June 12, 1998
DIRTY WORK doesn’t look like it comes from the same era as these other movies in this series. I remember noticing that at the time, too. It’s not that it’s visually simple and unadorned, it’s more that Norm Macdonald, with his loose fitting plaid shirts over plain t-shirts, looks like a schlub from a low budget ’80s frat comedy or the cover of an old Home Improvement DVD. (I’m not sure what I thought of Artie Lange’s more late ’70s/early ’80s style polos, which play as kind of stylized now, like SUPERBAD.)
I remember wondering, has this thing been sitting on the shelf for several years? Or do things just look different in Toronto, where it was filmed? Or is it because it’s directed by Bob Saget? Yeah, I know, even back then, pre-THE ARISTOCRATS, he made sure everybody knew he was actually real edgy, man, he told jokes about penises and buttholes and you name it, everything. Nevertheless he was still the dude from Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos. That is an incontrovertible fact. It’s the same guy. He did those things.
But no, in retrospect I think it’s clear that DIRTY WORK looks crappy and out of date because Macdonald just does not give a shit about being cool. It amuses him to be really uncool, just like it amused him to have a joke bomb on Saturday Night Live and then sit silently as if waiting for a long laugh that he didn’t notice didn’t materialize. Or to tell ancient jokes at a roast where every single person is calling each other cocksuckers and his insults are, like, “Ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds.”
I mean, look at Norm on this poster here, pulling his sunglasses down. I think he knows he’s not fuckin Tom Cruise in RISKY BUSINESS. He knows that’s dumb as shit. But that’s how he prefers it.
And that shameless attitude is what makes the movie appealing. When the jokes land you might be buckled over and when they don’t you’re like “Oh Norm, you scamp!” more than you’re groaning. It’s very much of the Adam Sandler school where it’s kinda crappily made and the story is just an excuse for jokes and goofing around. The script definitely shows Macdonald’s affinity for straight up old fashioned joke telling – like, set ups and punchlines. And there are some great ones.
Also in the Sandler tradition: you have to accept a normal, pretty, adult woman (Traylor Howard, Boston Common, Monk) being interested in a guy who looks like Norm Macdonald and goes around causing wacky mischief all day. Yes, in this one she keeps getting mad at him for what he does and trying not to talk to him again, but even that is very charitable.
And Sandler has a cameo as the devil. No Rob Schneider, though.
Not that it really matters, but Macdonald plays Mitch Weaver, a dude in his 30s who has been fired from a long succession of jobs (most recently pizza delivery) and kicked out by his girlfriend. He learns this when he passes a bunch of people wearing clothes exactly like his and then gets home and realizes its’ because she’s throwing all his things out the window.
He goes to live with his life-long best friend Sam (Lange, who had been on Mad TV, and would soon be on Macdonald’s sitcom The Norm Show) and his elderly, ex-boxer dad Pops (Jack Warden, THE WHITE BUFFALO), who soon 1) has a heart attack and 2) confesses to Mitch that he’s his father and 3) proves it by showing him a locket with a picture of himself having sex with Mitch’s mom.
So Mitch and Sam need to raise $50,000 to get Pops a new heart (long story, sort of) and they decide that they’re good at pranking people to get revenge and start a business where they do revenge for hire. Just go with it.
So you get a montage of the different revenge scenarios they come up with. For example there’s a sideshow dwarf named Paul (Arturo Gil, “Station” from BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY) who hires them to avenge an abusive bearded lady (Rebecca Romijn, FEMME FATALE) and of course that involves her waking up from a drinking binge and realizing her face is clean shaven. But the punchline is when they show that outside of her trailer Paul is spray-painting over her “THE BEARDED LADY” banner so it just says “THE LADY.”
Sometimes they get in way, way, way over their head. Like when they go to prank a guy’s loud, partying neighbors by hiding rotting fish around their house, not realizing these are SCARFACE type gangsters in the middle of a drug deal. Luckily instead of getting caught they just instigate a total gun/chain saw massacre and listen to it from the other room.
Eventually they gotta get an antagonist, so Christopher McDonald (who I still think Paul Manafort looks like) is a sleazy real estate guy who pretends to be all about charity but is really trying to run low income people out of buildings so he can renovate them, and the Dirty Work boys butt heads with him.
For me some of the biggest laughs really have nothing to do with the story, like when Mitch encourages Sam to moon a line of people waiting outside of a movie theater, then parks the car right next to them and gets out, leaving Sam with his ass hanging out and then awkwardly pulling his pants up and sheepishly telling them “He was supposed to keep driving.”
Also there’s a whole bit about how their doctor (Chevy Chase, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN) is willing to cheat them onto an organ donor waiting list because he’s in debt. This leads to a great bit about a great movie:
Of course this is not meant to be a realistic movie, but sometimes it’s not so much “this isn’t how it would happen in real life” as “do these guys even know that there is such a thing as real life?” In their world there’s a mutliplex where the whole staff is men in their thirties or forties and the boss (Don Rickles, QUEST FOR CAMELOT) makes them stand in a line and dresses them down like he’s R. Lee Ermey. Also car dealerships do commercials on live TV (so you can embarrass them by hiring hookers to play dead in the trunks of the cars).
Macdonald employs a certain style of humor, possibly considered “problematic” now, but also deliberately pushing buttons back then, where he talks sort of demeaningly to prostitutes and homeless people but in such an oblivious way that it almost seems affectionate. He hires groups of each sort of as cheap labor and addresses them with “Hey, homeless guys,” or “Listen up, prostitutes.”
An uncredited Chris Farley plays Jimmy, a Vietnam vet who hangs out at the same bar as Mitch. It’s kind of disturbing when he’s angrily chasing “the Saigon hooker who bit my nose off” with the implication being that he’s going to murder her. (He doesn’t.) At the time, though, we were preoccupied with the sadness of Farley having died before the film came out.
There’s a part where they go to jail so of course you have your prison rape jokes. I can’t say “your standard prison rape jokes” though, because Macdonald really does do his version of it. Many people are more critical of this joke topic now, but like so much of the humor here the DIRTY WORK version comes across as being very aware of the tastelessness and hackiness of the subject and trying to prove that he can take this thing that everybody jokes about and use it in a way that not one person besides him would. So after, you know, something bad happens to him off screen, this is how he responds:
He takes this awful thing and then reacts to it in such an old-man-threatening-to-write-a-sternly-worded-letter manner that it makes it seem like he’s being an uptight spoil sport. It reminds me of this joke I’ve heard him do more than once on his podcast where he starts telling a long and detailed story about the horrendous things that a certain cannibal serial killer did with body parts, and eventually he ends the story by saying, “I tell ya, this guy was a real jerk!”
It’s really an unusual comic persona. He acts like he’s a regular joe everyman type of guy, but he’s not. He’s an amoral jackass, but doesn’t come across as arrogant or intentionally mean. And he’s the butt of many of the jokes, humiliating things happen to him all the time, but he doesn’t get embarrassed by them like, say, a Ben Stiller character would. He barely seems to notice.
For example, during the traditional part where he sticks it to the man by playing a tape of the villain saying something incriminating over a P.A. system, he rewinds it too far and plays everyone a recording of himself saying, “Note to self: remember to get ass wart cream for giant wart on my ass.” And he doesn’t freak out about it.
Macdonald wrote the script with long time comedy writers Frank Sebastiano (director of BEER LEAGUE) and Fred Wolf (JOE DIRT, GROWN UPS). According to Wikipedia it was planned for a February release but delayed until the summer, when it fared poorly against some of these other movies I’ve been reviewing. Apparently this was also the time when MacDonald was fired by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer for making jokes about his friend O.J. Simpson, so Ohlmeyer prevented NBC from airing ads for DIRTY WORK until a week after it came out.
I was shocked to learn that the studio also cut it from “the original script’s raunchy, R-rated over the top tone” – it turns out that despite all the jokes about rape and hookers and showing Artie Lang’s ass it is in fact a PG-13 movie. I honestly didn’t notice.
Despite not looking like 1998, the soundtrack definitely sounds like the other shit I’m watching. You got your “Semi-Charmed Life,” your Better Than Ezra, your fuckin “Tubthumping,” some Green Day. There’s a Reverend Horton Heat song for cred and I guess a KMFDM. I can’t remember where that would’ve been used.
Since I mentioned homophobia in some of the other comedies it’s only fair that I say there are some button-pushing gay jokes here. A dog that rapes another dog is referred to as “gay,” and Mitch and Sam get back at their mean movie theater boss by switching out the theater’s print of MEN IN BLACK with a gay porn parody called MEN IN BLACK… HAVING SEX WITH EACH OTHER. But I think the childish way that they cover their eyes like it’s the Arc of the Covenant is hard not to take as making fun of people for that sort of performative not-at-all-gayness. Yes, they are using homosexuality for shock value, but to me it seems like the joke is on people being uncomfortable about it.
DIRTY WORK is always cheesy, sometimes dumb and tasteless, but often very funny. I’m not sure Macdonald’s talents would’ve been best served by him trying to become a movie star, but it’s too bad he didn’t make a couple more like this or better. Then again maybe this being the only one is what makes it special.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.