No. 26: Easy Money

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

As we close out the first half of our Top 50 countdown, we arrive at a comedy star vehicle for one of the quintessential figures of 1980s comedy, Rodney Dangerfield. After rising to prominence as a sort of throwback vaudevillian stand-up, Dangerfield brought his game to the silver screen with a now-legendary guest starring role in Caddyshack in 1980. Dangerfield made such a splash in the role that studios became eager to give him his own starring roles and Easy Money was the first of those star vehicles.

As a movie, Easy Money certainly feels like a sloppy first attempt at making a “Rodney Dangerfield movie” but that’s not to say it doesn’t provide a great showcase of Dangerfield’s oddly infectious comedic persona to shine. I can’t really explain what appeals to me about Rodney Dangerfield. He’s certainly a bit of a one-note performer, as is the case with a lot of comedic actors. The “no respect” thing gets played up a lot today but that was really a feature of his stand-up material and didn’t usually find its way into his film roles. The movie version of Dangerfield was a unique cross between arrogant insult comic and charmingly humble self-awareness in the vein of someone like Woody Allen. The result is a character who has the anarchic appeal of the Marx Brothers while maintaining the gentle likability of Chaplin, a marriage of the two basic archetypes of American film comedy.

If Rodney Dangerfield came to prominence today, he would probably have found his way into about five movies in the span of three years, American audiences would burn out on him and that would be that. It’s the way the comedy cycle works in 2010.

Instead, Dangerfield’s movies were few and far between in the ’80s. Easy Money was released three full years after Caddyshack and Dangerfield’s next movie (and most successful of his career) Back to School came out another three years after that. The lack of exposure gave audiences just enough to remain interested but never so much that they became tired of his schtick.

The plot of the movie, though it’s not very strictly adhered to, revolves around Dangerfield’s character Monty being forced to give up all the vices he loves (smoking, drinking, gambling, drugs and unhealthy eating) in order to inherit his deceased mother-in-law’s $10 million department store. It’s a fairly typical setup formula but as I said, the film really doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on this little “bet” but rather on following Monty around as he deals with a number of small episodes from his daughter marrying an amorous Puerto Rican to his regular gigs as a baby photographer.

Sadly, the best comedic pairing for Dangerfield in the film, Geraldine Fitzgerald as the mother-in-law, only sees a small amount of screen time but their scenes together are classic Rodney Dangerfield (“You’re the reason they invented twin beds!”)

Along with the natural likability of Dangerfield, we are treated to a great performance from a young Joe Pesci. Playing Dangerfield’s best friend Nicky, Pesci is every bit of the stereotypical high-voiced, smart-mouthed Italian character he is so well known for but like Dangerfield, Pesci takes that one note and plays it to perfection. We’ve seen him play the darker sides of that character in Scorese films but here he plays strictly the comedic side of the character and he’s the perfect scheming foil to the bumbling incompetence of Dangerfield’s character.

Also worth mentioning are Jeffrey Jones (better known as Mr. Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) who does a great turn as a slimy villain trying to torture Dangerfield into picking up his old habits so that he himself can win the inheritance, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dangerfield’s daughter who for some reason despite looking about 16 is getting married to a sleazy ruffian.

Also, another great 1983 movie music moment: the opening sequence (along with the closing credits) features a title song by Billy Joel. The song is taken from Joel’s massive hit album An Innocent Man, released a week before the film. It’s unclear whether the song was written for the film (unlikely, since it’s meant to be a James Brown homage fitting into the homage theme of the album as a whole) or if the film took its name from the song or if it’s all just one big happy coincidence. Either way, it’s a fun tune to open and close the movie with.

Next Up: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller share the directing duties on The Twilight Zone: The Movie.