“Kingpin” is like one of those adolescent, joke T-shirts at Target that says something like “welcome to the gun show” or “beer is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” It’s not exactly your cup of tea, but you know it matches one of your other 14-year-old friend’s tastes perfectly.
“Kingpin” is a movie that no one admits that they love but knows at least one other person who adores it. The Farrelly Brothers’ bowling romp is still a funny movie, although the verbal quips and physical gags generating that humor are admittedly handicapped. The personalities are quirky and buffoonish, but not farcical or likable enough to be endearing. It’s the exact type of film two brothers would make after capturing lightning in a bottle with “Dumb and Dumber,” but unwilling to open up the lid in fear that cherished electricity may slip out.
We follow Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), the 70s bowling sage of Iowa who, after a disastrous encounter with an alley return machine, spends his days shilling worthless items and evading his yellow-toothed landlord. When he encounters an apparent bowling prodigy from Amish country named Ishmael (Randy Quaid), Roy coaxes the bowl-haired do-gooder into some alleycat hustling. They meet Claudia (Vanessa Angel), professional eye candy to some wealthy, bowling-loving criminal type, and set out for Reno in hopes of winning $1 million in a tournament, where Roy’s old nemesis Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), will also be competing.
Like “Dumb and Dumber,” “Kingpin” is primarily a road-trip movie, where the first two acts provide ample encounters between our oddball leads and nameless small-town folk, and the last act focusing on these characters awkwardly brushing shoulders with wealthy and outlandish denizens in a well-known but still relatively isolated locale (Aspen for “Dumb and Dumber,” Reno for “Kingpin.”) “Kingpin’s” leads have weak, albeit genuine, motivations for this whole thing: Roy wants to get money, Ishmael wants to save his farm, and Claudia just wants to get away. But the palpable chemistry that made Lloyd and Harry such memorable chaps isn’t brewing in “Kingpin.” They’re awkward characters who always feel awkward, like meeting an acquaintance who loves “The Simpsons” just as much as you, but even after you recite the Dr. Zaius song together, you two just don’t click.
Unsurprisingly, the standout of the film is Bill Murray. He’s a pin-massacring, sexual-assaulting, disgusting mess of a man, introduced in the first ten minutes but tragically forgotten until the last 30. McCracken is the one who our eyes our peeled on for the film’s final frames, an over-combed villain who masterfully fashions himself as the underdog. Had McCracken been more present in the film, or his relationship with Roy more developed, “Kingpin” could have found an emotional core to bring this all together.
Instead, the movie relies on sloppy hi-jinks on Midwestern highways, and characters who provide plenty of smiles but little good will. The best thing that came out of “Kingpin” was a learning lesson for the Farrelly’s follow-up film, “There’s Something About Mary.” Beyond that latter movie’s gross out gags and childish humor, it was still a film united by disgusting but likable losers who all gelled with each other, even when they were clawing each other’s throats. “Kingpin” gave us the losers, but not the follow-through to let them roll.