A truism: TV comedians never get the respect accorded to movie stars. It’s the difference between a CD and a concert, between Tom Hanks on Bosom Buddies and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. Hanks, Robin Williams, and precious few others have successfully fled the quotidian grind of TV, but most escapees face the fate of Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer in Down Periscope, Friends’ Matt LeBlanc in Ed, Saturday Night Live alums Chris Farley and David Spade in Black Sheep, and all-around oddity Tom Arnold in Big Bully. In short: unspectacular box office and perhaps more flexibility at contract-renewal time.
Ironically, when such movies come out of the multiplexes and onto video — a medium that gets less respect than romance novels — their smallness can be transmogrified into something less intensely annoying. Take Down Periscope, which gives Grammer a showcase to do…pretty much what he does on TV every week. Oh, Navy sub commander Capt. Tom Dodge is a rule-bending hedonist instead of a smug intellectual, but Grammer plays him with a similar flippancy. The problem is that his deft made-for-TV comic timing seems like wooden underplaying on the big screen.
On video, though, Periscope turns into a quite passable comedy, with a plot right out of McHale’s Navy: Beloved captain with misfit crew (including ex-SNLer Rob Schneider) takes on an impossible mission from iron-bottomed superior officers (Bruce Dern, Rip Torn) but comes through thanks to colorful cheating. You don’t have to see this movie to have seen it, really, but Grammer at least keeps it off the shoals of aggressive stupidity.
”Aggressive stupidity” just about sums up Ed, Matt LeBlanc’s what-were-you-thinking starring debut about a minor-league ball club that inherits a chimpanzee for a mascot. No, LeBlanc doesn’t play Ed — a guy in a monkey suit does — and the ensuing anthropomorphic shenanigans are so puerile (see Ed channel-surf! hear Ed pee!) that they raise doubts as to whether man is blessed with higher mental powers. As the team’s puppy-eyed pitcher, LeBlanc lives up to his name; as for the rest, anyone who actually likes animals will cringe.
If Ed shows its star trying to stretch, Black Sheep is as one-note as your average SNL skit. Worse, not only are we meant to laugh at the blubbery klutziness of Mike Donnelly (Chris Farley), albatross brother of a gubernatorial candidate (Tim Matheson), we’re supposed to love the big lug, too. No can do, since Farley’s humor has always stemmed from his willingness to thoroughly abase himself. Dry David Spade, Crosby to Farley’s frat-boy Hope, shrivels up as Sheep turns touchy-feely; his bite is best in bite-size TV chunks.
You’d think that Big Bully would be the worst of these projects: It came and went in theaters, it got lousy reviews, and its star is widely seen as a joke. But Arnold turns Bully into something good — almost very good. Rick Moranis plays David Leary, a novelist who returns to his small town, only to run into the thug who tormented him as a boy. Now grown, ”Fang” Bigger (Arnold) is a timid shop teacher, browbeaten by family and pupils — yet when he sees David, freedom streams back into his life: Finally, someone who’s afraid of him! Arnold plays Fang’s awakening with impish sadism; even the way he coyly says ”Hi, Davey” invokes nervous, pleasurable giggles. Under Steve Miner’s direction, Big Bully turns nasty and over-blown, but it gets under the skin in subtle ways, most of which have to do with Tom Arnold. There’s a lesson, should you want it: If you desire a decent movie, go find the failed sitcom star. Down Periscope: C+; Ed: F; Black Sheep: D+; Big Bully: B