Tuesday, October 29, 2013

80s Revisited: Three Amigos

Three Amigos (1986)
Directed by John Landis; screenplay by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels & Randy Newman; produced by Lorne Michaels & George Folsey, Jr.

It's one of cinemagoing's saddest experiences: a comedy where all of the elements are there, but nothing works.

Everything in Three Amigos looks great. It has a solid premise. It stars three comic actors at the top of their game. It's from the director of some of the greatest comedies ever made. And yet it steadfastly does not work. It's just not funny.

I first saw this when it came out on video, so around age 11. I saw it a few times as a kid. Back then, at that age, in that time period, it was cool to like guys like Chevy Chase and Steve Martin, because they were for adults, and so liking movies with them or actually getting to stay up late and watch Saturday Night Live was, to our young minds, really sophisticated. I enjoyed this movie, but only for a little while, and then it had more to do with the Western adventure bits of it and less with the humor or the parody. As a kid, I took it seriously and only laughed at little pieces and certainly didn't get the bits where they were supposed to be spoofing the era of silent films.

Seeing it now as an adult, I get that it's supposed to be funny, but it sure isn't. I think the biggest problem with the film is the approach. The premise of the film has a lot of potential: a woman in a small Mexican town sees a film starring the Three Amigos, a comedy/Western team of justice fighters, and thinks they're the real thing, so she invites them to come and save her village from the evil warlord El Guapo. The boys, recently fired by their studio, think they're only making a fan appearance as showmen, and then complications arise when they have to really be the characters they play and save the day. I know this premise works because it worked beautifully in Galaxy Quest. This is the same plot, but without any of the humor, poignancy, or excitement.

I think comparing it to Galaxy Quest reveals the real problem with Three Amigos: the Amigos aren't characters. They're comic performances that aren't mixing well with each other, much less with the rest of the movie. We don't know who these guys are, what they want, what they're worried about. We just know they're fired movie stars pretending to be something they're not, but even then, we don't really get to know how they feel about that (except suddenly, out of nowhere, when the plot requires it in order for the film to keep going). The actors approach the material with too much confidence and not enough pathos. I'm still not even sure what Steve Martin's character is supposed to be other than another too-polished Steve Martin performance. There's not a person under there, it's just another collection of Martin's smug tics. It's like he's too clever to just be funny. Martin Short at least gets to play some sincere notes, which can be frustrating because sometimes his performance just seems like a nonsensical bit, and at other times, he's letting you in on just how good the movie could have been if the characters were allowed to act like people instead of cartoons. Chevy Chase, despite being top-billed, is barely in the movie. I've never liked him much as a comic actor, but here he's somehow even more muted than usual, just mumbling his lines and standing around while the plot goes on around him, which itself could actually have been funny if he was in a movie that tried harder.

And that's the thing: the movie doesn't try hard enough. It doesn't seem to understand fully if it's a comedy or if it's a comic adventure. There are times when John Landis seems to genuinely be making a Western, and then these three cartoons wander in and mostly just stand around and chuckle smugly at themselves and make little quips that sound like the actors and the director and everyone involved just know are going to get big laughs, but don't. They're too assured; they even pause so you won't miss anything while you're busting a gut at just how god damn funny they know they are. They're keeping the material at a distance instead of committing to it.

For a movie like this to work, we have to know the characters, not the performers. There have to be real stakes. And you have to take the premise seriously and establish the parody and comedy inside of it. There's a great scene where the Amigos gather around a campfire and gently sing a song in the tradition of Roy Rogers pictures. Then their horses join in. It's a scene that shows you how good the movie might have been. It works as both a parody/deconstruction of the genre as well as on the level of the genre. And that's the key to making something like this work. It has to work on two levels. Look at the earlier success that this movie is clearly trying to ape: Ghostbusters. That movie works both as a comedy and as a supernatural adventure. Ghostbusters takes the premise seriously, but it also has a sense of humor about it. It knows what it can get away with without wrecking the illusion entirely and becoming ridiculous.

Three Amigos is what happens when comedy actors and writers would rather make a picture showing off how clever they are rather than deigning to be funny. It's a big in-joke where the actors, director, and writers are all joking with each other and not letting the audience in on it. It's a product with no soul. And a real missed opportunity.

Note 1: Alfonso Arau as the villain El Guapo and Tony Plana as his lieutenant Jefe are so funny I wish the entire movie was about them. They get the tone exactly and are hilarious.

Note 2: After this, I watched the SNL episode that was hosted by Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short. It was a lot funnier than this movie. I am pissed off at the way Netflix presents their chopped-up versions of the show, though. I knew the musical sequences would be missing, but they also cut out the "Ed Grimley and the Devil" sketch and the classic "Masterbrain" sketch, with Phil Hartman playing Ronald Reagan as a president who is kindly and simple to the public, but an evil mastermind behind the scenes. That's one of the best SNL sketches in history, and it's a giant omission.


Tallulah Morehead said...

"A comedy where all of the elements are there, but nothing works."

What a perfect description of this movie. The only thing I liked about it was that it presents one of the few, quite-rare, film appearances by my old friend, the late Freddy Asparagus. who plays the fat bartender. When watching this movie, Freddy is alive again.

Professor Chaos said...

I had the opposite experience with this movie. I went in expecting it to be terrible (I don't remember why) and ended up kinda liking it. The magic of low expectations!

david_b said...

Very istute comments, sir. I felt the same way with 'Top Secret'.

It should, really SHOULD have worked, some parts were hilarious, Zuckers were in their prime, actors were good, but by the end it's like.., 'I got nothing out of this..'.

I love the concept of Three Amigos (it was very clever and attractive..) and it definitely worked better as an '80s film if you keep your expectations low, as opposed to something like 'Ghostbusters'.

Kelly Sedinger said...

IT's a mediocre film, but I must admit that it has ONE of the biggest laughs that any movie's ever drawn from me. (It's the fate of the Invisible Horseman.)

Josh Rothberg said...

I've always enjoyed Three Amigos but your review made me remember why the movie is always so forgettable to me. Like you said, it's a better premise than story and works only in bits and pieces. It definitely works more on a level of childhood nostalgia for me than anything.

Kal said...

I am so glad to pointed out the one funny bit in the film. The conversation between Hefe and El Guapo is gem - "I know that I, Hefe, don't have your intellect and education, but could it be, that once again, you are mad at something else and are looking to take it out on me?" Genius.

And I hate, hate, hate, Chevy in anything. He has never been funny.

You got to tell me you like the 'My Little Buttercup' song.

SamuraiFrog said...

The "Buttercup" performance left me cold, but Freddy Asparagus as the bartender made me laugh during it.