August 26, 1983
STRANGE BREW (on screen title: THE ADVENTURES OF BOB & DOUG McKENZIE: STRANGE BREW) is a silly lowbrow comedy that I loved when I was kid, and that holds up well from an adult perspective, though I probly don’t have a much deeper understanding of what specific Canadian observations and stereotypes the characters are playing off of. No problem. They’re still funny.
Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas direct, co-write and star as their SCTV characters Bob and Doug McKenzie, the winter hat and earmuff wearing, beer guzzling stars of the Canadian-themed talk show Great White North. In the opening scene they host their show and demonstrate the difference between TV format and movie format, then they introduce their DIY post-apocalypse epic THE MUTANTS OF 2051 A.D., a very funny fake-bad movie that coincidentally (?) has parallels to fellow Summer of Nub release SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. Bob’s character even spots “a mutant in the forbidden zone” (played by Doug).
Other summer of ’83 movie references: Bob jokes that the movie is “shot in 3-B, three beers,” and later Doug does a Darth Vader imitation and Bob explains, “He saw JEDI seventeen times, eh?”
So first we’re watching Bob and Doug in a film version of their TV show, in which they set up a screen and project this mutant movie, but then we’re in a large theater where a sold out audience are watching that, and they rebel against projection problems and the movie itself. Bob and Doug are on the screen as well as in the theater, and they have to flee the mob onto the streets of Toronto. This kind of meta humor (including a later scene where they’re driving in their van and turn to each other to discuss how drivers in movies don’t always pay attention to the road because they’re not really driving) seemed mind-blowing when I was a kid, and looking back on it now it seems influential or ahead of its time. It makes me think of the scene in GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH where gremlins take over the projection booth of the movie you’re watching, and then Hulk Hogan comes out of the audience to confront them. It also reminds me of scenes in two legendary unproduced scripts: THE TONY CLIFTON STORY and HANS & FRANZ: THE GIRLYMAN DILEMMA. And there’s humor kind of like that in WAYNE’S WORLD, too.
I don’t think it ever occurred to me how much WAYNE’S WORLD owes to this movie and/or sketch. Two dumb guys with silly slang, fitting some regional stereotype I’m unaware of, having a rickety TV show where they discuss random topics, review movies, etc. SCTV of course used the premise that the sketches were the shows broadcast from a particular TV station, but Saturday Night Live picked up the “what if a funny character had a tv show” format just because it’s an easy way to string jokes together without needing a whole new story every time. And then the Wayne’s World sketches followed the Great White North trajectory of being somehow transplanted into a feature film.
More than that, I think STRANGE BREW is part of a particular tradition of comedies I appreciate, where a comical character honed on stage in sketches gets to star in a movie. Because of those origins the movies are more personality and joke based than plot based – they become about putting this already funny character into a somewhat sarcastic movie plot, often parodying movie cliches. And they tend to exist in a very cartoonish world that appeals to me. The masterpiece of the bunch is definitely PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, and (unless you count THE BLUES BROTHERS) none of its brethren come close, but they include the two ELVIRA movies, the various ERNEST movies, GOOD BURGER, THE LADIES MAN, IT’S PAT: THE MOVIE, THE CONEHEADS. Not all good, some bad, but they have a heightened feel and goofy tone that really appeals to me. And STRANGE BREW is near the top of the rankings.
There’s a strong cartoon influence. In fact the McKenzies’ dad, who’s always yelling at them while watching Tom and Jerry cartoons, is dubbed with the unmistakable voice of Mel Blanc (last heard in DAFFY DUCK’S MOVIE: FANTASTIC ISLAND). Better yet, the climax involves the brothers painting a white stripe on their dog to make him look like a skunk (and then he flies like Superman to the Oktoberfest where he’s needed. Long story). But the plot is loosely based on Hamlet, which is to say this movie is almost scene-for-scene identical to THE NORTHMAN. I’m surprised THE NORTHMAN got away with that.
Exactly as in Shakespeare’s play, the brothers get jobs at the Elsinore brewery, recently under the ownership of nice lady Pam (Lynne Griffin, BLACK CHRISTMAS, CURTAINS) after the death of her father, and the evil Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow, THE VIRGIN SPRING), also the head of a nearby insane asylum, is poisoning the beer as part of a mind control plot where synthesizer sounds control beer drinkers and make them play hockey. You’ve seen the play, you know the story. Pam doesn’t know that Smith murdered her father, who is now a ghost haunting the brewery security system and putting messages on the high score screen of the Galactic Border Patrol video game they have in the cafeteria.
It’s a humble film, with charmingly fake looking matte paintings for the exteriors of the buildings, but there’s also a cool vehicle stunt where their van is launched into Lake Ontario and a keg falls out of the back while it’s in the air. (The credits list “Stunt Coordinator: Special Photography Unit” Bill Couch [VICE SQUAD]).
This leads to a funny and impressive scene with Thomas and Moranis clearly really filmed underwater, supposedly breathing air from various discarded beer bottles in their van. A police officer dives in and swims up to the driver’s side window, so Doug rolls it down and shows his driver’s license.
There are jokes about farting, burping, and peeing, and I don’t really find any of them embarrassing. The silliness is contagious. Some of the jokes are great but they don’t always have to be, because the delivery makes them funny. I love the randomness of it all. The entire adventure comes from them trying to pull a very dumb scam to get free beer. They don’t need to raise money to save their house or the community center or something. They just used their dad’s beer money and need beer. And they like getting free stuff, even expired milk.
The brothers get a lovable sidekick, a burly brewery employee who Bob immediately recognizes as retired (possibly brain damaged) hockey great Jean “Rosey” LeRose (Angus MacInnes, Gold Leader from STAR WARS). And I really appreciate that he’s the one who falls in love with Pam, not either of the brothers. Sometimes it bothers me when comedies have a normal woman be in love with a ridiculous cartoon character. They avoid that here.
Parts I remember particularly loving as a dumb little kid: the MGM lion burping at the beginning. Feeding their dog beer (and then pouring beer from the dog’s bowl into their dad’s bottle). Bob drinking all the beer in the tank, turning giant, then (off camera) pissing out a fire. Releasing a jar of moths in a theater to cover up the projection booth window. Of course I also thought it was funny that they kept saying “hoser” and “eh?,” though I couldn’t’ve told you why. Repetition works on young minds.
Parts I appreciated more now: the great synth-rock theme song by Ian Thomas, brother of Dave.
I wondered if “The Beer Store” was a real chain, and it turns out it’s based on “Brewers Retail.” They weren’t allowed to use the real one and spent a bunch of money building a lookalike. Molson almost let them use their name until they found out about the mouse-in-a-beer-bottle joke. I don’t know if they thought people why try to re-create it or what.
The genesis of the movie was the success of Moranis and Thomas’ 1981 comedy album The Great White North (which included some jokes used in the movie, according to one of the yelling guys in the movie theater scene). Joel Silver told them they should make a Bob & Doug movie, and sent them some scripts by Steve De Jarnatt, including “a logging comedy.” He got them a deal with MGM if they could have a screenplay ready in 2 weeks, so De Jarnatt wrote it in ten days and hired future comics legend Paul Chadwick to draw the storyboards. De Jarnatt is not Canadian – he’s a Washingtonian and graduate of The Evergreen State College – and ultimately he was replaced as director because they needed a Canadian for the tax credit. But that was actually good news for De Jarnatt and for the world because when MGM paid off his contract he used the money to buy his script MIRACLE MILE back from Warner Brothers and he was finally able to direct it in 1988.
Though late August is often considered a dumping ground for movies, STRANGE BREW was not without marketing. It got a beautiful poster painted by John Solie (SHAFT’S BIG SCORE!, SHAFT IN AFRICA, PIRANHA, TNT JACKSON, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, HIT MAN, DEATH RACE 2000, BLAST, THE HARDER THEY COME, DEATH HUNT), there was both an original score album and a soundtrack album that had movie dialogue and new Bob and Doug commentary over the music, and there was even a beer-shaped paperback companion book called The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie in Strange Brew: The Book About the Movie About the TV Show About the Men!. If they’d kept De Jarnatt as director they might’ve had one other clever push. In an interview with Popdose (which some of the above information came from) De Jarnatt said, “I hired BLADE RUNNER’s art director, David L. Snyder, and we were gonna do a fairly ambitious thing with duplicating THE SHINING’s trailer, but with beer instead of blood.”
Reviews of the final non-SHINING-like movie were okay. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it “Neither triumph nor fiasco.” Bill Cosford in the Miami Herald called the characters “not interesting enough to carry a movie” despite “several points” that are “so unhinged that it works.” Janet Maslin in The New York Times called the brothers “genial enough, and once in a while they’re vaguely funny.”
It was not a huge opening – comedies that did better during its opening weekend were MR. MOM (week 6), EASY MONEY (week 2) and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION (week 5). But it made more than twice its budget and it was obviously destined to be more of a cult movie anyway.
Thomas reportedly added the MUTANTS OF 2051 A.D. opening in his rewrites, but I think it’s kinda funny that De Jarnatt later did an actual (but pretty jokey) post-apocalypse movie (CHERRY 2000). As a young filmmaker, De Jarnatt had Stallone-wanting-to-star-in-ROCKY type persistence, holding onto MIRACLE MILE until he could direct it and turning down huge opportunities. But it took nine years and after that he was mostly a script doctor and TV director. More recently he got into short fiction. He has plenty to be proud of, even though he thought STRANGE BREW was terrible the first time he saw it.
Moranis and Thomas of course continued to do various comedy movies and TV shows for years; Moranis didn’t ever direct again, but Thomas did THE EXPERTS (1989) and a bunch of TV movies and shows. They revived the characters for Pizza Hut and Molson Brewing commercials, action figures from fellow Canadian Todd McFarlane, a TV special, a Flash-animated series (but with Dave Coulier voicing Bob), and some charity events. They came close to making another movie called HOME BREW in 1999, with Dan Aykroyd co-starring, but they couldn’t get the financing, and now Moranis is retired. That’s okay. We didn’t necessarily need the Canadian answer to BLUES BROTHERS 2000. STRANGE BREW will do.
And that, my friends, marks the end of The Summer of Nub. Pour an Elsinore on the curb for this review series. I’m actually a little relieved to be leaving 1983, but I had fun digging in. What did I learn? Well, for one thing, people who were disappointed in RETURN OF THE JEDI were holding it to a very high standard, ’cause there was sure was a hefty supply of movies trying to be in the same vein and not one of them came remotely close to matching JEDI on any level, superficially or otherwise. But I think that’s okay, it comes out of a great respect for the previous entries in the series. It’s okay to expect more from the originators than the copycats. (But come on dude, Ewoks obviously rule.)
I also learned that for my specific age 1983 is just slightly too early for very much nostalgia, and therefore rife with pop culture that’s a little before my time and not really what I know how to appreciate. But some of it is mysterious and interesting to learn about. I had a good visit.
Thanks so much for reading and/or bearing with me. Here are some superlatives from the movies covered:
Best picture: obviously RETURN OF THE JEDI
Best off brand space opera: SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE
Favorite first time watch: Holy shit, it’s STAYING ALIVE! I love that movie now.
Way cooler than I expected: RISKY BUSINESS
Most enjoyable movie I had never heard of before: DEADLY FORCE starring Wings Hauser
Happy 40th to them all