woody Harrelson) has just clinched the Iowa state bowling championship. The directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber), crank up the disco and linger on Roy’s bell-bottoms. Usually I groan at this retro stuff — the ’70s were a dumb decade best forgotten — but the Farrellys get an exultant rhythm going, and the glitzy ’70s seem the perfect backdrop for a bottle rocket like Roy.
Roy soon crashes. He falls in with a slimy rival bowler, Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray, sporting two of the ugliest hairpieces in recent memory). Ernie gets Roy to run a scam on some gullible bowlers, who glimpse Roy’s championship ring and realize he’s a ringer. They shove his hand into a ball return, and it’s played for laughs. What is this, Natural Born Killers? From then on, the Farrellys go for pitiless frat-boy humor that makes National Lampoon look like The Brady Bunch.
Cut to 1996. (What is this, an epic?) Roy, now a pathetic drunk with a rubber hand, meets an Amish natural named Ishmael (Randy Quaid). Ishmael bowls 270, which sounds great until he explains that he bowls fifteen frames. Still, Roy sees Ishmael’s potential, and for a while Kingpin gets some mileage out of their unlikely bond. There are a couple of classic gross-outs involving Roy and farm animals. Don’t even ask.
But then the movie hits the road and, oddly, loses its momentum. To save the Amish farm, Roy and Ishmael must enter a tournament in Reno to win half a million dollars. Along the way, they meet a stunner named Claudia (Vanessa Angel), whose character changes according to the whims of scripters Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan. Is she a waif or an ass-kicking vixen? A con artist or a kind stranger who wants to help the guys? Good luck figuring her out; I doubt the Farrellys (or the actress herself) ever did.
Kingpin has a meandering midsection, with far too much cruel emphasis on Roy’s hideous landlady, who keeps coming back to haunt him. The Farrellys also can’t get enough of Vanessa Angel’s curves, and when she’s not around in the Reno scenes, they zero in on countless bimbos. You don’t expect comedies like this to bow to feminism, but past a certain point the movie seems to be playing to the Jenny McCarthy fans in the audience. Then there’s the climax, which avoids clichés yet is unsatisfying anyway. The cast is game (the film could have used a lot more of Murray), but Kingpin ends up with a seven-ten split between hilariously tasteless and just plain distasteful.