Back in the 90s, if you were looking for a road trip movie full of juvenile toilet humor and slapstick comedy then you would never be far away from a Farrelly Brothers movie. After paving the way with Dumb and Dumber, their second feature film, Kingpin, made sure the world of ten pin bowling was never seen in quite the same light again. The Farrellys had a way of tapping into the raucous comedies of the '80s and combining the most outrageous parts of them together, before cranking everything up to eleven. As Kingpin reaches its 25th anniversary, was the movie worthy of its low ratings and box office return, or was it an under-appreciated, if slightly smeared, gem.
Kingpin tells the story of Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), a pro-bowler who after winning a contest against the somewhat deranged Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) ends up losing his hand and being forced to end his career. Flashfoward seventeen years, and Roy is a balding, out of shape unsuccessful salesman, who has very little going for him. When not being forced into sexual favors by his landlady to help pay his rent, Munson manages to stumble across Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid), who he sees as a potential bowling champ and his ticket back to the big time as his coach.
Their adventures in bowling and hustling lead them to the inevitable showdown with McCracken, but when Ishmael breaks his hand trying to punch Munson's adversary, Munson must face McCracken in a showdown for a $1 million prize, and it ends with McCracken winning by a single pin. In the aftermath, Munson decides to turn his life around, receives a sizable amount of money from his would-be girlfriend, McCracken is given payback off screen, and in general, it's a happy ending for all.
On its release, Kingpin certainly had its fans but compared to Dumb and Dumber's huge $247 million haul it made a measly $32 million, barely breaking even. Similarly, the critics mauled the movie for being "vulgar and mean-spirited" and it still now only has a 50% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, it is not all as glum for the movie as it sounds, as in recent years it has found more fans and plaudits than you would expect.
As well as being included on a number of "most underrated movies of the 1990s" lists, Kingpin also landed in Bravo's 100 Funniest Films list at number 68, and in 2018 Vulture.com put the movie as Woody Harrelson's second best film. The biggest puzzlement about the movie is how it did quite so bad at the box office. Considering the performance of Dumb and Dumber, and the even better gross of There's Something About Mary, Kingpin should have at least broken the $100 million mark but perhaps without the comedy pull of someone like Jim Carey or Ben Stiller, even a stellar secondary turn by Bill Murray wasn't enough to draw in the crowds.
Despite starting out in Cheers, Harrelson was not really known for his comedy roles, but his almost straight-man performance in Kingpin really deserves more praise than it gets, and is actually a worthy predecessor to his more recent horror comedy Zombieland, which also starred a great turn by Bill Murray. There was a certain comedic timing to his performance that made the ridiculousness of the events going on around him work in a way that an actor better known for comedy would have possibly overplayed. Supported by Randy Quaid's overly innocent Ishmael, Vanessa Angel in the role of his love interest, and Bill Murray's manic McCracken, Harrelson's Munson is someone that it is easy to root for and the movie itself is one that will likely continue to be referenced in relation to the 90s, as the likes of Porky's and Caddyshack are in the 80s.