In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
When you’ve chosen to comically condemn the mostly masturbatory mechanics of U.S. male pride, why not do it after drenching your characters in gallons of elephant semen? So goes a memorable moment from the finale of 2001’s gleefully deranged Freddy Got Fingered, both a bodily fluid-soaked exegesis of America’s at-any-cost standard for success and a test to see if director, star and co-writer Tom Green could spend the $14 million budget before someone pulled the plug. (Judging by the final 15 minutes, Green did it — cramming in a helicopter, lasers, night-vision effects, stunts with a runaway truck and a falling house, and a prosthetic pachyderm penis. At some point he also blew up something, evidenced by a credit-outtakes explosion that’s absent from the film itself.)
If young people today know MTV at all, it’s as the channel that regularly airs 83 consecutive episodes of Ridiculousness. Twenty-odd years ago, Green was the toast of this network’s non-music programming — a Canadian transplant whose caustic real-world cringe comedy knew neither envelope nor equal at the time. Green sucked on cow udders. He threw dolls at passing cars. He fashioned an entire episode around his supposedly singular achievement of swimming a lake that people cross all the time. Sometimes Green was genuinely kind, as in a “People Helpers” sketch where he assisted wheelchair users. But as pop-culture boogeymen go, The Tom Green Show (it’s not The Green Tom Show) proved a worthy successor to MTV’s Beavis & Butt-head as a red alert for overly concerned parents. After all, no mom or dad wanted their kids to target them as Tom regularly did Mary Jane and Richard Green.
Citing his dad’s love for The Godfather, Tom deposited a cow’s head in their bed. He had lascivious lesbian artwork airbrushed onto their car. In an interview to honor their 30th anniversary, Green pivoted into raw questions about their sex life. Among his more jaw-dropping stunts: He erected a statue in their yard to commemorate their relationship … titled “Where’s My Dinner, Bitch?” When not tormenting his parents, Green goaded his best friend, Glenn Humplik, corralled unsuspecting passers-by into surreal comedy, and even recorded a nonsensical song called “Lonely Swedish (The Bum Bum Song)” that was later immortalized by Eminem in “The Real Slim Shady” and whose music video hit #1 on Total Request Live (again, from the quaint days when MTV still aired such things).
Much like Sacha Baron Cohen with his Ali G, Borat and Bruno characters, Green’s ubiquity eventually undermined his ability to get the drop on everyday folks. In March 2000, after just 14 months on MTV, Green ceased production on new episodes of The Tom Green Show when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. A one-hour special about his treatment, complete with graphic footage of his lymph node surgery, aired on MTV later that year to critical acclaim (and makes a brief appearance on a TV in Freddy Got Fingered). Several months later, Jackass debuted on MTV to mine much of the same material — namely Bam Margera’s haranguing of dad Phil and mom April — alongside even more outlandish stunts. Indeed, Green has also proven a progenitor for such provocations, whether placid or pointed, of Tim and Eric, Nathan Fielder, Tim Robinson, Eric André, Vernon Chatman, John Lee and all sorts of Adult Swimmers to cannonball in after him.
Following Green’s 2003 guest-host stint on Late Show with David Letterman, MTV briefly resurrected Green’s program as more of a late-night talk show. But it was swiftly axed after abysmal ratings, and Green retreated to a featured-player gig on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and an eventual mixture of podcasts, internet series, rap recordings and stand-up comedy.
Amid Green’s heyday were a handful of film appearances, including 2000’s Road Trip (in which he puts a mouse in his mouth) and Charlie’s Angels; the latter was at the suggestion of co-star Drew Barrymore, who enjoyed Green’s work and became his fiancée in mid-2000, his wife in July 2001 and his ex-wife in December 2001.
And then … there’s the R-rated Freddy Got Fingered, so legendarily derided upon its release with worst-studio-movie-ever excoriations from CNN, a “negative-one” star designation created solely for the Toronto Star’s write-up, and a zero-star review from Roger Ebert in which he wrote: “The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.” The film also won five of eight Golden Raspberry Awards for which it was nominated in 2001. Yes, Green rolled up with a white Cadillac and a red carpet to collect his trophies. Yes, he had to be dragged offstage because he refused to (badly) stop playing a harmonica during his speech. The Razzies have always been pretty stupid. Bravo to Green for acknowledging it well before most folks.
Unsurprisingly, Freddy Got Fingered was also a box-office bomb with a gross barely nudging above that $14 million budget. Green suspects underage fans bought tickets to Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, which opened the same weekend, and sneaked into his film. There are certainly more depressing reasons why a third Crocodile Dundee film would make $25 million.
Green’s purposefully alienating and aggressively absurdist explosion of occupational and generational anxiety in Freddy Got Fingered is not just not for everyone. It’s barely for anyone. For the uninitiated wondering what the hell its title even means, well … it refers to a false accusation that 28-year-old manchild Gord Brody (Green) makes about an act that his father, Jim (Rip Torn), has performed on his younger brother, Freddy (Eddie Kaye Thomas).
Freddy Got Fingered takes postmodern potshots at the puerile posturing of Pauly Shore movies. It also resembles a more unhinged, and thus more realistic, What About Bob? It certainly propels the entire comedy subgenre of escalated petty grievances to a natural point of evisceration, and with all of the attendant gushing blood. Hollywood would, of course, again stitch the idea together into something safer. Two years later, Anger Management sanded off the idea’s edges and scored a huge hit for Adam Sandler. A few months earlier, Green had taken a supporting role in the generic-dreck comedy Stealing Harvard, which prompted Ebert to revisit his thoughts … somewhat: “(The) thing is, I remember Freddy Got Fingered more than a year later. I refer to it sometimes. It is a milestone. And for all its sins, it was at least an ambitious movie, a go-for-broke attempt to accomplish something. It failed, but it has not left me convinced that Tom Green doesn’t have good work in him. Anyone with his nerve and total lack of taste is sooner or later going to make a movie worth seeing.”
For those willing to strap in and hang on, Freddy Got Fingered is worth seeing. In its own moose-gutting, baby-twirling and cheese-stacking way, it is actually about something. It’s also very much a vehicle for whatever woolly perversions of decorum made Green and company laugh at the time. The memory of patron after patron clambering for exits on opening night is vivid. It began as Green screamed at a stud horse’s semen-dewed penis, escalated when he licked a broken bone popping through his friend’s leg skin, and culminated in mass exodus as he chewed off a baby’s umbilical cord with his teeth. Would they have stayed if they knew a child walked into an airplane propeller at the end? Maybe. (Amusingly, there is a PG-rated version on the DVD that runs for about three minutes as well as an alternate audio track of an opening-night audience’s responses to its rowdiest moments.)
All of this is a humorous horror show spilling forth from the harried mind of Green’s Gord Brody, who could really make something of his animation if he could only just string together a single coherent gag, character or pitch. Regardless, Gord is finally moving out of his parents’ house, much to the delight of Jim, Freddy and his mother, Julie (Julie Hagerty). He’ll work at a cheese-sandwich factory in Los Angeles and try to sell his drawings on the side.
Gord screams at horse hogs on the highway, dresses as an English bobby to ambush an animation executive (Anthony Michael Hall) with his terrible ideas, and literalizes that executive’s advice to “get inside the animals” he draws by crawling inside roadkill to the tune of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” and being struck by a tractor-trailer. About the only thing Gord doesn’t do is sell his drawings, so he comes skulking back home where he finds romance with a sadomasochistic, fellatio-obsessed wheelchair-using nurse named Betty (Marisa Coughlan) but not a job. At least Betty inspires Gord to pursue a method to simultaneously eat, play music and draw, and he’s finally mastered his backwards-man getup.
Meanwhile, Gord’s return pushes Jim over the edge, and he becomes increasingly unable to rein in his rage about his eldest son’s stumblebum existence. But Jim’s antagonism is somehow strangely invigorating to Gord, and Jim discovers a newfound, and dangerously hair-trigger, sense of purpose in his disdain for Gord. Their feedback loop of fury unleashed results in the aforementioned accusation and a full-blown swan-dive into third-act absurdism that folds together Gord’s realization of his dream and his financial ruination.
There are obvious parallels here to Green’s real-life creative peccadilloes and the projections of his own parental antagonism and anxieties. But Freddy Got Fingered uses its immersion into Gord’s infantilism to advance that borderline-insane feeling of insecurity that can take hold when initiatives pay off neither to your satisfaction nor (worse yet) the satisfaction of those who’ve held out hope for you for so long. Amid a flagrant disregard for cinematic formality or comfort, there’s a forceful excavation of the anxiety in not living up to potential. What happens here could just as easily represent Gord and Jim’s respective psychotic breaks as they could outlandish comic setpieces.
What most people find to be a merely loathsome movie instead attacks a loathsome approach to a life that’s all grim resentment and games of retaliation. Sure, Freddy Got Fingered is exaggerated nonsense. But it wrangles dark and significant laughs from the perils of existential nihilism, following your presumptions about the worst of people and indulging the darkest corners of your own vengeful mind. Consider, too, the character of Andy Malloy (Connor Widdows), a young neighbor to Gord whose innocent exuberance is met at every turn with some bloody act of wanton violence — like a baseball to the face that leaves Andy’s teeth dangling from his gums. Whenever Andy gets excited about something, he is quite literally beaten down, and it’s hard not to feel like Green is chastising the impetus to attack and tear down someone’s happiness or motivations that we will never truly understand. Another locus is Gord’s embrace of the beratement espoused by the proud and powerful in American life, which makes you wonder about all the things he must have heard in the hallways as he pitched The Tom Green Show for years. Meanwhile, a scene at another cheese sandwich business sends up the banality of most people’s everyday grievances and how the worst among us treat service-industry workers like sin eaters for our own hangups.
Plus, you can thank whatever deity you think most loves sausages for the great Rip Torn. Everybody loves, and quotes, the late character actor’s appearance as Patches O’Houlihan from Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, which is all well and good. That role and movie are fun. But Torn’s turn as Jim here is a torpedo-damning delight that illustrates an actor’s confidence in his director even if he doesn’t quite understand where he’s going. (Jerry Stiller and Gene Wilder were apparently offered the role but turned it down because they found the script too offensive.)
MFJ colleague Mitch Ringenberg has called Torn’s performance here “fearless,” and that’s no hyperbole. How else to explain Torn’s brio as he drops trou for an extended bit that leads to yet another awful misunderstanding (as well as the greatest-ever cameo that a certain athlete-turned-actor has ever had)? Torn creates a hoot-and-holler hullabaloo of harassment you simply can’t imagine from anyone else. And while Torn pulls out more stops than his co-stars, Freddy Got Fingered would easily and quickly collapse without complete commitment from all involved. Hall, Hagerty, Thomas, Widdows and Coughlan all have terrific moments as well.
Perhaps unexpectedly or even sometimes accidentally, Freddy Got Fingered mixes sophisticated themes with sheer comic insanity and career-ruining confidence across its often gaspingly hilarious 87 minutes. Thanks to this film’s fate, such projects are rarely handed over to zeitgeist comedians any longer; even if they are, as with Amy Schumer or Pete Davidson, they tend to be neutered by the involvement of Judd Apatow. But for those who love Freddy Got Fingered, this will forever be an eternally commendable expenditure of 20th Century Fox’s money, now with the added relish that it’s owned by Disney. Twenty years later, it’s a magnum opus about the malaise of misanthropy that, depending on your thoughts, has either lingered like a fart or aged like soap-on-a-rope treasure.