From the Vault #1: DROP DEAD FRED (1991)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from June 9th, 2014, both my 32nd birthday and the day Rik Mayall passed away…

One of Working Title’s earliest hits outside of the UK was Drop Dead Fred, a movie that has slipped into cult obscurity as something of an unusual comic curio, chiefly thanks to the presence of the late Rik Mayall, who brings his finely honed sense of anarchic British comedy to what is otherwise a redoubtably American production. 

Ate de Jong’s subsequent film is quite an odd beast when you boil it down, never quite successfully gelling on the one hand a quite zany, quite base, scatological, childish broad comedy, yet on the other a surprisingly psychological drama around Phoebe Cates’ girl who never truly grew up. It never quite knows what angle it wants to push more, so aims for both with equal veracity and it’s fair to say only Mayall makes it in any way worth the surprisingly baggy experience despite the fairly tight running time.

The crucial problem of course is that for a comedy, it’s not really very funny. You can guarantee a few laughs when Mayall’s titular Fred turns up–which thankfully is pretty regular once the wheels of plot start rolling–but de Jong’s script trades purely off Mayall’s schoolboy silliness that while always effective given the actor, feels very much at odds with what else the script is trying to do.

Cates’ Elizabeth is a cowed young woman, unable to escape the spectre of her childhood imaginary friend or her overbearing mother Marsha Mason, while being courted by wet lettuce Ron Eldard & lusting after slimy Tim Matheson–and going to Carrie Fisher for advice, in a role that you may struggle to understand the point of. Only really Mason comes out with any semblance of a rounded character, and that’s not until the very end – the rest of the time Cates bounces between these people while looking eternally both exasperated & charmed by Fred’s antics, as de Jong flashes us back to her childhood to further flesh out why – yet it all just feels built around Mayall throwing a mud pie in someone’s face or perving up Bridget Fonda’s skirt, when in reality to truly connect it needed something more, something deeper. 

Oddly enough at times you sense it might be there – the script hints at deeper psychological issues, there are some inventive concepts such as the collection of imaginary friends in the therapists’ surgery, and it’s quite interesting how we never quite know what Fred exactly is or where he comes from, despite being tethered by ‘rules’ linked to Elizabeth & a curiously trippy climactic sequence where he brings her into ‘his world’ that really seems a jump for the otherwise quite laboured script to make in order to help Elizabeth reach a point of catharsis – which is of course the point. Along the way though, you just won’t be laughing enough & while Mayall gives it his all, nothing here comes close to reflecting the best material he’s had to work with.

The sad fact is that Drop Dead Fred may be the film Rik Mayall is best remembered for, and indeed is often remembered as being far better than it actually is. Ate de Jong’s movie wants to be a surrealist inversion of the little girl lost premise, throwing in a Loki-esque trickster with a hint of adult edge, but he never dares to go edgy or base or tricky enough to get the piece out of first gear, or go for the laughter jugular; it feels oddly safe, at times too sweet even, and follows a formula that is already quite well tread, with the odd flash of a more interesting movie not capitalised on. 

You may want to like Drop Dead Fred for Mayall alone but while he gives a spirited performance that provides the only source of mirth, it’s quite beneath him & doesn’t stand as a fitting leading-man epitaph for one of Britain’s finest comedians.

Rik Mayall – 1958-2014 – RIP

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