FUNNY FARM and SPIES LIKE US Blu-ray Reviews

     July 19, 2010

Before he was the scene-stealing old guy on NBC’s Community, Chevy Chase was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Between 1978’s Foul Play and 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Chase reeled off a string of nearly 20 comedies, most of them big hits — and then he pissed it all away in a spectacular orgy of horrible flops that included Nothing but Trouble and Cops and Robbersons.

Now that Chevy’s making us laugh again, and the sting of his most egregious failures has worn off, Warner Bros. has decided to pull two of his movies from the vaults for its “Double Feature” series. They aren’t two of his best, unfortunately, but for filmgoers of a certain age, the Funny Farm/Spies Like Us two-fer will bring back plenty of (occasionally rather painful) memories.  More after the jump:

Funny Farm, released in June of 1988, holds the distinction of being the final film from director George Roy Hill, whose earlier efforts include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, and Slap Shot. As career exits go, it was sort of a whimper, bowing in fourth place at the box office during its opening weekend amid critical shrugs from writers like the New York Times’ Vincent Canby, who compared its plethora of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em sight gags to “the impatience of a child who plants radish seeds and then pulls up the first tiny sprouts to see how they’re doing.”

Not a bad summation, really. But Hill was an unusually gentle director, even for his day, and to watch Funny Farm alongside modern comedies like The Hangover is the equivalent of taking a deep breath in a quiet room after being trapped in an elevator with a hundred screeching monkeys. It’s a Chevy Chase movie, which means there are at least two gags relating to testicle abuse, but it’s also quiet and deliberately paced, and when was the last time you could say that about a movie that’s supposed to make you laugh?

Chase stars here as Andy Farmer, a sportswriter who manages to earn a $10,000 advance for his first novel before he’s written a single word, and takes the opportunity to quit his job and move his wife to a quaint old home in the remote Vermont town of Redbud. If you ever watched a single episode of Newhart, you’ve pretty much got the gist of Funny Farm: the house has unexpected quirks, the town is full of eccentrics, et cetera. Like The Money Pit, it’s one of those ‘80s comedies that revolves around putting people in seemingly idyllic situations and watching them try to cope as everything collapses around them.

Given that Chase had already done this sort of thing more than once, Funny Farm probably seemed like a can’t-miss proposition, but audiences were starting to suffer from Chevy fatigue, and the script — adapted by Jeffrey Boam from Jay Cronley’s novel — is pretty lazy. Long stretches pass where nothing of interest happens, and Chase seems bored with the selfish ignoramus character he’d long since perfected.

Still, there are a couple of good running gags, and even if it isn’t the funniest comedy you’ve ever seen, Funny Farm stands as a mostly pleasant reminder of a style of filmmaking that has been trampled by twitchy cameras, CG enhancements, and eardrum-rattling Dolby sound. Just wait for the mumblecore remake from the Duplass brothers.

Far more frantic is 1985’s Spies Like Us, which teamed Chase with Dan Aykroyd as a pair of bumbling government agents who traipse the globe on the hunt for a Soviet missile launcher, unaware they’re just decoys the agency is using to distract a mole. An obvious homage to the road movies of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Spies is also a quintessentially ‘80s film, from the Soviet baddies to director John Landis’ colorful location shots to the thudding collision of synths that is Paul McCartney’s theme song.

Like a lot of wacky ‘80s comedies, Spies is also deeply uneven. If you’ve watched it before, you probably have a few favorite bits — the DIA courier shoved in the secret closet; the “doctor” gag; Chevy pretending he’s lost all feeling in his left hand — but on the whole, it’s more amusing than funny; it’s only 102 minutes, but it feels too long by half. For all the talent involved, there’s an awful lot of flab. It’s the kind of movie you can walk away from for 10 minutes without missing anything important.

Both Funny Farm and Spies Like Us definitely have their moments, and anyone who came of cinematic age in the ‘80s can clear space for either of them on the shelf without guilt. Odds are high, though, that you can get new copies of both of them on DVD for less than $25 — which is what Warners is asking for this set. So what makes it worth owning them on Blu-ray?

In a word, nothing. Given the age of both titles, only a really thorough (and expensive) 1080p transfer would add appreciably to the picture, and although they both look fine, neither Funny Farm nor Spies Like Us have ever offered much in the way of visual thrills, and this budget reissue doesn’t change that. Along similar lines, the sound for both films is simply average, with all the issues (minor hiss, lack of dynamic) that go along with films of this vintage. And bonus features? Forget it.

If you really feel the need to own either of these films on Blu-ray, this two-fer is a pretty solid deal, and since it seems rather unlikely that either of them will ever get the deluxe reissue treatment, you can make your investment without worrying that studio double-dipping will make you regret your decision a few years from now. Then again, if you’re the type of person who craves middle-grade Chase and Aykroyd in hi-def, regret may not be your biggest concern.

Jeff Giles is the editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as a frequent contributor to Bullz-Eye and an associate editor at Rotten Tomatoes.

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