"You're dead for a real long time. You just can't prevent it. So if money can't buy happiness, I guess I'll have to rent it." -- "WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC
To paraphrase one Tom Servo, some films simply defy the laws of sequential occurrence in space and time. Such a film is Amy Heckerling's 1984 sophomore effort, Johnny Dangerously. Why did 20th Century Fox feel that America needed or wanted an Airplane!-type spoof of melodramatic 1930s gangster pictures, specifically those of James Cagney? As it turned out, the film died a quick and ignoble death, shunned by critics and audiences alike one grim September before finding a marginal place in the pop culture landscape as a perennial time-slot filler on local TV stations and a semi-cult favorite on home video. When viewed objectively in 2010, Johnny Dangerously seems like a well-intentioned near-miss, chockablock with spirited comic performances, endearingly baroque touches, and memorable running gags, yet somehow missing that indefinable spark of creative genius that elevates a film to the level of a classic. And yet, for some nebulous reason, the film holds a mysterious, hard-to-explain charm. I myself have fallen under the film's sway to some degree and have watched it several times in preparation of this very article. Why? What is the secret of Johnny Dangerously?
To answer that question, I have made rather a study of this curious film -- unscientific, yes, but earnest in its diligence nevertheless. Herewith, I present (with very minimal attempt at organization) my observations on Johnny Dangerously. I hope you will find them edifying.
- Let's start with the good stuff. Clearly, the film's chief asset is a swell comic turn by the oft-overlooked and underestimated Michael Keaton, who deftly channels the ingratiating arrogance and brashness of Cagney without ever descending into a "you dirty rat" caricature that could have grown tiresome of the course of a feature film. And, boy, can this man do an eye-roll! Keaton's character, poor newsboy turned flashy gangster Johnny "Dangerously" Kelly is some terrific guy, I tell ya. Not only does he all but entirely avoid committing actual crimes (save from one completely justifiable nightclub bombing), he even takes time out from the plot to give a straight-to-the-camera anti-smoking PSA and even has a movie screen and projector set up in his bedroom for times when he needs to counsel his younger brother, Tommy, on the proper care and treatment of one's testicles.
- Tommy Kelly, Johnny's goody-two-shoes brother, could have been a thankless and largely laughless role, essentially the Pat O'Brien to Keaton's Cagney. But not with Griffin Dunne on duty. Dunne improbably wrings every last ounce of hilarity out of his character, a straight-arrow, bow-tie-loving assistant D.A. whose allegiance to the law is so strict that he won't even allow metaphorical gambling. Tommy's sexual frustration is one of the film's better running gags, and Dunne gets what to me is the film's single funniest line, affecting in its utter desperation: "Oh, God, how do you get laid in 1930?"
- Maureen Stapleton is on hand, too, as Tommy and Kelly's hard-working Irish immigrant mother who at the age of 29 doesn't look a day over 60. Granted, this role is essentially a worn-out comedy cliché: the sweet-looking old lady with the mouth and temperament of a Marine drill sergeant. But Stapleton just naturally projects such warmth and gravitas that it's somehow funny when Ma Kelly tearfully tells Marilu Henner, "I go both ways." Or when she punches her son in the face. Or when she fishes a vibrator out of her purse. Or when she staggers up to the camera to tell us, "The Lower East Side... it really sucks!" And if one foul-mouthed Irishwoman wasn't enough, the film generously gives us a second one late in the proceedings.
- Joe Piscopo gets his best-ever screen role -- and I realize that's not saying much -- as the film's main baddie, a sneering thug named Danny Vermin, a childhood rival of Johnny's who has grown up to achieve his goal of becoming a real scumbag. Armed with an obscenely-long, custom-made ".88 Magnum" ("It shoots through schools!"), Danny is also the source of one of the film's best-remembered running gags: his vague warnings to Johnny that always end with the word "Once!" accompanied by a raised index finger. (By the end of the film, Danny is no longer allowed to get to the punchline of this bit.) Piscopo might have known this film was his cinematic peak, because a mere two years later he starred in another mob comedy, Wise Guys, re-teaming with at least two Dangerously veterans: co-star Danny DeVito and co-writer Norman Steinberg. Back in '84, incidentally, Roger Ebert fretted that the role of Danny Vermin was too "limiting" for the talented Piscopo. In this particular instance, Mr. Ebert was grossly mistaken. Never again would Piscopo be trusted with dialogue like: "Dames are put on this earth to weaken us, drain our energy, laugh at us when they see us naked."
- Of the film's many, many supporting players (this is a crowded flick!), the two real standouts are DeVito as gloriously venal D.A. Winston Burr and Richard Dimitri as the frequently apoplectic enemy kingpin Roman Moronie. To me, the D.A. is a fascinating character deserving of more screen time, once again illustrating DeVito's talent for characters who take such joy in their villainy that we can't possibly dislike them. A flirtatious homosexual dandy with a toupee and pencil mustache Winston Burr seems like a forerunner of Jon Polito's character in the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There. I wonder if the Coens ever saw this picture. I have a feeling they might have liked it, seeing as it takes place is the same general milieu as their own Miller's Crossing. Roman Moronie, meanwhile, is basically a one-note character, but what a highly-amusing note! Moronie's schtick is that he talks as if his dialogue has been redubbed for television, using ridiculous euphemisms for profanities like "icehole," "bastage," and (my favorite) "corksucker." He is also the inspiration for one of the film's wildest, left-field touches: a tommy-gun-toting robot in Moronie's image.
- Johnny Dangerously has some clever fun with the hoary conventions of The Late Late Show: those wavy lines that indicate flashbacks, the on-screen captions which tell us the year a story is taking place, the radio that provides convenient plot exposition on demand, etc. Best of all, when the film drags out the same old B&W stock footage of turn-of-the-century New York we've seen in dozens of other gangster flicks, Johnny uses it as an opportunity to explain an obscure law called the McCoy Act of 1909: "Immigrants who wanted citizenship had to stay out of their apartments at least four hours a day and walk around in the streets with hats on."
- More than anything, Johnny Dangerously wants to be the Mel Brooks mob movie that Mel never made. The cast prominently includes at least three Brooks vets: Peter Boyle, Ron Carey, and Dom DeLuise. Plus, the score is by Brooks' resident composer John Morris, and the script includes contributions from two of Brooks' veteran jokemeisters, the aforementioned Norman Steinberg and the ubiquitous Pat Proft, the latter mysteriously credited as "special medical consultant." (Perhaps Proft and his writing partner Neal Israel, Heckerling's then-husband, crafted the "Your Testicles and You" bit?) For good measure, the film even lifts one gag wholesale (or retail) from Young Frankenstein. I won't spoil it for you, but it involves the depositing of evidence.
- Speaking of comedic plagiarism, the film contains a couple of variations on the reporters-running-to-the-phones gag from Airplane! But even more remarkable is a sequence in which a priest recites Latin gibberish while leading a man to the electric chair. It is astonishingly similar to a scene from Top Secret!, but since the two films were released so close together, I will have to chalk it up to an amazing coincidence.
- Cinematic clairvoyance! A full decade before Pulp Fiction, Johnny Dangerously features a gangster who miraculously survives an attempt on his life and decides right there and then to give up his life of crime.
- The supposed composite sketch of Johnny that appears in a newspaper in no way resembles Michael Keaton. In fact, it looks uncannily like either Steve Guttenberg or Rocky III-era Stallone. The camera lingers on this sketch so long I started to wonder whether this was an intentional joke.
- The first indications that Johnny Dangerously will not be a trail-blazing comedy classic come early. There's a sequence in which Johnny runs up flight after flight of stairs to get to his tenement apartment, passing along the way two men who have paused to gasp for air as if the oxygen were getting thin. I get what the film is trying to do, but Heckerling fails to sell the joke. Something about the rhythm of the editing or the choice of shots is off somehow. Not too much later, there's a moment when young Johnny is at a crossroads: a doctor tells him Ma Kelly needs money for an operation and the only way for Johnny to get it is to work for mobster Jocko Dundee. Anyway, the kid pauses outside the door of his apartment and the faces of various characters -- the mother, the doctor, the mobster -- appear over his head in thought-balloon form. This is a classic opportunity for a joke. Had this been a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker flick, there definitely would have been one wild-card element in there, some thought balloon that definitely didn't belong. Or the characters in the various thought balloons would start arguing amongst themselves. Or something. But nothing comedic whatsoever happens. Sigh.
- MGM once boasted of having "More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens," but not even Louis B. Mayer himself could have conceived of the Bizarro World all-star cast that graces this flick (sometimes unbilled): Ray Walston, Vincent Schiavelli, Taylor Negron, Joe Flaherty, Jack Nance, Dick Butkus, Alan Hale, Jr., and -- perhaps most deliciously of all -- Bob Eubanks, who like me is from Flint, Michigan, and who would probably prefer that you remember his appearance in this film and not the one in Roger & Me a few years later. Special kudos to Dick Butkus for not only inspiring Johnny's awesome nom de crime but also for his hilarious outrage at Roman Moronie's non-profanities. ("Whatta mouth on that guy!")
- Comedy historians! This film contains an example of a "Chinese whisper" joke. See if you can find it!
- While the film largely has a charming out-of-time quality to it, there are some timely references scattered throughout the proceedings, including jokes about 1980s food (quiche, salad bars), 1980s culture (break-dancing, punk rock, ghetto blasters), and, somewhat regrettably, 1980s advertising (a major, major gag built around a now-semi-forgotten malt liquor TV spot).
- Despite those random '80s touches, the film mainly serves as a video grab bag of fabulous 1930s clothing, music, and architecture. I cherished the appearances of standards like "Let's Misbehave" and "Embraceable You" on the soundtrack as well as neat-o design flourishes like those doors where the doorknob is in the center. (Why'd we get rid of those?) And then there's the clothing! This was an era when men could wear pinstriped suits and fedoras and not look like complete tools. Not to mention the outstanding collar pins worn by many of the actors, especially Johnny himself. In fact, the DVD should have a featurette entitled "The Great Collar Pins of Johnny Dangerously. We had paradise within our grasp, and we threw it away.
- Probably the most enduring thing to come out of Johnny Dangerously is "Weird Al" Yankovic's delightfully witty and catchy title song, "This Is the Life," which has been missing from some TV and VHS versions of the film but has happily been restored to the DVD. On YouTube, the video for Al's song has over a million hits. No other Johnny Dangerously-related clip comes close, so it looks like Al had the last laugh. The video, in fact, is a much better showcase for the song than the movie itself, where it simply plays over some ugly (but authentic-looking) painted backdrops. Had this been an actual Mel Brooks movie, "This Is the Life" might have been incorporated into the film itself as a full-fledged song-and-dance sequence, since Mel is known for using elaborate production numbers to boost the energy level of his films, especially at the three-quarters mark when the audience's interest might be waning. Dangerously could've used something like that. There is one big musical number, "Dangerously," sung by Marilu Henner as token love interest Lil Sheridan, and while it's a nice moment -- sort of presaging The Fabulous Baker Boys -- I think something more along the lines of "I'm Tired" from Blazing Saddles was needed here.
Back when we were trying to settle on which '80s film with which to inaugurate this feature, Joe gave me a choice between Johnny Dangerously and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, both of which he had recently seen. I went with the latter because I believed it had more potential (and, frankly, a somewhat higher profile), but he evidently kept the former in the back of his mind because when I suggested "comedies that I thought were hysterical before I reached puberty" as the theme for July, he dusted it off and offered it up again. I admit I was somewhat apprehensive about re-approaching the film after all these years because I've come a long way as a movie aficionado in the two and a half decades since it first hit pay cable, but a theme is a theme is, as far as I can tell, a theme. And so, as I near the end of my 37th year on this planet, I had to find out whether I still thought Johnny Dangerously was the cat's pajamas. (Help me out here, Joe. They used the phrase "cat's pajamas" is in the '30s, right? Anyway...)
Well, the film gets off to good start with "Weird Al" Yankovic's exceedingly clever Tin Pan Alley pastiche "This Is the Life" -- even if, as Joe says, the credit sequence it plays over is kinda blah. Thanks to the frequency with which his videos appeared on MTV in its early days, I was already a committed "Weird Al" fan by the time his contribution to Johnny Dangerously came along and the video was probably a better trailer for the film than its actual trailer was. It even makes good use of the film's incongruous breakdancing scene, marrying it to the song's equally incongruous record-scratching breakdown (which, along with the blistering guitar solo, is one of its few nods to contemporary music -- in this case, Malcolm McLaren's rap culture co-opting Duck Rock album). Incidentally, the next time "Weird Al" contributed the opening theme to a major motion picture it was for 1996's Spy Hard, a latter-day Leslie Nielsen-anchored James Bond parody that just so happened to mark the screenwriting debuts of "____ Movie" dynamos Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. By most accounts, Yankovic's self-directed credit sequence is by far the funniest thing in the film, but that's not too surprising considering its pedigree. (To date, I have yet to see any film that Friedberg and Seltzer have had anything to do with, and I don't see that changing any time soon. I have no love for the Twilight franchise, but I'm sure it deserves better than the duo's latest "effort," Vampires Suck, which is due out next month.)
But getting back to Johnny Dangerously, apart from an extended flashback to 1910, the film is set squarely during the Great Depression, but no one ever seems to mention it, much less be affected by it. (Prohibition gets a nod at one point, but that's about it.) The present day is 1935, when Johnny Kelly (Michael Keaton) is a well-respected pet shop owner who catches a tough-talking kid trying to make off with a puppy and, instead of calling the cops, sits the lad down and tells him all about his exploits as the notorious criminal Johnny Dangerously. He literally starts small, as a 12-year-old paperboy who is enlisted for a one-time job by crime boss Peter Boyle (whose car has a bumper sticker that reads "I'D RATHER BE STEALING") when his ailing mother (Maureen Stapleton) needs an expensive operation. One thing leads to another, though, and Keaton eventually needs to go to work for Boyle full-time, which not only helps keep his mother ambulatory, but also puts his bookish younger brother (Griffin Dunne) through law school.
Things pick up in 1930, a date that appears to have been chosen specifically so torch singer Marilu Henner can plausibly sing "Embraceable You" when she auditions for a job at Boyle's club. Keaton is immediately smitten with her and gives up his womanizing ways soon after she arrives on the scene, but Henner plays hard to get for about a scene and a half before reciprocating. As it turns out, 1930 is a pretty busy year for Keaton since he not only successfully woos Henner, but also becomes reacquainted with his childhood nemesis (Joe Piscopo), with whom he battles for control of Boyle's gang, they go to fargin' war with rival crime boss Richard Dimitri, he talks his brother out of quitting law school, and he attends his brother's graduation from law school. (I guess he was closer to finishing than he thought.) For his part, Dunne goes to work for the district attorney's office and becomes a tireless crusader against crime and injustice, an ironic turn of events that isn't lost on the brother who paid for his education. When Dunne refuses to play ball with crooked D.A. Danny DeVito (who, unlike his Taxi co-star Henner, was making a more successful transition to film), he almost gets bumped off, but Keaton has DeVito eliminated instead.
Keaton's next step is to go legit (le what?), which doesn't sit well with Piscopo and the rest of the gang, and he is framed for the murder of the crime commissioner and, having been prosecuted by an overzealous Dunne, sent to death row to await the chair. Meanwhile, the hunt is on to prove his innocence and Keaton has to break out of prison to prevent Piscopo from gunning Dunne down at the premiere of the James Cagney gangster movie The Roaring Twenties, which must have fallen into some kind of a time warp because it wasn't actually made until 1939. (I've always wondered about this subplot since Piscopo seems to be very knowledgeable about a film that he's never seen before, but that's probably just another temporal anomaly.) All works out in the end and Keaton gets a pardon from the governor, which allows him to marry Henner and open his pet shop, which brings us back to where we started. Then, having taught one wayward youth the value of staying on the straight and narrow, Keaton rewards him with a kitten and sends him on his way. The end.
Throughout its running time, Johnny Dangerously tries just about every trick in the book to get laughs, often relying on old standbys like funny signs (the "HENCHMEN" and "HENCHWOMEN" rooms at Club Moronie) and wacky newspaper headlines ("MORONIE DEPORTED TO SWEDEN -- CLAIMS HE'S NOT FROM THERE"). In addition to the ever-growing list of things that have only been done to Piscopo's character once, there's also a funny running gag about a hapless news agent (Ray Walston, who brought down the house as Mr. Hand in Amy Heckerling's previous film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) who keeps getting hit in the head with bundles of newspapers and gaining or losing different handicaps with each concussion. The best one, though, is Alan Hale, Jr.'s turn as the desk sergeant, whose delivery of the "duckies and bunnies" line never fails to crack me up. I only wish there were more moments that worked as well for me. As it stands, Johnny Dangerously is a film that I can look back on fondly -- because otherwise how am I going to justify the number of hours I've spent watching it over the years -- but in the here and now it's just too scattershot to really work. It's a film that aspires to Airplane!-like heights of lunacy, but winds up at the same cruising altitude as Airplane II: The Sequel. They're funny enough, but no one's going to mistake them for the real thing.
Up Next: The real thing. Well, one of them, at any rate. I'd tell you which one, but that's strictly confidential.