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Detective School Dropouts
(1986)

Director: Filippo Ottoni
Cast:
David Landsberg, Lorin Dreyfuss, George Eastman


If you have read each and every one of my 600+ reviews, I think it's safe to say that by now you have a pretty good grasp on what my tastes are when it comes to movies. You almost certainly know that I like movies that have good action, movies that manage to creep out this desensitized soul, movies with interesting views of what might be in the future, serious movies with interesting characters doing and saying interesting things, movies that manage to appeal to my inner child, and movies that manage to tickle my funny bone. No, I haven't managed to find a movie that managed to do all of those things that I just mentioned, but I have a big pile of movies in front of my television that I have yet to watch, and a lot of time to watch all those movies, so I still have hope. Anyway, while you probably have a good idea of my tastes when it comes to movies, it's possible that you might not know what criteria I use to decide what is a successful example of a particular genre that I like. For example, what do I think makes a good action movie? Well, certainly the action has to be executed with a certain technical skill, such as filming fight scenes showing the fighters fully from head to toe, choreography that gives off the feels of swiftness and brutality, and having an editor who will make a minimum of cuts to different angles of the action. But I think another key is to have a protagonist who is not only likable, but that we see struggling through the action. If we the audience can relate to this individual on some level, we will get more involved with the protagonist's plight and we'll be more interested in what happens in the movie as a whole.

Anyway, there is one more genre that I would like to examine, one that is related to the particular movie that I'll be reviewing here. That genre is comedy, and the immediate question that comes up is: Just what makes me laugh? To tell the truth, that is a kind of hard question for me to answer, but I'll give it a shot. After a lot of soul searching, I've concluded that what makes me laugh more often than not is subject matter that I can relate to. No matter how absurd a situation in a movie may be executed, if I can relate to it on some degree, it is more likely that I will laugh. I will be pleased that the screenwriter and the director know what I have experienced, and I'll get an extra pleasure out of the movie. That explanation may not be very satisfying, I know, but it's the closest I can come to explaining what I find funny. It is certainly a lot easier to describe what I find not to be funny. For starters, probably (and hopefully) you share with me my discomfort for movies that make fun of people for their ethnic backgrounds. While there are some exceptions, like how Mel Brooks used characters' ethnic backgrounds to poke fun at racism in Blazing Saddles, most of the time when someone is made fun of because they are one of "them", I get disgusted. Another thing that I don't find funny in a lot of comedies are characters that are depicted to be utter morons. The biggest problem I have with characters like these isn't that they are stupid; it's that the actors and filmmakers think that these characters have to be utterly annoying at the same time, such as Jim Carrey in the movie Dumb And Dumber. Stupid can be funny, but shrieking personalities aren't.

There's another thing that I don't find funny with a lot of so-called comedies, and that happens to be comedies that deal with subject matter that has been beaten to death by countless other comedies beforehand. One such example is with comedies spoofing detective films. Detective films have been made fun of so many times that I really didn't want to see another one, so you might understand why when I heard about Detective School Dropouts I was very reluctant to give it a Detective School Dropoutslook, even though it was a production by one of my favorite movie studios, Cannon. But then I came across a rave review of it in one of my film reference books, and I was intrigued enough to order a DVD of it. The two principle actors in the movie, David Landsberg (Love At First Bite) and Lorin Dreyfuss (the older brother of Richard Dreyfuss) also wrote the screenplay. Landsberg plays Donald Wilson, a nerdish resident of New York City who is so obsessed with detective novels that his habit has resulted in him being fired from a number of jobs. One day, Wilson sees an ad for a detective school run by private detective Paul Miller (Dreyfuss), and Wilson decides to sign up. Although Miller is a real detective, he has fallen on hard times, and with the arrival of Wilson decides to string him along for weeks, collecting hundreds of Wilson's dollars in the process. Meanwhile in Italy, Romeo & Juliet is playing out all over again with Carlo and Catherine, two young lovers each from a different mob family, wanting to marry despite their families' feud. But the leader of a third mob family, Falcone, wants his daughter to marry Carlo so his business schemes can be strengthened, so he kidnaps Carlo's fiance while she is visiting her cousin in New York, subsequently making arrangements with the Carlo's father for a wedding between Carlo and Falcone's daughter. It doesn't take long for Wilson and Miller to stumble onto all of this, when during one of Miller's money schemes they accidentally bump into the kidnapped Catherine, who pleads for them to deliver a message to her cousin. Wilson and Miller eventually agree to do so... not knowing just how complicated things will soon get for them!

With Lorin Dreyfuss and David Landsberg writing the screenplay and acting in the movie's two principle roles, one might think that Detective School Dropouts would probably turn out to be a kind of egofest for the two of them, despite the fact that they were directed by a third party. While the two do end up being the central characters, they were careful to write their script so that other people in the movie have their own chance to shine. In the first part of the movie, some of the biggest laughs come from the actress who plays Miller's secretary, Annette Meriweather. The character has contempt for both her boss as well as Wilson, and with Meriweather's adding a p*ssed off attitude in her lines of dialogue, she is absolutely hilarious. (Incredibly, Meriweather only has to date one other acting credit to her name.) Another delightful comic surprise comes from the actor who plays Bruno, the chief henchman and hitman of mob boss Falcone. He is played by - get this - George Eastman. Yes, the Italian tough guy actor known for appearing in such hard-hitting movies as After The Fall Of New York and 1990: The Bronx Warriors gets to do a rare comedy. And he actually does pretty well with what he is given. Wisely, he doesn't try to yuk it up for the most part, instead delivering most of his lines and character actions in a straight manner. Seeing him receiving a whole bunch of injuries while he struggles to execute his boss' orders, or towering over and putting the fear in the much smaller Dreyfuss and Landsberg, he gets a respectable amount of genuine laughs, and will make you wonder why he never got that many comic roles during his acting career.

There are a number of other moments in Detective School Dropouts where Dreyfuss and Landsberg give other actors ranging from bit parts to more substantial roles the opportunity to deliver humor. Of course, the majority of the movie is indeed focused on them and their characters, but it doesn't turn into an egofest. Watching the movie, it becomes clear that both men put some serious effort in front of and behind the camera so the audience would find them and the rest of the movie funny. Take Landsberg, for example. With his balding head and sporting glasses, he does look like the stereotype of a nerdy sucker, and a lesser actor might have just depended on that to make a character. But Landsberg puts considerable energy in his role, and when his character panics or gets desperate, his blurting out or fighting back generates a number of honest laughs. Dreyfuss, on the other hand, often gives a low energy to his performance. While that may not sound funny, with the snappy lines of the screenplay his character is given, the casual sound of his voice as he makes a remark is quite often hilarious to hear. And whenever the two men are paired up in a scene - which is quite often - the two of them generate some great chemistry. To be honest, after watching the movie I can't imagine any other comic team other than Landsberg and Dreyfuss being in these roles. Even when the two get into some sort of conflict with each other - which is often - at the same time you get a sense that the two of them realize that they are stuck with each other for better or for worse. Great comedy is often realized with pairing different and disagreeing personalities together, and these two conflicting characters definitely generate this.

Dreyfuss and Landsberg in their screenplay manage to deliver a great deal of different kinds of comedy. There is slapstick, such as the opening montage showing different jobs Wilson's bumbling gets him fired from. There are also sight gags, ranging from the heroes dressing up as monks or when Wilson's shirt shows the outline of a dog due to Miller spray-painting a dog while Wilson holds it. Mostly, though, the movie puts it focus on the various conversations between the clumsy but good-hearted Wilson and the always scheming Miller. As I said, when the two of them are together the movie is more often than not quite funny. It's a bit odd that not long after the two have flown to Rome, the movie spits them apart for a lengthy portion, and the comedy kind of dies until the two of them are reunited. There are also a couple of surprisingly violent sequences in the movie (a drive-by shooting, someone being bloodily shot in the forehead) that leave kind of a bad taste that takes a while each time to disappear. The last twenty minutes are also kind of flat, with most of this portion of the movie devoted to chase sequences around the city of Pisa, which will strike most viewers as a desperate way for the screenplay to be padded out to an hour and a half. There is one other screenplay problem that bothered me. For a movie about detectives, there is surprisingly very little detective work the characters of Wilson and Miller engage in as they get involved with the mob feud. It wouldn't have taken much effort to make these characters have some other occupation. Clearly, the screenplay for Detective School Dropouts isn't perfect. But when the movie is funny, it's often very funny, and there are more than enough laughs here to make it worth a look.

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See also: Crime Busters, Hollywood Harry, Surrender

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