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Working Tra$h
(1990)

Director: Alan Metter
Cast:
George Carlin, Ben Stiller, Buddy Ebsen


As I hope I've been able to illustrate many, many times on this movie review web site, movies can be a lot of fun to watch. Also, the making of movies can be a lot of fun to read about. But I've found out from plenty of movie books over the years that the making of movies is more often than not all that fun. It is almost always a lot of hard work, whether you are a lowly extra or one of the biggest directors in Hollywood. This is true whatever the genre of the movie being made is, and that includes the comedy. Though a finished comedy may feel breezy and hilarious to the audience, more likely than not a lot of sweat and broken backs happened to make the movie. One of the most important ingredients in a comedy happens to be the characters in the movie, specifically the up and front players. The filmmakers have to decide if they want one prime player, or more than one prime player milking various laughs out of the situation dictated by the script and the director. If the production decides to go with one prime player - like countless other comedies have done over the decades - the question comes up as to what kind of personality the solo character will have in the movie. There are several possible routes, all of which have been used countless times over the years. One of these is that of a relatively straight man, reacting to absurd situations in ways that most people in the audience would react to in their lives. Another possible character type would be for the lead character to be a goofball of sorts, such as what actor Jim Carrey did in the Ace Ventura movies. A third possible route to take would be to make the character a lovable loser of sorts that eventually wins in the end, something that comedians like Buster Keaton did in their film careers.

Although such solo comic characters as those I just mentioned still can work with modern day audiences as well as those decades ago, I do have to admit that more care has to be made nowadays since modern audiences have almost seen it all. So it's no wonder why many filmmakers decide to jazz things up by having more than one prime comic character in a movie. This can be taken to extremes; for example, there was the classic comedy It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which had a large amount of characters all trying to reach the same goal. Though with movie production costs higher than ever, such a cast of well-known players seems out of reach for most modern filmmakers; when they do try, they get something like Million Dollar Mystery. But there is a compromise modern filmmakers can use, something that has proved very successful over the decades, and that is to have two comic characters paired up in the same movie. Think about it for a little, and you'll come up with various famous comic pair-ups over the years, from Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy to Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Sure, filmmakers may have to pay extra for another star and worry about things like who gets top billing, but there are definite advantages to having a comic pair up and center over just one performer. For one thing, you can mix two different personalities together; a straight man can be paired up with a goofball. And when you mix two different personalities together, you get conflict. And when you get that conflict, you have a good chance of making some extremely funny comic situations.

I have to confess that I like to watch the pairing up of two different comic personalities for more than one reason. The most obvious reason is that it more often than not promises some laughs. But another reason is for assurance. More often than not the two different personalities have to Working Tra$hstruggle together to get to a goal, and more often than not they reach that goal. If these people can work together to get to a goal, it promises that this goofy guy writing this review can work with others in real life to get to a goal. So I'm always up for a good comic teaming, and that explains why when I found a copy of Working Tra$h, I thought I might have something on my hands. Especially since the comic duo was made by two people - George Carlin and Ben Stiller - who have proved to be funny in solo projects. Though I must admit that in the back of my mind I wondered why this teaming up of two great comic talents had drifted into obscurity - a clue that the movie might not be very good. But I still decided to give it a spin in my DVD player. Stiller (The Suburbans) plays a New Yorker by the name of Freddy Novak, a young man with a love of the stock market who has dreams of being hired by some top brokerage firm on Wall Street. But because of his utter lack of actual experience, no firm will hire him. Eventually he is hired by one firm, but not as a stockbroker - as a janitor. To make matters worse, he finds out that the chief custodian of the building, a gentleman by the name of Ralph (Carlin, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure), has been stuck in this position for more than two decades. Some time later, Freddy and Ralph are cleaning up the building, and they discover some confidential paperwork that indicates that one particular stock is about to bring great rewards to its stockholders. Ralph, who is in debt to some loansharks, convinces Freddy to ignore any realization of insider trading and join him in investing in this stock. They do indeed get rewarded by their investment, and subsequently start making more and more money from further investments. But can their good fortune last?

Working Tra$h doesn't just have Ben Stiller and George Carlin among its prominent and well known cast members. The cast also includes Buddy Ebsen (The Beverly Hillbillies), Michael J. Pollard (The Art Of Dying and Sunday In The Country), and Dan Castellaneta (The Simpsons). As you probably know, all three of these actors have shown a considerable amount of comic talent in other projects over the years, so you may be curious as to how they come across in this particular comedy. Well, of those three actors, Ebsen comes across the best. His role is more or less an extended cameo, making a few short appearances throughout the movie. But he makes the most of his appearances; he comes across as a warm and likable figure, giving advice and encouragement to Stiller's character at key moments. His character is also written to be a little senile, leading to some odd and eccentric behavior that does make for some genuine lightly amusing moments. As for Pollard and Castellaneta, however, both of these actors are pretty much wasted. Pollard comes across the worst. We learn pretty much nothing about his character other than the fact he runs a shoe shine business in the lobby of the brokerage building. And in the little footage he has, he gives a performance that comes across as being cowed, as if he can't muster up the enthusiasm to give one of his trademark weird performances. Castellaneta, on the other hand, does start off with promise with his first scene, where he interviews Stiller's character. In that scene, Castellaneta barely veils his sarcasm and contempt towards Stiller in an amusing fashion, resulting in what seems to be a great introduction to what will be the movie's chief comic villain. While his character does turn out to be one of the movie's chief bad guys, surprisingly he doesn't appear in much of the remaining part of the movie. As a result, you can see Castellaneta struggle to make a character as well as some laughs, but with so few scenes to work with, he doesn't stand a chance.

As for the rest of the supporting cast, one actress does manage to stand out, and that is Leslie Hope, who plays the movie's love interest to Stiller's character. The role is not really all that comic - it's written to be mostly straight - but Hope gives it enough enthusiasm so that the character comes across as extremely likable. She also manages to hold her own whenever she is paired up with Carlin and/or Stiller. Though there are certainly times when it seems that's possible because Carlin and Stiller are not giving it their all. I'll start by looking at these two actors when they are separate from each other. When alone, Carlin often gives the impression that he's not very happy with the material that was given to him. He sometimes puts an "nyah" in his tone of voice that seems to express this dissatisfaction, and sometimes looking at his face you can almost seem to sense agony. Stiller, on the other hand, seems a bit befuddled when he is not paired up with Carlin, as if he isn't totally confident as to how he should perform. Sometimes his character comes across as a klutz, sometimes he seems confident in his words. It's very inconsistent and distracting. However, things do improve considerably when Stiller is paired up with Carlin in a scene - for both actors. Both actors despite their differences in age and acting styles do seem to be comfortable with each other. And when they are talking to each other about matters that are pretty serious in nature, there is some genuine chemistry brewed up; you really believe these characters' concerns and schemes. This movie is proof for the long held theory that comic actors can also handle serious moments, like John Candy and Jim Carrey managed to do in their careers.

"But," you are probably asking, "what about when it comes to Carlin and Stiller delivering laughs?" Unfortunately, despite Carlin and Stiller being talented funnymen, their dissatisfaction when separated also extends to when they are together. And the blame for this is probably due to the inadequate script. The script for Working Tra$h simply isn't very funny. Thinking about it, I think one reason why it isn't funny is that the three credited screenwriters had a mostly simple-minded viewpoint on what is a smart business - the stock market. There's simply no room for characters stumbling and falling down, or other extreme goofball behavior. I think another reason why the screenplay isn't very funny is that the stock market business doesn't seem ripe with comic material. As it turns out, there are big chunks of the movie where there is little to no comic material or tone and the movie is instead pretty serious in nature. This may explain as to why there is also a real feeling of low energy throughout, even during the climax when the protagonists have to do some desperate things to try to avoid jail time. Director Alan Metter (Police Academy: Mission To Moscow) has to share a good part of the blame for that as well, as also for the often cheap and slipshod nature of the movie, ranging from trying to pass Los Angeles locations as New York City locations, to a crewman's elbow prominently sticking out from the side of the screen in one shot. While I wouldn't call Working Tra$h "trash" - I admit that I was never really bored despite the movie being almost totally free of laughs and energy - I also have to admit that I didn't think the movie was working very well throughout my viewing of it.

(Posted July 29, 2019)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: The In-Laws, Love At First Sight, Watch Out, We're Mad

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