Chevy Chase found his first big-screen hit in "Foul Play" (1978), marked his stride in the Eighties with the "Fletch" and "Vacation" pictures, and began slowly fading from the scene by the late Nineties. Nowadays, he seems to be making more appearances in TV work and supporting parts in movies. I hope we see more of him in coming years.
With the Blu-ray "Comedy Double Feature" of "Funny Farm" (1988) and "Spies Like Us" (1985), we see Chase's movie career in full bloom, even if the pictures themselves are not among the actor's very best or most-popular. Still, neither film is without its charms. How could they be counted losses with George Roy Hill ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Sting," "Slap Shot,") and John Landis ("Animal Farm," "The Blues Brothers," "Trading Places") directing them?
Audiences knew director George Roy Hill mainly for his gentle comedies or comedic dramas, going back to "The World of Henry of Orient" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" through "Butch Cassidy" and "The Sting" to "The Great Waldo Pepper," "Slap Shot," "A Little Romance," and "The World According to Garp." "Funny Farm" was the last film he made, and it adheres to the same pattern he'd always followed. The movie is cute, easygoing, and engaging.
Chase plays Andy Farmer, a big-city sports writer who decides to chuck it all and move to the country. His wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith), a schoolteacher, agrees completely, so it's off they go to an idyllic little place in Vermont, well off the beaten path, a house surrounded by rolling hills, tall trees, green grass, and a duck pond of their very own. Andy figures to settle in and write a novel. Life couldn't be better. For the first two minutes they're there.
The first problem: The place is isolated. Really, really isolated. It's miles away from the nearest town, and the nearest town, Redbud, is hardly a town at all; it's a cafe, a general store, and a gas station. The second problem: The telephone company failed to install their new phone, so for a while they have no contact with the outside world. The third problem: The people from the moving company got lost, so for a time they have no furniture. And the mosquitoes are the size of birds. And the mailman is a terror on wheels. And they find a coffin buried in their front yard.
To top it all off, the citizens of Redbud and its environs are anything but friendly or inviting. In fact, they're not just inhospitable, they're downright hostile.
Despite it all, Andy is determined to remain calm and enjoy his new home, until he finally breaks. Chase is his usual amiable self, playing Andy in much the same way he played Clark Griswold, affably clueless, happily unaware of the calamities befalling or about to befall him.
Actually, the movie made me smile quite a lot, as when Andy first sits down to the typewriter to compose his novel and falls asleep after the title page; or his continual trouble with Dutch doors. Not even fishing on the pond goes right for him in a particularly hilarious episode.
The more-antic, slapstick gags, of which there are thankfully few, don't fare as well as the subtler ones. It's the more-gentle whimsy that works best, like the business of the dogs. What we finally get is a kind of anti-Norman Rockwell tale, with more grins than you'll find in most other movie comedies and without the vulgarity of more-recent ones. Besides, who can dislike a film that so prominently displays a classic 1954 (or '55) MG-TF?
"Funny Farm" builds its comic spirit with care, which will make it seem, perhaps, a little slow-moving for folks used to more high-octane comedy. Indeed, some viewers may even think "Funny Farm" old-fashioned and dull. Well, comedy is a funny business, and what strikes one person as sidesplitting may not register on another person at all. With the exception of a couple of remarkably clumsy moments, "Funny Farm" maintains a delightfully sweet, goofy level of humor.
SPIES LIKE US
Directed by John Landis, "Spies Like Us" from 1985 brought together Chevy Chase and his fellow "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Dan Aykroyd for the first time, Aykroyd co-writing the film with Dave Thomas.
I suppose most people remember John Landis for "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers," but he also brought us "Kentucky Fried Movie," "An American Werewolf in London," "Trading Places," Michael Jackson's "Thriller," "Three Amigos!," and "Beverly Hills Cop III," among other things, mainly comedy. "Spies Like Us" is right in there with the silliest of them.
The movie has the two comic actors playing a pair of State Department flunkies--Chase as Emmitt Fitz-Hume and Aykroyd as Austin Millbarge--whom the government sets up as decoy spies, sitting ducks, human targets. The idea is that the government arranges two teams: one to do a real espionage job, the other to be a diversion. The military chooses Fitz-Hume and Millbarge as the expendables, the "disposables."
"Spies Like Us" is sillier than "Funny Farm," filled with more craziness. The filmmakers' idea, apparently, was to pattern it after the old Bing Crosby-Bob Hope "Road" pictures, with much clever repartee and a lot of tomfoolery. At one point in the film, the characters mention the "road to Dushanbe" at least three times. Chase is the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care dunce of a diplomat in training; Akyroyd is the brainier, technical-minded nerd.
In parts of the movie, the filmmakers also appear to be trying to copy the spirit of the old Looney Tunes cartoons, as with the ridiculous training the military gives the heroes. Either that, or it was the Three Stooges they were after. Finally, as with the older films, there is the game of spot the cameo to follow. Famous people, many of them directors, pop up in unlikely places: Constantin Costa-Gavras, Terry Gilliam, Sam Raimi, Joel Coen, Larry Cohen, Bob Swaim, Ray Harryhausen, Martin Brest, B.B. King, Edwin Newman, among others, and, most important of all, a surprise guest that you'll never guess in advance.
As with most of the old "Road" pictures, this one takes us to a variety of exotic locations, where two of the people the boys meet are their "liaisons" in Pakistan. These guys look like refugees from "Animal House," as well they should, one of them played by James Daughton (remember Greg Marmalard?).
Not that the regular supporting cast aren't good: Steve Forrest as General Sline, a mad military man in the best "Dr. Strangelove" tradition; Donna Dixon as Karen Boyer, the requisite pretty girl; Bruce Davison and William Prince as Ruby and Keyes, a pair of slimy Pentagon officials; Bernie Casey as Col. Rhumbus, the hard-nosed head of Intelligence Operative training; and Frank Oz as a test monitor.
The swelling of "Lawrence of Arabia" type music in the background is a nice touch in a film that may never reach comic heights but, nonetheless, maintains a good-natured charm.
Warners use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 encode to accommodate both films on the same side of the high-definition disc. The results for "Funny Farm" are probably about as good as one can expect from a film of its vintage. The colors are certainly bright enough, natural, deep, and rich, with moderately strong black levels to set off the hues. The delineation, however, is often a bit soft, with a modest but inherent film grain giving the image a somewhat fuzzy appearance.
"Spies Like Us" looks about the same as "Funny Farm," with the same deep, solid colors and only slightly better delineation. The big difference is that "Spies Like Us" contains much more grain, especially noticeable in outdoor footage and large expanses of sky, making the picture grittier in appearance.
As both of these films predated the widespread use of 5.1 surround sound in theaters, we get what is essentially their original two-channel stereo mixes. There is nothing wrong with this, except that when most of a film is dialogue driven, as "Funny Farm" is, the stereo can end up sounding more like monaural. Good monaural, you understand, but stereo without much stereo spread, dynamic range, or frequency extremes.
On the upside, "Spies Like Us" has a wider stereo spread than "Funny Farm," and if you have your receiver set to emulate rear-channel sounds, it will distribute them better to the surround channels. On the downside, the soundtrack for "Spies Like Us" is oddly noisy, a harsh, low-level hiss accompanying most of the audio.
As with others in WB's "Double Feature" series, the only bonus involved is getting two movies on one disc. Other than that, we find thirty scene selections for each movie, English as the only spoken language, French subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Of the two films, I enjoyed the warmer humor of "Funny Farm" slightly more than the antic goings on in "Spies Like Us." While neither of the films shows Chevy Chase at his best, the directors and actors do as good a job as they can with the scripts they're given, and at least parts of both films are worth seeing.