by Aaron Riccio
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Trying to write a summary of a good farce can easily take over a thousand words. Thing is, Funny Money is a good farce. And I don’t have a thousand words. So here’s the plot: risk-averse wax fruit salesman (“odd”-jective, wacky job) accidentally switches briefcases with a Russian Mafioso (affectionately called Mr. Nasty) and winds up with $5,000,000. A food-obsessed corrupt cop (see the pattern?) shows up to blackmail the salesman, whom he believes was soliciting sexual favors in a bathroom. See how complicated it’s getting? Folks, we haven’t even reached the end of Act I.
(Sing this next part to “On the Twelfth Night of Christmas,” in a jolly and frivolous way, for that’s what farce is.) In one crazy, hectic night, a briefcase filled with money brought: a million different stories, sight gags a plenty, briefcase full of sex toys, absolutely no shame, another cop (a newbie), stand-up comic cabbie, drunken manic lover—A NAKED MAN WITH A HARD-ON—three stupid Russians, two good friends, and a plot that never slows down. Phew.
As hard was writing farce must be—between keeping all the stories straight (until the inevitable breakdown) and keeping the momentum fast-paced, yet original —the actors are the ones who have to make the whole thing seem at least somewhat plausible. Chevy Chase is a natural for stammering, reversal-laden dialogue…he’s an endearingly comic figure. Shtick, sure: but it doesn’t keep him from being funny. Of course, all those pivots only look easy because he’s got excellent backup, like Penelope Ann Miller, who is no stranger to the world of lampoon (and we’re talking classic Lampoon: Funny Money is years ahead [or behind] of Lampoon today). You have to be a good dramatic actor to be a good comic actor: that’s what lets you distort. And if all of Miller’s eclectic life experience only comes to this, a brilliantly decadent portrayal of a nervy, repressed housewife with about twenty drinks too many in her (more is always better in farce), it’s a good mark to leave behind. And Christopher McDonald is always a pleasure to see on the screen—he’s very much like the Christopher Reeve of Noises Off (which is to say that he’s literally made for parody, in the best of ways). I could keep on mentioning actors—Alex Meneses, for example—but since a farce is ensemble-based, congratulations to the cast, especially Armand Assante, the tough cop, and Kevin Sussman, the scared cop, who are at the pinnacle of their very narrow careers.
Congratulations, too, to director/producer Leslie Greif, who has finally realized his dream of adapting the play he saw eight years ago. This should be a lesson to all stylized directors: sometimes it helps to have something bottled up inside, saturating until it explodes in an orgy of all the things you loved about comedy in the first place. Then, even if some of your jokes don’t go over so well, you’ve thrown in so many that we’re bound to forget the rough edges and just dive for the irrepressibly buoyant center.
Funny Money is comedy at its simplest, most entertaining value, and whether as tribute to the classics of the past (like The Pink Panther or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) or an “about-time!” return to the future, you will laugh, titter, guffaw, and chuckle.
Aaron Riccio is a film critic and writer living in New York.
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