[11 January 2012]
I have a theory about comedies. You can point out a genuine classic based on how much a film makes you laugh after numerous people told you how funny it was. You see, comedies typically only work if they catch you off guard (see Napolean Dynamite), while most fail drastically because you expect them to make you laugh in unprecedented ways (see Nacho Libre). But if a film still makes you laugh even after you’re expecting it to, then that, my friend, is the sign of a true comedy classic.
Alas, as one of those films that cause people to gasp in horror should you admit not having watched it, The Three Amigos! never lives up to its absurd premise. The film, directed by John Landis (The Blues Brothers), contains ample comedy, or at least enough to satisfy an easygoing midnight crowd, but nothing really grabbed me the way I hoped. Perhaps the fault lies with those aforementioned over-the-top expectations I dubiously carried into the film. After all, it’s not every day you find the great Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short briskly sharing the silver screen with such effortless zeal.
In truth, John Landis’ film made me chuckle quite a bit, but I never really laughed out loud. And when the film ended, I went to bed without much recollection of what I’d just seen.
The same cannot be said of Chase’s Vacation films (the one in Vegas notwithstanding), Short’s Innerspace, or Martin’s largely successful body of work (Parenthood remains a particular favorite in the Ames household). I admire all three actors, but found their pairing here a tad disappointing.
A lot of the blame lies with the script, a mishmash of various story concepts that wind up feeling more like roughly strewn SNL sketches patched together to create a 90-minute narrative. The loose plot follows thusly: the titular characters are out-of-work actors who fly to Mexico in pursuit of a gig. Unbeknownst to them, the gig turns out to be a real life showdown against a ruthless Mexican gang Hell-bent on destroying a local village. That’s about it, really. There’s no character development, and little, if any, story arc. The ideas are there, but none of them are explored satisfactorily.
As expected, Martin, Short and Chase make a commendable bunch. Indeed, each brings his own unique talents to the table but, unlike, say, Ghostbusters which featured a tour de force Bill Murray performance leading an equally stacked ensemble, neither actor takes the reins. And so we’re left with three comedy masters playing second fiddle to one another without proper direction.
I recall Cadyshack, Harold Ramis’ classic snobs vs. slobs comedy that likewise featured numerous comedians – Murray, Chase, Rodney Dangerfield to name a few – jostling for screen time. Ramis let the cast run loose, recognizing each actors’ strengths and playing on those strengths accordingly, but managed to shoehorn the production from set piece to set piece without ever losing control. The Three Amigos! wastes its talent on pointless exposition (a brief bit in Hollywood left me scratching my head), one note side characters and confusing action scenes that resemble those found in a Wild West stunt show.
Where the film succeeds are in the moments where Martin’s sly comedy pokes through (approaching a singing bush, for example, a character asks, “Are you the singing bush?”), or in brief character bits (Chase attempting to eat a taco) where each actor can properly demonstrate his own comedic sensibilities. The results may never leave you grasping your side in laughing agony, but they’re enough to warrant a smile or two.
Searching IMDB, I discovered that Steven Spielberg was expected to direct the film. He wanted Martin, Murray and Robin Williams as the three leads – a more formidable grouping if you ask me. Those three actors carry distinctive comic skills, easily discernible from one another. That film might’ve been more, shall I say, exciting than Landis’, as both Murray and Williams would’ve brought plenty of whacky energy to contrast with Martin’s straight man.
In Landis’ version, Chase and Martin more or less play the same character, while Short only occasionally displays the physical hijinks that would forever highlight his rather (and unfortunately) lackluster career. As it stands, The Three Amigos! boasts a commendable cast, but cannot decide what to do with them. It moves like a comedy, but side steps hilarity at every turn.
Not to sound like a Grinch, but the Blu-ray offered more disappointment. Save for a very brief interview with the cast, the special features are sorely lacking. There are some deleted scenes, many of which were cut for obvious reasons (the original opening is awful and painfully slow), and a 20-page Q&A booklet ripped from Empire Magazine. You’d think the studio (and those involved) would’ve done something a little more special for a film this revered (Chase, in particular, cites The Three Amigos! as a personal favorite in his oeuvre). How about some commentaries? Or an isolated track featuring Elmer Bernstein’s terrific score? How about a Q&A with Randy Newman (who helped write the film’s songs)?
I understand comedies are a difficult feat to pull off. The Three Amigos! doesn’t qualify as a genuine classic, it’s far too lazy in its execution, but perhaps it’s one of those comedies that get better the more you watch and quote it with friends and family. Either way, Martin, Chase and Short have done far worse, but they’ve also done much, much better.