By Andrew Palmacci
Strange Brew – 1983 – dir. Rick Moranis
When you talk about the wide-ranging genre of movie comedies, there are few sub-genres more extreme in their risibility factor than the screwball comedy. Made most famous by Blake Edwards’ series of Pink Panther films, and with a lineage traceable to Frenchman Jacques Tati’s wacky Mr. Hulot suite of pictures (if not to the silent films of Chaplin and Keaton), the screwball is an oft-overlooked and under-recognized part of the overall comedic film output in current times, though there are definitely examples thereof in today’s cinematic world. Released only a year after the last Pink Panther movie, Trail of the Pink Panther, Strange Brew (1983) could be seen as the filmic missing link between the post-war screwballs of the 50s and 60s, namely Panther, and movies of the ‘90s that were spawned from Saturday Night Live sketches (Chris Farley flics, say) or those of the Farrelly brothers. Itself a product of the Canadian sketch show “SCTV,” Strange Brew benefited from the cross-over appeal of its stars—Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis (the latter’s feature debut)—and its concept: two beer-drinking buffoons who make their way around their Toronto, Ontario, Canada-area locale, punctuating their sentences with numerous eh!’s, following hockey, and feeding their dog, Hosehead, at their parents’ house. And to under-, or over-, score the grandiosity of Thomas’ and Moranis’ vein of humor, the super-title to the movie is The Adventures of Bob and Doug McKenzie. Oh, and there’s a major Hamlet tie-in as well. Let’s take a closer look.
From the first frame of the film, there is a deconstruction of the movie as a form, with the brothers making mischief around the set and revealing the behind-the-scenes portion of (as we will shortly learn) their film-within-a-film. This “meta” element produces a comedic effect precisely because it is used with these sorts of characters, and in a situation where the brothers talk to us (or the audience watching this meta-film in Strange Brew) directly from amongst beer bottles, donut boxes, and in front of a poster of North America, labeling Canada as the “Great White North” (also the name of the recurring sketch featuring the two on “SCTV”). And, by the way, the main part of the film-within-a-film, Mutants of 2051 A.D., features, like Strange Brew, some hilariously low-tech special effects and ridiculous, repeated use of the interjection “eh” while talking of nuclear annihilation and the lack of bowling alleys that remain afterwards.
And, once the actual film credits start rolling, simply the casting of Max von Sydow as Brewmeister Smith seems certainly headed for comically sinister territory. Then, also funnily eerie—and Hamlet-referencing, is the dissolve shot from the drawing on a case of Elsinore beer to the same castle-like tower of the brewery where the McKenzie brothers are pulling up below, in the entrance area. We soon find out, once the brothers are on the premises, that the heiress to the brewery is being pushed out of the way by her uncle, Claude, as he has married her mother after Pam Elsinore’s (the heiress’) father has died in mysterious circumstance; the Hamlet parallel is thus laid out.
Other choice moments include the rather politically incorrect storyline of patients at a neighboring mental hospital being experimented on by Smith, an arcade game that serves as the film’s answer to Hamlet’s specter/dream sequence, and an underwater ballet, dramatization of having your car—or van—pulled over by a cop. This last set piece follows the rare modern-day “Intermission” panel. And Hosehead the dog provides crucial evidence to the police as well as a soaring rescue attempt at the movie’s close.
Last but not least, some markers of the early ‘80s: Rick Moranis’ Bob mistakes a secret floppy disc of Brewmeister Smith’s for a British New Wave band’s bootleg EP. Then, when the plot evolves into madcap dash from a hospital, investigators find a stolen police car used by one of the good guys to get back to Elsinore brewery; it’s Japanese, prompting one of the onlookers to muse “The whole world’s made in Japan.”
Finally, during the closing credits there is classic improv-ing by the two “SCTV” veterans, as they make sure to emphasize the tenor and signal the sketch heritage of the schtick.
All in all, all’s well that ends with a brew, eh?