Discover more from Matt Levy's Comedy Stray Notes
Critics didn’t understand A Night at the Roxbury
A BONUS EMAIL
Of all the movie review aggregate sites, we as a society, give the tacky yet pioneering Rotten Tomatoes more weight than any other on the internet. It feels democratic. If your movie earns a positive review, it’s deemed “Fresh.” If it scores a “Rotten” tag, the critic clearly didn’t like what they saw. As a movie buff myself, I trust it. Anything over 80% is a must see, anything between 50%-80% is most likely interesting and anything from 30%-50% is mixed enough that it may be halfway decent. Anything under 30% though? Probably not great. The pros are rarely wrong with a universal, negative consensus. However, they all got it wrong in 1998 when Paramount Pictures released the misunderstood classic A Night at the Roxbury.
You’ve probably heard of or seen director John Fortenberry’s film (yes, I called it a film). You’re probably like, “Ugh, those head bobbing guys? You’re defending them?” You’re damn right I am. Roxbury may be a blip on Will Ferrell’s prolific, comedic resume and a highlight on co-star Chris Kattan’s but the film has stood the test of time and critics were unfairly out to get this sly Saturday Night Fever parody in 1998. Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “The lame-o aspects of the whole campy setup are still lame-o.” Sight and Sound’s Danny Leigh panned, “Profoundly unfunny.” Best of all, Eric Lurio of the Greenwich Village Gazette simply said, “Crap!!!”
My take is that Roxbury’s story is simple, yet elegant. The Butabi brothers (Ferrell and Kattan) dream of leaving their father’s (Dan Hedaya) plant shop and mansion they live in well into their late 20s to follow their dreams of opening their own nightclub where they can meet hotties. Yes, that may sound a bit gross and misogynistic. However, these two are so innocent, they don’t even know what to do once women actually show interest in them. In one of the film’s best understated moments, Ferrell’s character offers models in an endless line for a nightclub a handful of Goldfish. It’s a sweet, unexpected comic moment. How could a critic hate something so innocent and chock full of human moments just like this? Well, I have three theories.
First, I believe critics wrote this film off because it’s an “SNL movie.” After the colossal box office and critical success of 1992’s Wayne’s World (78% on Rotten Tomatoes), Lorne Michaels and co. greenlit any breakout sketch for feature film adaptation that he could. To say, the returns were diminishing would be an understatement. Following the smash Wayne’s World, there was Coneheads (35% on Rotten Tomatoes) which came about 15 years too late and didn’t make the splash that the Mike Myers’ starrer did. Next was Wayne’s World 2 (60%). Critics were starting to get tired of the formula. This exhaustion peaked with the reviled gender bending It’s Pat which rightly sits at 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Following Pat was Al Franken’s Stuart Saves His Family which sits at 30% on the Tomatometer. Then, in 1998, the SNL production team released Blues Brothers 2000 (with John Goodman replacing John Belushi) scoring a 46%, and then finally our beloved A Night at the Roxbury.
At this point, fatigue had set in. Critics had seen the sketch to film formula churned out on a nearly annual basis for six consecutive years (not to mention the crop of films starring Chris Farley, David Spade and Adam Sandler being released concurrently) and were over it. They didn’t have the patience for another SNL movie. One must imagine they already had their reviews written in their head before they even sat down for the film. They would intentionally call it a “skit dragged out for 80 minutes” and collect a paycheck. By doing this, they missed the film’s profound love story between siblings who have “been there for each other all seven years of high school.” They miss the non sequiturs like Ferrell’s character yelling to a limo driver, “Tell your Dad I had fun last night! I mean your sister!” They miss the all-out, unabashed fun this film is.
My second major theory for why the film received so many negative reviews was that critics didn’t understand that the film was intentionally dumb. One can view A Night at the Roxbury and view it as surface level idocy like Sandra Contreras at TV Guide did writing, “ In addition to being painfully stupid, the Butabis personify a tacky, nouveau riche San Fernando Valley aesthetic.” However, these characters’ brand of “painfully stupid” is simply not just stupid. It’s a cocktail of naivete, sheltered, privileged ignorance and blind, unearned confidence. This “smart comedy about doofuses” trope would come to define the most popular comedies of the next decade with Ferrell’s magnum opus Anchorman, Ben Stiller’s Zoolander and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. Rather than viewing these characters from the lens that the creative team was giving them dimension they were simply written off as “painfully stupid” from the get-go. The film never stood a chance.
Finally, movie reviewers most likely felt better about themselves ripping this movie a new one. I can’t imagine a critic would be touted in their circles as having “offbeat taste” for appreciating Chazz Palminteri’s character repeatedly asking his assistant if he just “grabbed his ass.” In order to maintain a certain level of respect, they had to write “these guys are meant to be monosyllabic, two-dimensional cutouts. Forcing them to live longer than five minutes is too painful to watch” as John McEwen did in Film Quips Online. It was a chorus of holier than thou pans that fateful week of the film’s release. Sure, there were the brave 11% that bucked the trend and gave the film the “fresh” review but 89% simply did not have the foresight to see this movie for what it really was: a gloriously silly, absurd comedy and not the braindead lowbrow comedy they all believed it to be.
Well, here we are. 23 years later. Roxbury has become a minor cult classic but doesn’t have close to the following that fellow misunderstood comedies Wet Hot American Summer or Office Space have garnered over the years. Ferrell’s enduring comedy career continues to chug along at a pleasant clip. Just last year, he starred in the crowd pleasing Eurovision and underrated, quiet indie Downhill. He made it out of the Roxbury OK. Chris Kattan has had a tougher go at it since the early aughts and, in his tell-all autobiography Baby Don’t Hurt Me, details his falling out with the Saturday Night Live production team after suffering a horrific injury on set for a sketch. Worst of all, director John Fortenberry has only directed one feature film since Roxbury, a sequel in the Fred series titled Fred 2: Night of the Living Fred. No critic has reviewed it on Rotten Tomatoes. Based on the title alone, I want to say that I’d hate it. However, that’s just another critic making an unfair assumption. Just like Roxbury, it deserves a fighting chance.