starring Michael O'Keefe, Paul Rodriguez, Denholm Elliott, Dan O'Herlihy
screenplay by Steve Zacharias and Jeff Buhai and David Obst
directed by John Byrum
by Alex Jackson John Byrum's 1986 comedy The Whoopee Boys is a strictly hit-and-miss affair. When it hits, it's good for a chuckle and a worthy distraction. When it misses, it is, to borrow one of the film's favourite visuals, like a swift kick to the groin. I'm being a lot easier on the picture than I imagine most people would be, in part because I simply admire its sheer hubris. The Whoopee Boys really puts it on the line, and there are many times where it seems like it's working without a safety net. What do you have to gain from making a movie like this? You might make people laugh. What do you have to lose? You could create such an unholy object of pure, unadulterated shittiness that audiences will commit hara-kiri in the aisles to preserve the very last shred of dignity they have left after buying a ticket.
So OK, it's basically a slobs-vs.-snobs comedy that goes for cheap laughs, with crass tell-it-like-it-is Mexican stand-up Paul Rodriguez shocking and scandalizing rich, stuck-up white people. Moreover, the storyline is a reliable old chestnut: An heiress needs to get married in order to inherit her money and save an orphanage. Eager to lend a hand, Rodriguez's best friend Michael O'Keefe proposes to her. She says that the will stipulates she marry a real gentleman, thus O'Keefe and Rodriguez head to charm school, where they meet up with several other misfits and shock and scandalize the upper class some more.
Easy populist sentiments of the ethnic working class as being more genuine and sympathetic than pampered wealth serve as the rough basis for the laughs. But the film goes in some truly weird directions. I'm taken aback, for example, by the black female police officer who enrols in the charm school because of her anger-control issues. She never takes off her uniform and when everyone is served escargot she pulls out her nightstick and starts smashing them in their shells. I laughed, but it's the kind of absurdist visual that can't be defended or explained. Somewhat more explicable is another bit in the same scene where Eddie Deezen (yeah, Eddie Deezen) puts the escargot in a tissue, pretends to sneeze, then shows it to the waiter. On one level, it's just a gross-out joke at the expense of "high society." On another, it's a joke at the expense of the sort of puerile dweebs who would find that funny. On a third level, it's a joke at the expense of the film itself for having the creative bankruptcy to cast Eddie Deezen in a nerd role and insert a gag like this.
The Whoopee Boys begs the question, "Can a comedy be so bad it's good?" Is a laugh generated by a shitty non-comedy like this as legitimate as a laugh generated by a "real" comedy--like, say, from The Marx Brothers? What exactly is the difference between the two? Is there an element of condescension in our response to a shitty comedy that somehow changes the formula? It occurs to me that the ends always always always justify the means, particularly when it comes to comedy. A laugh is a laugh. Along those lines, what do we do with an incompetent genre film that, courtesy of its incompetence, gets us to fruitfully challenge the assumptions underlying the genre? It may very well be a truism that bad art has the ability to raise consciousness, whereas good art dependably numbs it.
The one genuinely interesting thing about The Whoopee Boys in terms of sociology is its use of Rodriguez. His is the horniest, nastiest, funniest character in the whole film. Rodriguez is clearly the star here and even gets to sing the "Whoopee Boys" theme song over the closing credits. Yet while he is preoccupied with sex throughout the whole movie, he never gets to have any. He's more interested in helping his friend get the girl. The film transparently exposes the bizarre double-standard popular culture has traditionally had towards non-white comedians: Because they are something less than human, they can get away with saying all the sick things we think, but God forbid they actualize their sexual feelings. The horndog archetype Rodriguez portrays is simultaneously hypersexual and asexual--he never thinks about anything besides sex but doesn't seem to possess any genitalia. In a well-made movie, this would be racism. In a movie as badly-made as The Whoopee Boys, it becomes a statement about racism.
The filmmakers can't help but satirize the whole orphan storyline just a little bit, but they also milk it for straight-faced pathos. In one of my favourite scenes, a multi-racial child finger-paints on a Snobby White Guy's Rolls-Royce. When Snobby White Guy sees this, he demands the child take off his shirt so he can clean the car with it. It's considerably milder than anything in Mandingo, where James Mason famously "drained his rheumatism" by resting his feet on a slave child's belly, though it's certainly somewhere in the same ballpark. This outrageous bit of racial humiliation exists for no other reason than to justify Rodriguez's boorishness. If the rich white people are really this racist, they more than deserve their comeuppance. Yet the scene doesn't work. Snobby White Guy is too transparently a straw man (not to mention too exaggerated a caricature), and the shock value of what he does transcends outrage and enters the higher echelon of the bizarre. As with Mason in Mandingo, we get the feeling we're watching an anthropological study of an alien species. In other words, our response is more cerebral than visceral, hence when Rodriguez comes in to take the guy down a peg, we're conscious of the mechanics of the scene and his boorishness feels laboured.
The Whoopee Boys reminded me at times of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in which the "slobs-vs.-snobs" premise is carried out with real-life snobs. Because they are actual people not in on the joke, we tend to empathize with them more than we do with the prankster--and the archetypical snob's anti-social tendencies (as well as the filmmakers' dehumanizing, ironic "anti-elitism") are explicitly exposed. The Whoopee Boys doesn't have anywhere near the venom of Borat, unquestionably one of the blackest of all black comedies, but it similarly pushes our identification with the boor to its breaking point. There is sequence after sequence of Rodriguez behaving like a total ass at some snooty function, his victims reliably shocked and appalled. Nobody even tries to politely endure him--a key feature that enabled us to turn against Borat. Sometimes this is funny; most of the time it's merely tedious. One would have to harbour a very deep hatred for the rich born from the most monumental of insecurities to accept any of The Whoopee Boys at face value.
At the charm school, as part of an art appreciation course, a slide of Goya's "The Third of May 1808" is shown to the students. Rodriguez heckles, "Hey man, I didn't know she was your sister!" There might be some legitimacy to this zinger, something about tragedy being in close-up and comedy being in long-shot and how high art and low comedy share a certain common ground. "The Third of May 1808" is traditionally acclaimed as revolutionary for its blunt anti-heroism and its breaking away from the idealized-history paintings of the Romantic period. Rodriguez, however, sees it as the epitome of meaningless high culture. For the most part, this strikes me as aggressive anti-intellectualism: Anything that can be classified as "art" is automatically a target for The Whoopee Boys' derision. Rodriguez and the filmmakers appear to be saying, "The real world belongs to us beer-drinkin' working-class slobs. Anybody interested in any kind of higher ideal is an out-of-touch asshole."
The Whoopee Boys isn't only vulgar, it lacks the most rudimentary sense of aesthetic refinement. Very little time is spent establishing the titular characters or explaining how and why they got into this situation. The love story between O'Keefe and the heiress is motivated exclusively by necessity. She falls in love with him the moment she sees him and immediately invites O'Keefe and Rodriguez to move in with her. There is minimal effort to render any of this believable in purely dramatic terms. And there are at least five different movies happening here. The film goes from road movie to the predominant slobs-vs.-snobs model, to a broader social commentary, to a con movie like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, to an underdog sports movie. It's such a thoughtless and sloppy picture that the lack of originality actually serves as a thin membrane to keep the whole thing together. If it didn't borrow from other films it would spill off the screen. I have a feeling that the sloppiness is intentional. With any more structure or purpose, it might risk becoming "art" and would hypocritically turn into the very thing it derides.
The Whoopee Boys isn't satirizing the abovementioned sub-genres--it's deliberately stupid and oozes its stupidity onto these sub-genres in an attempt to destroy them. The con men in the "con movie" section come from an ancient mystical society into which the Whoopee Boys are inducted. The sport in the "underdog sports movie" hails from the Renaissance and is only played by the elitist of the elite. This faux-pretentiousness is an attack on any system of thought that may suggest that man is something more than animal. It might be true that the more you hate movies, the more you'll like The Whoopee Boys. While I would maintain that you would have to be a complete asshole to love it, I did catch myself enjoying it on Very Bad Movie terms. Sometimes extreme "anti-art" like this can offer relief from the pressures of real art that stimulates some type of emotional or intellectual reaction. The Whoopee Boys isn't so much chewing gum for the brain as an enema for the soul. It's cleansing, but pleasurable only in a masochistic sort of way.
Legend Films' 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Whoopee Boys is murky and thick with grain. Most egregious are the faded, overexposed poolside scenes. The Dolby 2.0 mono audio is passable and unimpressive. As with Legend's DVD release of Mandingo, the film looks to have been sourced from a poorly-preserved print and minimally remastered, although it's evocative of a time and place in cinema all the same. There are no extras aside from two theatrical trailers that inexplicably spoil the film's surprise ending. On second thought, that's probably not that inexplicable. Originally published: August 12, 2008.