'Tommy Boy' upholds business and is very funny

March 31, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Tommy Boy" is about the birth of a salesman.

Ninety-five percent delight, it founders only as so many American films do, with a completely idiotic wrap-up. That's one of the lost skills of popular movie-making: the ability to paint oneself into a .. corner and ingeniously plot some light-footed way out of it. Not "Tommy Boy": It blunders moronically from the corner, getting paint all over itself, the carpet, the theater, the universe.

But it has many compensating pleasures. One is a value long absent from the screen: It is one of the rare films that doesn't axiomatically hate business and even regards business as necessary.

Indeed, without Callahan Auto Parts, the factory that is the font of occupation in Sandusky, Ohio, there isn't going to be any Sandusky, Ohio. And it understands what it takes to keep Callahan going: salesmanship. This is close to apostasy, or at least heresy, or at least a definite no-no. The film actually admires salesmanship, usually regarded as that most contemptible of all occupations by a film industry invented by, developed by and sustained entirely by salesmen.

The salesman in this case is Tommy Callahan, Marquette, Class of '95. Alas, he entered Marquette in 1988.

"So?" Tommy says, "lots of guys spend seven years in college."

"Yes, they're called doctors," replies his father's prim, twitchy right-hand man, Richard Hayden.

It helps enormously that Tommy and Richard are played by Chris Farley and David Spade, and that each character is an extension of well-developed shtick from "Saturday Night Live" -- Farley the semi-hysterical, bloviated goon who never met a window he couldn't fall out of, a wall he couldn't splat into or a door he couldn't crash through; Spade the tart, snippy, thunderously ironic merchant of cool.

They have a good deal of chemistry between them. But unlike so many of the other "SNL"-generated films (all produced, as was this one, by Lorne Michaels, who invented "SNL"), "Tommy Boy" doesn't take off from skit characters, and it's not locked into hitting skit high notes and signatures like "Schwing!" or "I'm Remar from Remulac, here to consume mass quantities of products."

That somehow liberates "Tommy Boy" to invent an actual story and to take the performers' personas to some higher level. It also is freed to locate the action in a zone somewhat similar to authenticity -- in this case the sagging, nearly destitute but still optimistic town of Sandusky.

In this kingdom, Tommy is the heir apparent but also the moron apparent, the only son of Big Tommy Callahan (hale fellow Brian Dennehy), who founded Callahan Auto Parts and rules it like a benevolent despot. He never met a man he couldn't sell. When Tommy Boy, as Tommy III is called, arrives home after at last graduating (key victory: a D+ in history), he finds dad about to tie the knot with va-va-va-voom widow Bo Derek.

Tommy, who hasn't a mean bone in his vast, doughnut- nurtured body, is happy that Dad's dotage will be well-upholstered in flesh. But on his wedding day, Dad abruptly departs -- for heaven. The company is about to devolve to the widow and her rancid "son" -- Rob Lowe -- who will sell it to another tycoon who will dismantle it, unless Tommy the Klutz can get out on the road and generate some sales for Callahan's high-quality brake liners.

So what we have here is a movie about a couple of salesmen on a road trip pushing brake liners. It's a terrific premise, as the two lack even the most rudimentary skills. Some of the initial pitch meetings are hysterical, as when Tommy, trying to illustrate the dangers of driving without Callahan Brake Liners, gets so intense in the fury of his drama he seems to turn psycho. Of course, he eventually learns the craft of closing the pitch.

"Tommy Boy" doesn't go any place you don't expect, and when it arrives there, it has nothing to do. The last gambit involves some nonsense with Tommy pretending to be a mad dynamiter to get some TV time, a hysterical ploy that squanders a bit of the good will the picture has already accumulated.

But for a very long time, it's a very good time.

"Tommy Boy"

Starring Chris Farley, David Spade and Bo Derek

Directed by Peter Segal

Released by Paramount

Rated PG-13

***

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